Speech-veech, debate-shibate

Smita PrakashThe election carnival is upon us this Puja season. Running parallel with the Navratris, Eid, Deepawali, Gurupurab, and other festivities during the Ashwin and Kartik lunar months, is the campaigning for assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. Speeches by candidates will be analysed for content and delivery. The crowd sizes of political rallies will be compared. Body language of national leaders will indicate their comfort levels with local candidates, and with their coalition partners. It is not just the poll results. A lot more is at stake here.

Even before the Election Commission announced the dates for the Gujarat elections last week, it was a foregone conclusion that Gujarat is going to be easy-peasy for Narendra Modi. Oh oops! I meant for the BJP. The Congress party can make tall claims about rebellion in the ranks of the BJP and the rumblings of revolt against Modi’s autocratic style, but the fact is that people do want more of the same. It may be difficult for many in Lutyen’s Delhi to comprehend, but if that is what Gujarat wants then that is what Gujarat will get.

Sonia Gandhi
Who will they listen to? Sonia Gandhi in her elegant sari and shy demeanour, coupled with her halting scripted Hindi delivery is no match for Modi

Meanwhile, fasten your seatbelts for some speech-veech, debate-shibate, in English-Vinglish (Sridevi’s spectacular comeback film) and the vernacular. As if this was not enough ‘entertainment’, there will be ‘in-depth’ analysis by psephologists and election junkies. They will dive 20,000 leagues deep to fathom how foreign is Sonia Gandhi and how desi is Narendra Modi. Who cares that these analyses have already been done to death in two earlier assembly elections in 2002 and 2007.

All political parties raise xenophobic fears and play the casteist card for electoral gains. When it is election time, loutish behaviour becomes the norm. Politics triumphs policy. Propriety is seen as timidity. Street fighters are cheered.

The truckloads of people brought to election rallies seem to have already made up their mind which way they are going to vote. They raise their slogans and clap when their contractor tells them to. And the person on the podium is led to believe that he or she is connecting scintillatingly with the audience! Of course, there are exceptions to this. Some speakers do know how to charge crowds. Whether the target audience changes its vote preference due to such speeches is anyone’s guess.

Mamata’s stacatto style of delivery of speech has got her the votes in West Bengal but it fell flat at a rally in Delhi last week. The same is true of Jayalalithaa and Raj Thackeray. Narendra Modi is able to connect with his audience in Gujarat even before he speaks. He wears a local turban, a bright-hued waistcoat, and a silver sword. And then he thunders in Gujarati. Sonia Gandhi, with an understated elegant sari and shy demeanour, coupled with her halting scripted Hindi delivery, obviously cannot match Modi. It is an unfair comparison. When she did once get local with her ‘maut ka saudagar’ comment, she was criticised because it is so not her. The blame however, lies solely with the Congress party, for it doesn’t have a local candidate to challenge Modi.

The ability to deliver a strong speech is an essential skill for a politician to possess. The months preceding an election are crucial when the undecided voter is judging you. Your programmes and governance have already been put to test. Now it is all about your ability to communicate with that voter and make her feel valued.

It has to be a mix of cajoling, ridiculing the opponent, praising your party, pinching cheeks of babies, accepting big garlands, dancing at navratris, sharing an Eid meal, walking in a yatra, participating in a blood donation camp, visiting a school, sharing a meal with the panchayat, sitting by the village well, and going to a coffee shop. This is India, there are voters everywhere and they are politically very savvy. They know you are there for their votes. But they still want to see you sweat for it.

Look how the most powerful man in the world is sweating because he performed badly in one presidential debate. US President Obama’s Denver debate with Romney was a disaster. The Great Communicator seemed to have fallen asleep while talking and the whole country is aghast.

The Congress party has no Obamas in its midst but it could do well to bring out any and every persuasive speaker from its locker room to Gujarat. Because when it comes to giving speeches, the BJP can bat till the tail.

Smita Prakash is Editor, News at Asian News International. You can follow her on twitter @smitaprakash 

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