Tuesday, 24 May, 2022
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Why India’s opposition parties don’t have good orators

It is no coincidence that both BJP prime ministers, Vajpayee and Modi, have been good orators. The BJP puts a premium on public speaking.

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Two weeks on, Mahua Moitra’s maiden speech in the Lok Sabha continues to be a topic of discussion. When was the last time a speech by any politician was discussed as much?

Moitra’s speech won plaudits because she expressed sentiments shared by many – that the Modi government is “fascist” – but few dare to say it. There was a greater reason why her speech went viral: she delivered it well, full of passion, emotion, rhetoric and gusto. Like a good political speech, it gave you the feeling of someone waging a battle, fighting the good fight.

However, it has to be pointed out that her speech was in English, not in Hindi or her native language Bangla. Only 10 per cent Indians claim to speak English. English-language oratory may win you the applause of the liberal elites but good Hindi or other regional language oratory can actually win you votes.

You can find many good English orators among opposition parties. In Hindi, however, the BJP seems to have a monopoly of good orators.

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It is no coincidence that both the BJP prime ministers, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, have been extraordinary orators. It is difficult to quantify how many votes Modi wins just because of his oratory, but there’s little doubt it’s a large part of his appeal to voters. I have met voters who say they “feel good” when they hear Modi speak.

I have seen people leave aside their work and watch Modi’s speeches live. In elections when the BJP is doing poorly on a seat, party workers will tell you, “Modi is coming here to address a rally next week. Things will change then.” Often they don’t, but often they do. A BJP leader told me that according to their estimate, Modi rallies make a four percentage point difference in vote-share on a seat.

Presidential teleprompter for a presidential campaign

Modi rallies are designed to be TV events, so the impact is not limited to the physical location where he is speaking. There was a time, now difficult to remember, when news channels would broadcast only key parts of speeches made by even the top-most politicians. Rarely did a news channel broadcast a speech by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in full. But in 2013, as the Modi campaign picked up, news channels started broadcasting Modi rally speeches live, beginning to end. Top decision-makers in TV channels, editorial and otherwise, have told me what went behind the scenes: Modi’s speeches earned good TRPs.

Oratory is so central to Brand Modi that he is the only Indian politician using a presidential teleprompter, though they’re very common in the West. Most opposition leaders won’t even know how it works. LCD screens on the floor reflect words on the translucent glass above, and there are two sets on a podium, one to the speaker’s left and the other to the speaker’s right. The speaker can thus read out a whole speech while frequently turning from left to right. The audience won’t realise the speaker was reading from the text. Presidential teleprompters can make anyone look like a good speaker, though god save the dumb speaker when the teleprompter breaks down!

Prime Minister Narendra Modi | YouTube screengrab

Why does no opposition leader wonder, ‘What’s the use of a presidential teleprompter? Why does Modi use it?’ Our opposition leaders are so casual in their approach to political campaigning that they don’t think they need to learn or improve. It’s because the opposition is full of dynasts who didn’t have to prove their mettle to rise in their parties. It is not surprising that Mahua Moitra is not a dynast. She’s risen the hard way.

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Oratory matters more today  

India is full of politicians who’ve succeeded despite being poor orators: Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ashok Gehlot are incomprehensible; Nitish Kumar and Mayawati are insipid; Sonia Gandhi’s foreign accent stands out; and Naveen Patnaik barely speaks Odia. Exceptions like Lalu Prasad Yadav only prove the rule: you don’t really need to be a good orator to succeed in Indian politics.

Yet, the value of oratory has increased in the age of 24×7 news TV and ceaseless social media bombardment of shareable content. If your speech doesn’t have any moving lines, how are they going to be excerpted into 2-minute WhatsApp videos? We see and hear our politicians much more today than we used to when Naveen Patnaik or Mulayam Singh Yadav were starting out their careers.

Pramod Mahajan’s contribution

The BJP and the RSS always knew the value of good oratory in political communication. They’ve long been nurturing it. They set up an institute in 1982 to train future politicians, the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, which teaches public speaking among other aspects of leadership. It is difficult to imagine the Congress encouraging its workers to take public speaking workshops. The party discourages mass leaders.

