Some drool over Narendra Modi’s oratory, while others find it viscerally abhorrent. There are reactions galore when he speaks and even when he doesn’t. But his speeches create a tremendous splash and it was no different on May 12 when the Prime Minister delivered his now famous ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ (self-reliant India) address to the nation.
Modi’s tremendous national draw as a speaker was irrevocably established on I day,2013. Manmohan Singh had just delivered an insipid and drab speech from the Red Fort and on the other hand Modi, who was now tantalisingly close to being the NDA’s PM face, spoke at Bhuj wearing a fiery red turban, he delivered a muscular and powerful speech in Hindi.
In 2013 Modi had spectacularly upstaged the annual extravaganza at the Red Fort and he fittingly went on to make it his own a year later.His ‘Ab ki baar Modi Sarkaar’ slogan rang true and he won an absolute majority in the National elections.
Right from the beginning of his first term he engaged in a style which was as refreshing as it was unorthodox for a PM to do so. Nationalistic, purposeful, firm, with candour and rare humility.
In his maiden I Day speech, for the first time in decades, the bullet proof dais had been dispensed with and its symbolism was not lost on anyone. Modi declared himself the ‘Pradhan Sewak’ of the people of this country and came across as sincere and committed towards the Nation and the Nation alone. Some of his opening salvos remain enduring slogans as well as Government projects to date such as Swachch Bharat, Make in India, Startup India, Standup India (is there a closet Bob Marley fan in Modi?) & the Jan Dhan Yojana.
Modi mesmerised the Nation with his innovative forays like his address to the children of the country, hosting of the ‘Mann ki Baat’ on AIR (a Harry Truman like move) engaging the Indian diaspora at the Madison Square Garden (culminating at Houston with the ‘Howdy Modi’ event).
His speeches – the one announcing de-monetisation, one that launched the GST, the one after the Uri attack and the ones from the Red Fort are memorable. His energetic campaigning landed state after state in the BJP’s kitty and his aura of invincibility and of being the tallest leader in the country was cast in stone. He even became a draw globally, his speeches are much anticipated at international foras such as Davos, climate change conferences and the G20 summit.
His ever increasing legion of supporters, who felt hemmed in by the prolonged stagnation and drift of the UPA’s final years, fed off his energy and were ready to Skillup, Startup and Standup. Modi had been able to infuse energy, self belief and many now believed in the prophecy of Achche Din.
From the day Modi first spoke in the Durbar Hall of Parliament to the last day of his first term he would go on to deliver close to a staggering 1000 speeches. This is overkill by a gargantuan margin and could lead to saturation and fatigue with the electorate, but not for Modi. The electorate returned him five years hence on the back of the ‘Phir ek baar Modi Sarkaar’ slogan and with an even greater mandate.
What explains this phenomenon of Modi and his penchant for communicating?
Perhaps Modi’s over three decades of rolling in the unsparing and ruthless rough and tumble of Indian politics has given him an insider’s view of the average Indian’s existence. When he speaks he knows what heartstrings to strum and how. His impassioned views on an aspirational India at once connect him with millions.And then of course his natural charisma.
Modi the individual and the consummate politician comprehends the subtleties and power of communication like none other. So disruptive has been the Modi blitzkrieg that it has consigned the opposition to perpetual irrelevance and they have resigned to the possibility of a third Narendra Modi term already.
The opposition is bereft of ideas about scaling Fortress Modi. They simply take solace in name calling and alleging that Modi is one who deals in sophistry, hyperbole, sloganeering, hollow catch phrases and jumlas (an urdu word denoting a form of brief expression using one or sometimes two or more words). They tend to minimalise Modi’s success by attributing it to him having a way with words.
While his detractors may begrudge Modi his success they are equally responsible for him being unsurpassed in the communication and PR stakes. This through their unmitigated buffoonery intellectual bankruptcy and endemic incompetence.
An 8th grader in this country knows that a politician is required to have a way with words to communicate with his electorate. So what if Modi has his own brand or lexicon to boast of? On the contrary the lack of it can have disastrous consequences as has been showcased by Rahul Gandhi so consistently. After all, having difficulty expressing oneself is indicative of absence of ideas too. Some in his party would secretly wish that he remains asleep in Parliament rather than force them all to commit mass Hara Kiri as a consequence of his political gibberish
Modi is accused of dealing in hyperbole. Yes he does that unabashedly.
He blames the opposition for bequeathing to him a State (when he was CM) and a Nation where nothing had been accomplished in the last 70 years! And lo and behold, despite such grave provocation the Congress Party failed to defend its nation building efforts it had actually shepherded in its hey days. And today the contrary view has actually been mainstreamed! Then why blame Modi for hyperboles? He is simply doing it more effectively than everyone else put together.
