Narendra Modi in UK: PM's oratory masterclass in Westminster shows Rahul Gandhi how much he has yet to learn

Tum jis school main padh rahe ho, hum uske headmaster reh chuke hain
— Vinod Khanna to Randhir Kapoor, in the 1974 film Haath ki Safai

If Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Congress president Rahul Gandhi were to be cast in a Bollywood film, Salim-Javed would have loved to write these lines for the former. For, when it comes to stagecraft, oratory and public dialogue, the prime minister is indeed the headmaster of a school, while the Congress leader is still only a kindergarten student.

Modi's interaction with participants at London's Westminster Central Hall on Wednesday was a study in contrast between the art of public speaking by Modi and the lack of it from Rahul.

At the event, Modi came across as spontaneous, witty and eloquent; a weaver of crafty lines that are simple yet meant to grab headlines, traits that Gandhi can learn from. Yes, the event had all the trademarks of clever choreography. There is every possibility that the questions were screened by the prime minister's staff. Yet, Modi's craft, like that of Oscar Wilde, lies in making even practiced lines sound spontaneous; even rehearsed answers sound like words uttered on the spur of the moment.

Like a clever speaker, he always manages to say whatever he wants, even if the question is not remotely related to the answer. Nobody bends it like Modi.

File images of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. PTI

File images of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. PTI

Take for instance the query on the secret of his stamina. "I digest 1-2 kilograms of gaalis every day," Modi quipped, positioning himself as a tolerant leader who feeds off ridicule and criticism. In his place, any other person, perhaps even Rahul, would have donated views on the merits of exercise, yoga, meditation and a balanced diet. But that's Modi trademark guile. He thinks out of the box and turns even banal questions into opportunities to burnish his image.

Also, he is clever enough to know what will sell in the next hour's TV headlines. "We tried to contact the Pakistanis before the surgical strikes. But they were afraid to come on the phone," he said, referring to the India's cross-border strike in 2016.

Obviously, he wanted to bring the surgical strikes back into the public domain — "lest you forget" — and garnish it with a bit of chest-thumping and Pakistan bashing, ingredients that sell on TV. Then, he had his masala lines about aspiration and impatience both being good. He was in such terrific form that even if he had, like Gordon Gecko, said "greed is good", his audience would have lapped it up like chicken soup for the soul.

And that is why Rahul is still a student at Modi's pathshaala. Unlike the prime minister, Rahul's answers, probably rehearsed, revised and tele-prompted, sound exactly that. There is neither spontaneity, nor improvisation. There is neither the delicious — sometimes vile — turn of phrase, nor the art of bending questions to suit the answers.

Then there is the problem of over-intellectualisation, like that gem on escape velocity some years ago. Unlike Modi, who simplifies yet sounds profound, Rahul gets confused in an attempt to sound profound. Somehow, his words leave a lot to interpretation, if not plain chin-scratching. Achcha? Really! Oh, aisa bola, matlab! These are some of the usual reactions to Rahul's answers at similar public events.

And mind you, we are talking just about controlled performances in tightly controlled settings, like slickly produced townhall events. We are not even talking about election rallies, where Modi commands the audience like a conductor leading an orchestra with his baton. (Left hand up, the crowd on left chants Modi, Modi; right hand up, the crowd on the right chants Modi, Modi; both hands raised, and the entire audience joins the chorus!)

Oratory and rhetoric play important roles in politics. In the final moments of the Hollywood blockbuster The Darkest Hour, Lord Halifax doffs his hat at Winston Churchill by saying, "He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle."

That's the power of eloquence in politics.

For all his humble mien, occasionally serious demeanour and sporadic anger and outrage, Rahul never really manages to hold his audience in thrall. (Actually, he, or rather his account, is far more clever and impressive on Twitter). And that's his biggest drawback when pitted against the master of messaging in Modi.

Of course, he is now trying to play catch up. He has been to Thailand — and other exotic places we don't know of — to focus his mind and sharpen his words. He borrowed from Modi's rulebook by coining one-liners (suit, boot ki sarkar) and acronyms like Gabbar Singh Tax (GST) that have stuck, remained on the shelf far longer than his verbose speeches. He has become less angry, rarely rolls up his kurta sleeves, and makes speeches that, unlike in the past, do not get lampooned and parodied.

But when it comes to events that have been choreographed for mass consumption, Q&A sessions meant to help us peep into his mind, he is still a student of the Modi University of Public Speaking. Unless he does something about it, Modi will continue to remain the headmaster of oratory and Rahul the supporting lead.


Updated Date: Apr 19, 2018 15:09 PM

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