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Why India’s opposition parties don’t have good orators

It is no coincidence that both BJP prime ministers, Vajpayee and Modi, have been good orators. The BJP puts a premium on public speaking.

Two weeks on, Mahua Moitra’s maiden speech in the Lok Sabha continues to be a topic of discussion. When was the last time a speech by any politician was discussed as much?

Moitra’s speech won plaudits because she expressed sentiments shared by many – that the Modi government is “fascist” – but few dare to say it. There was a greater reason why her speech went viral: she delivered it well, full of passion, emotion, rhetoric and gusto. Like a good political speech, it gave you the feeling of someone waging a battle, fighting the good fight.

However, it has to be pointed out that her speech was in English, not in Hindi or her native language Bangla. Only 10 per cent Indians claim to speak English. English-language oratory may win you the applause of the liberal elites but good Hindi or other regional language oratory can actually win you votes.

You can find many good English orators among opposition parties. In Hindi, however, the BJP seems to have a monopoly of good orators.

It is no coincidence that both the BJP prime ministers, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi, have been extraordinary orators. It is difficult to quantify how many votes Modi wins just because of his oratory, but there’s little doubt it’s a large part of his appeal to voters. I have met voters who say they “feel good” when they hear Modi speak.

I have seen people leave aside their work and watch Modi’s speeches live. In elections when the BJP is doing poorly on a seat, party workers will tell you, “Modi is coming here to address a rally next week. Things will change then.” Often they don’t, but often they do. A BJP leader told me that according to their estimate, Modi rallies make a four percentage point difference in vote-share on a seat.
Presidential teleprompter for a presidential campaign
Modi rallies are designed to be TV events, so the impact is not limited to the physical location where he is speaking. There was a time, now difficult to remember, when news channels would broadcast only key parts of speeches made by even the top-most politicians. Rarely did a news channel broadcast a speech by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in full. But in 2013, as the Modi campaign picked up, news channels started broadcasting Modi rally speeches live, beginning to end. Top decision-makers in TV channels, editorial and otherwise, have told me what went behind the scenes: Modi’s speeches earned good TRPs.

Oratory is so central to Brand Modi that he is the only Indian politician using a presidential teleprompter, though they’re very common in the West. Most opposition leaders won’t even know how it works. LCD screens on the floor reflect words on the translucent glass above, and there are two sets on a podium, one to the speaker’s left and the other to the speaker’s right. The speaker can thus read out a whole speech while frequently turning from left to right. The audience won’t realise the speaker was reading from the text. Presidential teleprompters can make anyone look like a good speaker, though god save the dumb speaker when the teleprompter breaks down!

Why does no opposition leader wonder, ‘What’s the use of a presidential teleprompter? Why does Modi use it?’ Our opposition leaders are so casual in their approach to political campaigning that they don’t think they need to learn or improve. It’s because the opposition is full of dynasts who didn’t have to prove their mettle to rise in their parties. It is not surprising that Mahua Moitra is not a dynast. She’s risen the hard way.
Oratory matters more today
India is full of politicians who’ve succeeded despite being poor orators: Mulayam Singh Yadav and Ashok Gehlot are incomprehensible; Nitish Kumar and Mayawati are insipid; Sonia Gandhi’s foreign accent stands out; and Naveen Patnaik barely speaks Odia. Exceptions like Lalu Prasad Yadav only prove the rule: you don’t really need to be a good orator to succeed in Indian politics.

Yet, the value of oratory has increased in the age of 24×7 news TV and ceaseless social media bombardment of shareable content. If your speech doesn’t have any moving lines, how are they going to be excerpted into 2-minute WhatsApp videos? We see and hear our politicians much more today than we used to when Naveen Patnaik or Mulayam Singh Yadav were starting out their careers.

Pramod Mahajan’s contribution
The BJP and the RSS always knew the value of good oratory in political communication. They’ve long been nurturing it. They set up an institute in 1982 to train future politicians, the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini, which teaches public speaking among other aspects of leadership. It is difficult to imagine the Congress encouraging its workers to take public speaking workshops. The party discourages mass leaders.

I realised the importance given to oratory in the BJP-RSS ecosystem when a BJP worker told me to look up an old video of Pramod Mahajan. The firebrand BJP leader once addressed a group of party workers, training them in public speaking. Mahajan was shot dead in 2006 but even today, BJP workers watch the lecture (Part 1, Part 2). Incidentally, Mahajan was a driving force in using the Rambhau Mhalgi Prabodhini to train future BJP leaders.
At one point in the lecture, Mahajan says if you don’t capture the listener’s mind (“kabze mein na lein”) in the first few minutes, then it doesn’t matter how important a point you’re making, you have lost the listener’s attention.

With a dearth of good orators, the opposition has lost the attention of the Indian voter. Mahua Moitra has at least captured the English audience’s attention. The BJP clearly feels threatened enough by it to go on a smear campaign against her. The BJP felt threatened because her speech might make people start wondering if the Modi government is showing “signs of fascism”. That is what good oratory does: it makes people listen.