Among the many myths that have been woven around the persona of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, one is about his oratorical skills. He has been hailed as a great orator, endowed with the power to communicate forcefully with his audience. Many people believe this to be true. HD Deve Gowda called him a sharper speaker than Vajpayee. The former president, Pranab Mukherjee lauded Modi as ‘’one of the most effective communicators’’ likening him to Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi himself unwittingly conceded that Modi was a better speaker than he was. Sonia Gandhi, the more seasoned politician, paid a back-handed compliment to Modi the speaker when she mentioned some time ago that good speeches are all right, but these cannot fill hungry bellies.
That both a former prime minister and a president take notice of Modi’s ‘oratorical genius’ is proof enough of how successfully the myth has been propagated and implanted in the nation’s psyche. It has been argued that it was Modi the orator who led the BJP to its biggest ever electoral victory in 2014. Thereafter, every election victory from UP to Gujarat to Himachal Pradesh have been attributed to Modi’s oratory. Apart from the utility or otherwise of Modi’s speeches, all of which are made in election mode, I doubt whether they show him up as a great orator. Judged on the attributes all great orators should possess, Modi seems to me an ordinary speaker, and many times a bad one. His speeches are also found wanting in content and style.
A great orator is sincere in his views. He says things which he truly believes in. That is not true of Modi when, for example, he speaks about Gandhiji’s philosophy, which his parent organisation, the RSS always taught him to denigrate or when he expresses views on the Quit India movement of 1942 which the RSS opposed. Likewise, his claim to be among great speakers falls through when he extols the thinking of Sardar Patel who had said that “the activities of the RSS constituted a clear threat to the existence of the Government and the State”.
With his training in the RSS for over 45 years, does he really believe what the Iron Man had said about the RSS to be true? He is untrue either to the Sardar or the RSS. Again, consider Modi’s new-found respect for BR Ambedkar. Nowadays, he never tires of showering praise on latter’s contribution to the nation. But, does he really believe in the broad philosophy of Ambedkar, especially his views on Hinduism and Hindu society?
Another attribute of a great orator is his magnanimity. Even though he disagrees with his opponent, he would acknowledge and concede his contribution
The art of rhetoric is not like the genre of drama wherein the audience willingly suspend their disbelief to enjoy the theatre, as Coleridge pointed out. The audience listening to a speaker easily sees through the talk that does not come from his heart. Even if double-speak enable a leader to win election for a while , it will not make him a great orator.
Another attribute of a great orator is his magnanimity. Even though he disagrees with his opponent, he would acknowledge and concede his contribution. One may recall that Churchill was a fierce critic of Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement before the Second World War, but when he replaced him as Prime Minister in May 1940 to head the National Government, he was gracious enough to acknowledge the noble intention of Chamberlain to avoid war as long as he could and to fight it out resolutely when Hitler finally imposed war on Britain by attacking Poland. This has never been so with Modi. He has not even once acknowledged the contribution of any of the Congress prime ministers. Rather, he has all the time berated the contribution of Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Whether the subject matter or context warrant it or not, Modi has brought in the name of the Nehru-Gandhi family in his speeches to malign their name. That is not what a great orator would do.
Apart from lacking in the twin virtues of sincerity and magnanimity, Modi as a speaker has failed in extending common courtesy and deference to his opponents. Examples are abound in his speeches of accusing and denigrating several opposition leaders and using impolite language for them, including Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad Yadav, Akhilesh Yadav and Manmohan Singh. People have not forgotten his remark about one of our most respected politician (and one of the most gentle of them) Dr. Manmohan Singh, about taking bath wearing a raincoat. What is worse, he failed to learn from any criticism and accused the renowned economist and a great Prime Minister of conspiring with Pakistan during the Gujarat election. These facts do not make Modi a great orator for me and for millions of others who listen and understand but somehow do not speak up or write.
As for the content, there is hardly anything worthwhile in Modi’s speeches. The largest duration in his speeches is allotted to the denigration of the Nehru-Gandhi family. They are supposed to be responsible for all the ills of the country. Then come in the Congress prime ministers for attack in their order of perceived closeness to the Nehru – Gandhis. Third, the Congress party followed by all opposition leaders and their parties come in for attack unless they are allies of the BJP. Lastly, come the big promises, still unfulfilled and empty talk about development.
All good speakers use rhetorical questions, but they do not insist on answers as Modi does. This betrays lack of self-confidence and desire to seek self-assurance from the audience
The style of Modi’s speeches bring him out as a bad speaker. There are the same words and phrases which have lately become fodder for stand-up comedians eg mitron, behno aur bhaiyo etc. Further, he speaks with the same intonation of voice and movement of eyes, either mocking his opponents or as if revealing something suspicious (Manmohan Singh and others conspiring with Pakistan). The language is always derisive, his face contorted and the tone showing contempt for one and all which is highly unbecoming of a prime minister. To be fair, he no longer claps his hands so frequently after the famous comment of Lalu Prasad Yadav.
All good speakers use rhetorical questions, but they do not insist on answers as Modi does. This betrays lack of self-confidence and desire to seek self-assurance from the audience. To seek the audience’s approval, Modi ceaselessly indulges in self-pity, self-praise and self-aggrandisement while making his speeches. Some examples are- I have seen poverty; now also I am from low caste; I have left everything for the country; Many PMs left projects half way through to be completed by me; renovation of Kedar Nath temple had to happen at my hands. Examples abound!
Modi seems to have developed expertise in abusive oratory. During Gujarat elections, he referred to Nehru as “your(meaning Rahul Gandhi’s) great grandfather, your father’s grandfather, your grandmother’s father”. Again, just a few days ago, while addressing a public meeting in Chhattisgarh, he asked Rahul Gandhi whether his dada-dadi or nana-nani had laid down water pipe lines in the state! Does it behoove a prime minister to use such filthy language for the family members of his opponent? To refer to people in disrespectful language, only one of whom is alive today to answer? More relevantly, do these qualities make him a great orator?