His detractors lash at him for crassness in his speech. Yes he has made bantering his very own style and he does believe in playing to the gallery. He has a thing for ‘honorifics’ and he uses them with telling effect. ‘Mian Musharraf’ – coined during the 2002 Gujarat elections as a retort to Pervez Musharraf’s diatribe and his characterisation of Rahul Gandhi as ‘shehzada’ (honorific for the heir apparent or crown prince) – resonate tremendously with the electorate. And for himself Modi retains the earthy references of ‘chaiwaala’ (tea seller), ‘Pradhan Sewak’ (prime servant), and ‘chowkidar’ (gatekeeper).Through this Modi repeatedly demonstrates his deep sense of understanding of the psyche of his intended audience.
Instead what did the opposition come up with?
They came up with astonishingly out of the box ideas, where they had no idea if there was a box at all! Sonia Gandhi’s ‘maut ka saudagar’ (merchant of death) in 2007, Rahul Gandhi’s infamous ‘khoon ki dalaali’ in 2016 and of course his hare brained ‘chowkidar chor hai’ (the gate keeper is a thief) slogan in 2019 are some of the jewels from the opposition’s inventory!Undoubtedly, for those who remember the context of the above catchphrases, the opposition proved that they were woefully disconnected with the electorate and its mood. No wonder then that the Congress is down to 42 seats in the Parliament!
Modi is baited most for dealing in ‘jumlas‘ – promises or slogans coined only for electoral benefits. His trusted aide Amit Shah has even gone to accept that the genre of chunaavi jumla does exist. Some of Modi’s tall claims like depositing 15 lacs with each account, Achche Din, Sabka Saath – Sabka Vikas – Sabka Vishwas, Make in India , Startup India , Skill India, Minimum Government- Maximum Governance, Rule by Consensus and now Vocal for Local have been termed thus as well.
But again what has been accomplished from this criticism? While in all of these tangible or transformational results are yet to be seen but has the opposition been able to establish its assertion that these are nothing but hollow promises or chunaavi jumlas?
While these can be dismissed as mere jumlas but in all his flagship schemes Modi-the insider – has been able to identify the needs of the people and made a show of it too. After all how do you attract and retain the attention of a billion people too busy making ends meet? And if the opposition feels these are old wines in new bottles, have they been able to come up with details and successes of similar schemes run by them?
Modi’s detractors have contributed in sublte and not so subtle ways too. When Modi came up with Jeetega Gujarat the opposition came up with Chak de Gujarat (??), when Modi was taunted for his chaiwala antecedents he turned the tables with his chai pe charcha campaign, when Rahul Gandhi labelled the Modi dispensation as ‘suit boot ki sarkaar’ he responded with ‘Ek baar phir Modi Sarkaar’ (and accomplished it too) and when ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ was the Congress’ chosen weapon for Hara Kiri, Modi helped in pushing the dagger deeper by coming up with the ‘Main bhi Chowkidaar’ campaign.
Modi has had the advantage of facing an unimaginative and a disconnected opposition who have provided him with the best ideas to come up with winning campaigns and slogans. Its beyond discussion that had the opposition applied themselves would Modi have been able to respond in the manner he did so? It simply implies that they have been playing to Modi’s strengths.
Modi’s speeches are a study unto themselves. Modi’s opening words – “Bhaiyyon aur Behnon” and “Mitr-aun” in his characteristic drawl are oft repeated in popular discourse and he has made the 8 PM slot his own when it comes to addressing the nation. some are remembered for his articulation and impassioned delivery, some others are laden with truisms and earthy logic and some for simply instilling pride in being an Indian- the ones abroad in particular. Such has been the impact of the Modi shows in foreign lands that the Indian diaspora has started finding its feet in the political stakes of their adopted countries.
Then some of his speeches have been etched in the public memory for the rest of their lives for the impact they created, like the one on demonetisation, the one at ISRO when the Chandrayaan 2 crashed and then the recent ones during the Great Lockdown.
He peddles his most drastic ideas with a sense of patriotic and nationalistic fervour where he attempts to invoke in each Indian the individual, his innate goodness, his sense of Patriotism and sacrifice in order to become a willing partner in a great national project.
De-monetisation was celebrated as ‘Imandari ka Utsav’ & ‘Pramanikta ka Parv’ (celebration of integrity & festival of credibility) and in one fell swoop these catchphrases subsumed the hardships that the citizenry was going to and eventually faced. The opposition raved and ranted but it’s a telling statement that they could not make a dent in Modi’s popularity despite the ham handed handling of the de-monetisation and GST projects.
As the novel coronavirus pandemic hit India, Modi went into his comfort zone of efficient crisis management and effective communication. He has addressed the nation a total of five times during the lockdown. His most effective and memorable speeches were on March 19 & 24 respectively when he was seen to lead the nation decisively and with clarity through an existential crisis. People reposed tremendous faith in Modi and felt reassured that it was he who was at the helm and not Rahul Gandhi or Manmohan Singh.’Modi hai to mumkin hai’…was back with a vengeance!
