Former Prime Minister VP Singh, who rode to prime ministership in 1989 on an anti-Congress platform, was a quixotic politician. In media interactions, Singh would be stilted and awkward in the extreme, restricting himself to lifeless non-quotes that left journalists scrambling for news pegs to write around. Even his demeanour in such circumstances conveyed extreme ennui, and you couldn't not get the impression that for him, life clearly lay elsewhere.
But barely minutes after his inane media mumblings, Singh would step out into the wide world outside - and address a massive public rally, where he would become a man transformed. He would enliven the crowds with mirthful anecdotes about the corruption in the Rajiv Gandhi government - which he had witnessed up close - and generally sway his audiences in a manner that suggested that the man who turned up at media interactions was an inarticulate body double of the public VP Singh persona.
Some of this is of course built into the nature of the two platforms. Public platforms provide politicians a bit of elbow room to swing their arms and get lyrical without obsessing about exactitude. (Of course, some politicians get overly carried away - and implant their feet firmly in their mouth in the way that Ajit Pawar did - when they make public speeches.) Media interactions, on the other hand, call for parsing of policy details and precision, which typically gets politicians extremely cagey in their responses (unless, of course, you are a Renuka Chowdhury, in which case you can compensate with theatrical flourishes that extend to a range of facial contortions and hyaenic cackles).
Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi's interview to Reuters news agency (here), which set the airwaves aflutter on Friday, exemplifies the contrast between these two platforms to a nicety. Modi is arguably one of the most effective public speakers today who can sway a crowd with demogoguery and turns of phrase that have the capacity to energise the BJP's support base with blistering attacks on the Congress.
But his responses in his interview to Reuters convey a certain stiltedness of manner, a strange inarticulation and a resort to infelicitous metaphors that, in their entirety, have allowed his opponents - of whom he has more than a fair share - to take him off-message on the one topic on which he perhaps expected to clear the air.
Much of the firestorm whipped up by politicians and media anchors over his analogy about "kutte ki bacche" caught under the wheels of an automobile is polemical distortion, of course. It is laughable that to suggest that Modi equated Muslims with dogs, and yet that was the story that gained most traction on television talk shows on Friday night. And yet, it is passing strange that for someone who is looking to craft a political message that will, he hopes, propel him to prime ministership, Modi comes across as being particularly tone-deaf in his first significant articulation on the 2002 riots.
Modi must have known full well before he sat down for the interview that he would be questioned closely on the 2002 riots and that whatever he said on the topic would get amplified and parsed. Given all that, and given that his media campaign managers are not particularly inept, it is a wonder that they didn't craft a message on 2002 that wouldn't give his political opponents a free pass to pile on him.
Some of Modi's responses were made in English, a medium in which he isn't entirely felicitous. Perhaps he was also acutely conscious of the potential impact that the interview would have in amplifying his point of view to an international audience. But whatever the reason, Modi comes across in the interview as being uncharacteristically ill at ease even though the questions weren't exactly hostile or inquisitorial in the way that other infamous media interviews of him have been.
In any case, the "puppy" analogy that he cited was made in Hindi, and shouldn't in normal circumstances have sounded a-tonal. But even in his responses in Hindi, there seemed an excessive eagerness to "dumb it down" for a Western journalist who may or may not have been familiar with the Indian context - by reducing his message to the lowest common denominator of comprehension.
For someone who has scrupulously avoided public articulation on the 2002 riots - perhaps on the ground that anything he says would be held against him, since the cases are ongoing in court - Modi has quite uncharacteristically dropped the ball in his first significant media interview, in which he addressed the riots.
There were many ways in which he could have made the same point he wished to convey: that he felt saddened by the riots but that he did as much as he could have, given that he did not then have a firm grip of the administration. Modi, perhaps afflicted by an attack of VP Singh-itis, chose the least felicitous way. And in so doing, he has given his political opponents more grist to stoke the fires of 2002.