"In that incandescent moment, Narendra Modi tuned bleaters into beaters," writes Centre-Right blogger Vinod Sharma of Modi's rousing, red meat speech at the BJP National Council Meeting. The blistering, no-apologies, full-on attack was delivered in what has become the chief minister's signature rhetorical style, giving voice and heart to his party's cadres who loathe the Congress and the Gandhis in equal measure.
"Yet, no one was prepared for the vehemence with which he went for the holy jugular of the 'Termite' party – the Nehru-Gandhi family. The impact was immediate. It was as if a door had been opened to the forbidden fortress, without taking which victory is not possible. No more potting around this side of the moat, hoping that the fortress will fall on its own; no more letting the defenders within fearlessly fire all weapons and keep you helplessly pinned down," declares Sharma, reveling in Modi's muscular hyper-aggression.
The "defenders" struck back three days later and with an unlikely weapon, Manmohan Singh, who took pointed aim at Modi's rhetoric, underlining their contrasting styles. "You used choicest abuses against us. It is not my intention to reply in that language because our performance is the best judge," he said, disdainfully evoking unwelcome memories of 2009, "In 2009, they (the BJP) fielded their Iron Man Advaniji against the lamb that Manmohan Singh is and we all know what the result was."
"Maun Mohan Singh," as Modi has recently called him, broke his silence, and to well-received effect. "Lamb PM mauls lotus lions in big game," raved The Telegraph , without noting that the "lamb" has done its share of mauling in the past, to be precise in 2009, when MMS went after LK Advani with similar ferocity.
Writing at the time for DNA, R Jagannathan (now Firstpost editor) observed:
Macho Advani thought he had the upper hand and taunted Manmohan on his weakness; macho Modi cut no ice with the Uttar Pradesh audiences whenever he took potshots at the dynasty and Manmohan. The soft-spoken prime minister unleashed a quiet viciousness that destroyed Advani. To Advani’s repeated taunts, Manmohan replied with quiet anger and a sharp twist of the verbal knife. It ended Advani’s pretence of being the hard man of Indian politics.
Manmohan—and Sonia—also received help from their allies. First Lalu, and then Mulayam, both decided to do their Brutus acts. They dumped "weak" Congress and Sonia. Like Advani before them, the electorate did not appreciate their macho tactics… The urban electorate, whatever its formal political affiliation, felt protective towards "weak" Manmohan. We may all be self-centred and self-serving, but we don’t like honest people being savaged. Manmohan Singh, by being what he was, appealed to our yearning for that goodness we wanted to see in ourselves, but seldom managed to live up to. That is the key to the rise of Brand Manmohan.
Four years later, Brand Manmohan is badly tarnished, and his honesty has become yet another symbol of his weakness, a narrow, personal form of probity that enables great corruption (as Mr Jagannathan notes today). This time around, the 'lamb' may not be quite as successful in subduing the lions.
But that contrast between akhara-style pugnacity and statesman-like fury may still prove a winner for the Congress party. Narendra Modi's supporters may revel in his willingness to embrace the blunt, rabble-rousing language of the base, but it will do little to persuade those who are disappointed in the UPA government to vote for him. Beyond the BJP beltway, not everyone shares that blinding aversion to the Gandhi family or the nation's oldest party. What is red meat to the faithful may prove hard to digest for many others -- as with Modi's description of Sunanda Tharoor as a "Rs50 crore girlfriend".
Making unsavoury innuendos about someone’s wife raised bigger questions about his character than of his chosen target. A point Shashi Tharoor deftly underlined: "My wife is priceless, beyond any imaginary 50 crores but you have to be able to love someone to understand that and we'll have to see if he is capable of understanding that."
In a free country, the average citizen has the right to speak ill of public figures, and the level of political discourse online reflects that freedom. But the aam aadmi is also not running for election. Most Indians are uncomfortable with a prime minister who taunts like a street thug.
Modi evoked the past glory of Atal Bihari Vajpayee even as he delivered a speech that would have made the great man cringe. He may want to reinvent himself as the new Vajpayee, but as Arathi Jerath notes in Times of India, "The irony is that in many ways, Modi is more like Advani than Vajpayee. His aggressive, confrontationist style of politics has echoes of Advani at his peak. Like Advani, Modi too appeals to a yuppie, urban middle class whose motto is survival of the fittest." And like Advani, his macho rhetoric may prove to be his undoing. Modi may or may not be able to lead a diverse and unruly coalition, or a nation fractured by divisions of caste, ethnicity, class, and religion. But he first has to sound as though he is the kind of statesman who can do so.
The art of political rhetoric lies in aiming below the belt while seeming above the fray. No one does it better than the underestimated Maun Mohan Singh—unlike Sonia Gandhi who famously blundered into the maut ka saudagar remark. There are innumerable reasons why the UPA has lost its political dividend -- corruption, incompetence, political expedience etc. But one key reason for diminshing public sympathy is its embrace of an equally crass style of political debate. The current crop of Congress spokespersons too are sneering bully boys, except of the upmarket kind. Their crude and repugnant attack politics, poorly sheathed in durbari accents, have brought them on par with the BJP and its rightwing allies who are perpetually competing to outdo each other in poor taste. Like former UP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh who cheerfully told reporters, "Yashwant Sinha called Singh a Shikandi. The Congress said Sinha should tender an apology. I consider Manmohan Singh as a pet prime minister of Sonia Gandhi."
Aiming higher may not be sufficient to win the next election, but it will help Congress regain at least some of the lost ground -- more so as Modi becomes the official face of the BJP. "The MMS's controlled aggression was like a pilot test," argues a fellow journalist as we debated the merits of MMS' speech, "Now that it has worked in apparently disquieting the BJP, the Congress should scale it up and make it part of their communications strategy. They should keep a 'speakers' bureau' of people, who can be aggressive and hard-hitting, but without losing their innate polish."
In other words, no more Renuka Chowdarys.