Narendra Modi is a gifted speaker; more spirited with his oratorical flourishes than A B Vajpayee, the best speaker our Parliament has seen in recent years. But is he carried away by his qualities as a speaker? His speeches on Independence Day have been the longest in history, lasting around one-and-a-half hours each time. That’s really long for a speech. Modi’s well-known qualities as a speaker may keep the audience alert for much of the time, but it does raise questions about speeches and their lengths.
His shortest speech was in 2017 when it went on for 56 minutes. In 2016, it lasted 94 minutes, in 2019, two minutes less at 92 and in 2020, another two minutes less at 90. Even Vajpayee’s record was 25 minutes in 2002 and 30 minutes in 2003. Where is 30 minutes, where is 90? Speeches don’t have to be long to make an impression. Unless you are V K Krishna Menon and the year is 1957 when India had to force an unfriendly United Nations to pay attention to what it had to say. So he spoke for eight hours and then dramatically collapsed.
That was politics of a particular kind in the confrontational world of a particular time. In ordinary situations, a few sentences are enough to make history. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, considered one of the greatest speeches in history, was only 275 words long. George Washington’s second inaugural address was even shorter, just 135 words. The irrelevance of our long speeches was underlined this year when the unprecedented farmers’ agitation competed with the Prime Minister’s show for attention. The farmers won. The teargas attack on the farmers only directed more public sympathy towards them.
The police barricades proved ineffective as the farmers made their way to key areas of the National Capital, including the symbolic Red Fort. Clashes occurred but the farmers’ were ready for that too. The Nihangs (Sikh warriors) on horseback provided an unusual spectacle, no doubt inspirational to the protesters. The farmers have been camping around Delhi since November.
What is astonishing is Prime Minister Modi’s failure to understand the power the farmers have acquired. His inability to see the importance of communicating with them is a collapse of leadership. It’s the biggest open challenge Modi has faced since becoming Prime Minister. But he is unable to respond creatively because his primary interest is to safeguard his ties with the corporate entities behind him. Law and order situation as well as political management of the country would have been better if Modi was more imaginative.
Things would have been different, for example, if some attempts were made to consult farmers; if the Citizenship Amendment Bill were not enforced so one-sidedly; if JNU student leaders were treated as student leaders and not as seditionists out to destroy the nation. The problem may be that Modi has a fear complex that leads him to handle all protests with a heavy hand. Or, may be that Amit Shah knows nothing but to use law as a whip with which to discipline citizens. Left to themselves, they would love to declare a police state. The signs are not encouraging. Until last week, the farmers’ march was peaceful and orderly. Suddenly violence flared.
One farmer died as his tractor overturned — an accident, the police hastened to explain. The banging of tractors into the backs of buses parked to block them provided impressive TV visuals even as it dramatised the relentlessness of the farmers’ fight. What was clear was the Government’s tactlessness in handling the situation. The farmers were seen as enemies of the state. Where tactfulness would have made a difference, tactlessness was in full swing. The same tactlessness that made the Modi Government pass the farm laws without parliamentary scrutiny.
Even the Guardian from far-away England described it as “elective dictatorship”. Two-hundred million Indians still go without assured food, it said. Granaries are full, but the poor don’t have the money to buy. This won’t change until there is a government that is “interested in ordinary people, not just corporate profits that disproportionately fund Mr Modi’s party”. What if Mr Modi loves that very disproportionateness? Mr Modi knows what’s good for him — and also that what’s good for him must have precedence over what’s good for the country.