I realised the importance given to oratory in the BJP-RSS ecosystem when a BJP worker told me to look up an old video of Pramod Mahajan. The firebrand BJP leader once addressed a group of party workers, training them in public speaking. Mahajan was shot dead in 2006 but even today, BJP workers watch the lecture (Part 1, Part 2). Incidentally, Mahajan was a driving force in using the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini to train future BJP leaders.

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At one point in the lecture, Mahajan says if you don’t capture the listener’s mind (“kabze mein na lein”) in the first few minutes, then it doesn’t matter how important a point you’re making, you have lost the listener’s attention.

With a dearth of good orators, the opposition has lost the attention of the Indian voter. Mahua Moitra has at least captured the English audience’s attention. The BJP clearly feels threatened enough by it to go on a smear campaign against her. The BJP felt threatened because her speech might make people start wondering if the Modi government is showing “signs of fascism”. That is what good oratory does: it makes people listen.

Views are personal.

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  1. Mohua moitra has just delivered the fact of what BJP has focused during election campaign to won seats by false propaganda.

  2. why is the author such an apologist for the non-congress apologist? Of course you need good oratory skills in corporate world, in political world, in any type of leadership role where you are trying to influence others. Influencing others by means of money, jobs, sops, and offers are over. We need leaders who can think about the progress of the nation and get their thoughts across and influence and enable the citizens. We got that in Modi.

  3. Modi’s campaigning may be bordering on oratory, but in parliament it is logic that defines his communication. His recent speeches in Lok Sabha and particularly Rajya Sabha after winning term 2.0 are fine examples. If Mahua can be appreciated for her genuinely forceful arguments, surely Modi can also be given credit for some of his very rational communication. The problem is that anti-Modi brigade just won’t see any positive in Modi. They take a flight when confronted with Modi’s substance OR start checking their mobile messages (ref. our great parliamentarian Shri Rahul Gandhi).

  4. I do not think that Modi is a great orator. Instead, he is a great communicator. He is able to identify with the people he is talking to. He is able to articulate their concerns. His natural language of choice is not English. Our opposition is composed of the elites, whose natural language is English. While English is also a great language, it is not the mother tongue in India. Elitist disconnection and dishonesty (like psuedo secularism) is yet another reason. You place all too much emphasis on oratory. It is the connection to the people that matters – and oratory is a small part of that.

  5. Call it oratory or the art of communication, it is critical in public life. I also fully agree that the opposition lacks effective speakers in Hindi. Even Rahul Gandhi indicates that he thinks in English and then tries to communicate it in Hindi. It doesn’t work
    I recall two of his earlier statements that I have often used as examples. He once said “Garibi ek soch hai” (Poverty is a thought). He was made fun of. What he probably meant was that poverty was a state of mind.

    On another occasion he said that “Daliton ko ek farsh chaiye” (Dalits need a floor). He probably meant that the dalits required a platform to express themselves. A good orator must have mastery of the language that he expresses himself in. Rahul has paid the price for this inadequacy.

  6. Indian National Congress also have very good orators, intentionally they don’t want to talk against the BJP. Almost everyone is waiting for getting a “good selling price ” to join the BJP.

  7. What is oratory? Thumping your chest with two hands like a gorilla, and screaming your head off? Can there be “oratory” without good content?

    • Well there are oratory stalwarts here who manufacture content on the go. And you can keep doing fact checks later on but it’s the oratory which is remembered and shared on WhatsApp.

  8. I wish if Oratory can help to fill empty stomach, India won’t find a place in hunger list. The song Unchi Unchi baton sey kisika pate Bartha nahin comes to my mind. Yes oratory can fill vote for party. Probably now a days voters want to hear noise from empty drums as they make more noise.

    • Mr. Modi is also known to be a keen learner. Again, perhaps, the lack of high formal education could have a hidden advantage of his learning being more from talking and listening (auditory) rather than reading. Incidentally many of these Indian languages suit such a style. I also agree to the fact that he puts a lot of importance in learning from experts. For example his Twitter handling (perhaps with the help of a close aide) mirrors his thoughts so well. As far as the speech by Mahua is concerned it was above average. Partly because it has been early times for the new government and lack of decent presenters like Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj audience hunger for a good speech may have her made her look brighter than what it was. Also generally most people unconsiously like negativism and shouting (thanks to TV debates) than constructive suggestions. She got noticed even more when a Hindi. channel exposed her plagiarism. Of course most others do it too. In any case let’s all hope we have good communication and passing of key bills after a thorough debate.

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