His by now, patented style of persuasion and appealing to the Indian in all of us came into play when he came on air to explain the necessity of conscientiously observing the one day Janata Curfew and for coming together to beat thalis and ring bells to express gratitude to the Corona Warriors. And the nation responded overwhelmingly – to Modi.
Then on April 03 when Modi came up with the idea, in his video address, of lighting lamps and candles for nine minutes at 9 PM it did seem incongruous and superfluous in the face of the unprecedented uncertainty, loss of livelihood and the migrant crisis hitting the nation smack on its face. He was lampooned for indulging in gimmickry and it felt that he had outdone himself. But the overwhelming response once again put to rest any such doubts.
The show of support for the Janata Curfew and the two ideas for uniting the citizenry subtly underscored the faith that the general public reposed in Modi’s ability to lead them through this unknown unknown! If ever there was a silent referendum it had just unfolded in front of our very eyes. That the nation had bought into his call for a modern day version of the Mahabharat exemplified that Modi had managed to instil the faith that the battle could be won
Modi spoke again on April 14 to announce Lockdown 2 and then went silent for almost a month. There were speculations that for fear of drawing the people’s ire over the chaotic unfolding of the lockdowns he made a conscious decision to not personally announce Lockdown 3.
But on May 12 he came back on air and in a long winding speech he extolled the virtues of being self-reliant and made one more call for an Atmanirbhar Bharat. His speech was analysed for the almost 30 occasions where the words Atmanirbhar and Atmanirbharta figured. Modi went on to announce grandiosely that a 20 lac crore package had been readied to get the country back on its feet and left the details to his FM. His detractors dug their daggers in and dismissed the package for being a mere addition to the Modi lexicon and the long list of jumlas.
Some of their assertions have rung true in the days since as it is now evident that the 20 lac crore infusion is a presumptive figure and in real terms the stimulus is less than 4 lac crore. And yet despite the misery of the migrants and the apparent economic inadequacy of the stimulus the opposition has not come up with any coherent or coordinated response to counter and make Modi deliver. So low is their credibility that when someone like Rahul Gandhi makes that rare sensible suggestion it is simply ignored.
It’s not that Modi is invincible. No one in a democracy is. And its not that Modi has not got the mood wrong. The BJP has lost state after state since May 2019 and all because they went overboard with their repetitive talk of nationalism when all that the people were looking for was economic succour. There are enough chinks in Modi’s armour. When you coin too many slogans and they turn out tepid then there is a political price to be paid. The opposition may still not be able to come up with a coherent response but the people have and will.
Yet this doesn’t imply that they have rejected Modi. While not voting for him many have said that they are simply cross with him and would want him to mend his ways. So despite losing states in a heap Modi still remains our best, last and only hope! A scary sign for the post Modi years but a telling statement on the overwhelming success of the narrative – ‘Modi hai to mumkin hai’.
It would be naïve to expect that Modi has a carte blanche from the people of this country. His time may be running out as in another year and a half’s time it would be all about consolidation than intervention. And while today the ‘Atmanirbharta’ speech may be a treasure trove for memes but I dare to predict that Modi has hit upon the idea that will help him come out of the hole that his years of inaction on the economy have pushed him in. Modi has found just the right note to strum, it’s a different matter as to just how well he is able to play it and deliver on it.
If Modi is all about hyperboles and jumlas then it’s a matter of time that he will be consigned to history. On 15 Aug 13, Modi pilloried the UPA for its dismal record on the slumping economy, endemic corruption and dealing decisively with China and Pakistan. It’s just that at the end of six years of Modi Sarkaar these issues have only exacerbated. Its Modi’s plain luck that he doesn’t have a rival to exploit these issues just as effectively as he himself had done..
‘Atmanirbharta’ seems to have hit home with Modi, as this time around his detractors have had no role to play in gifting him a winning idea. Modi has a tough task to accomplish and maybe a little less sloganeering and a slowdown in the jumlas rather than the economy is welcome. He has to realise that if his epitaph doesn’t have to read something like ‘Modi hai to jumla hai’ then he will need to pipe down on the rhetoric in the post coronavirus India, for now he actually has more destitutes than ever.
As of now , the ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan’ has no concrete policy announcement to back the concept. But this would have to be readied post haste lest it meets the fate of the ‘Make in India’ initiative. And Modi will have to be mindful that though ‘swadeshi’ may sound nice but it would be just the trap he needs to avoid getting India into. We have lived that hell once before, from right after our ‘tryst with destiny’ to our tryst with mortgaging gold reserves in 1991!
For Modi and for the sake of the Nation its time to act. To ‘Get up, Stand Up’ and to deliver – sans jumlas.
If that happens, Modi too would have become truly ‘Atmanirbhar’!