In a country like India where at any given time expectations outweigh fulfilment of dreams, it is always a tough act for an incumbent to make a public speech that touches an emotional chord with the people.
This becomes truer when the incumbent being referred to – Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh – is not known for his oratorical abilities. This fact gets rubbed in deeper when Singh has to face Narendra Modi, by far the most charismatic leader in contemporary Indian politics and a public speaker who uses his childhood training as a theatre actor to his advantage. Modi is known to spew flawless demagoguery.
For the past several months, since Modi scored a third successive electoral victory in Gujarat in December last year, he has frequently locked the Congress in a direct penalty shootout type of a contest. Modi is aware that though Indian elections are not presidential in nature and instead are essentially a sum total of 543 contests in the constituencies of the Lower House, or Lok Sabha; a victory in a series of shootouts will enable him to create a ‘wave-like’ sentiment.
It is because of the failure of Prime Minister Singh, his party and government that what should have been a significant milestone – addressing the nation from the ramparts of Red Fort, a symbolic of the citadel of power, for the 10th successive year – ended up as a weak launch of an electoral campaign. There was never any doubt that with elections barely months away, the Independence Day speech of the Prime Minister would be keenly scrutinised. Even more so as Modi picked up the gauntlet by saying that the people of the country would compare his speech with that of the Prime Minister.
Modi’s advantage is that he is selling a dream. A dream in which India runs seamlessly and people are provided on-the-tap services of government deliverables. Initially he took his merchandise to urban India outside Gujarat but increasingly is peddling his wares to the rural populace also – their support is after all critical to enabling Modi to realise his ambition. Since he is selling a dream, he does not have to be accountable – does not really have to explain, like any demagogue who has walked the same path previously, whether the objective is achievable or not.
Modi is successful in selling the dream because of his ability to hide away expectations in Gujarat, put a shroud over the pockets of want in the State, many of which have slipped deeper in the morass than when he acquired political power in October 2001. In his theatrical performances, Modi uses every tool – even singing Hindu hymns and chanting Hindu prayers at government functions. When asked, like I did when researching on his biography, he always makes it evident that is not wrong for the State to opt for the dominant culture, the majority belief.
In contrast, Singh no longer has the license to sell a dream because the one that brought his party to power in 2004 and gave him a second tenure in 2009 has assumed nightmarish proportions in the past three years or so. Even the litany of claims that has been put out by his office in recent weeks, about the transformation and progress in India under Singh, has few takers among the articulate who are given to verbalising their sentiment. If a silent majority still believes in what Singh and his team claims, then its result will be seen only during the polls and such a verdict would stun not just India, but probably the world.
In recent years Modi has widened his appeal by projecting himself as a service provider and not as a statesman. He cited facts to claim that more projects had been launched in Gujarat than in the country under UPA. In his speech Modi mentioned again one particular agony of people – multiple-window clearance as a problem as against his single-window style as a solution. Nowhere did Modi ventured in his speech into a territory which could not be filled with hyperbole only. He made an attempt recently in Hyderabad to venture into areas that are not firmly in his control – for instance how to deal with Pakistan, or the dilemma of smaller states.
Modi’s success in recent years has been to take the contentious dimensions of politics away from public glare without ever abandoning them. It is thus always ‘one-India’ and ‘best-India’ – scary singular propositions in a pluralistic country. But since these statements are not made in anger and ostensibly not targeting anyone, most people do think the formulation is worrisome.
In ways more than one, one can only empathise with Singh. For the past three years he has coped with a reluctant leader in Rahul Gandhi while most party leaders have never shied from projecting the scion as the man of the future. So where has it left the man of the present? Definitely, without having the confidence of his party – as being capable of leading it in the next round! And, this showed in his speech. In contrast, Modi does not need endorsement of his party. Either they put their stamp of approval or become irrelevant for the moment. Time will tell if Modi’s strategy will take him where he wants to go. Or he takes a long walk.
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is the author of ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. The book is available here.