The venom-spewing election speeches of Congress leader Siddaramaiah and BJP’s Yeddyurappa, made during the Karnataka Assembly polls, have drawn considerable flak from the media and public, raising several issues regarding the declining nature, and the dwindling richness in social and cultural content, of political oratory in democratic politics.
Leaders are essentially products of society and their understanding of the pulse of the people and their capacity to connect with the electorate lie in their close ties with that society.
As they move on from their roots to pursue their political careers and then return to their constituencies as seasoned politicians, it is the memory of their formative years in their respective societies that helps them re-connect with their people. And the people, in turn, look up to their leaders as they search in them the qualities that they themselves lack. So while the electorate is overawed by with leadership traits like fearlessness, integrity and simplicity, it is simultaneously fascinated by the larger-than-life persona encapsulated in mammoth cut-outs and the grandeur of arriving in helicopters during poll campaigns. It is precisely this twin mindset of the people that makes leaders acceptable and popular.
Jawaharlal Nehru, for instance, captured the mindset of the people for his elegant personality, exemplified by impeccable manners and sartorial tastes, as well as for narratives about his clothes being laundered in London. It is another matter that his fair skin and handsomeness worked like a magnet, especially with women.
All these factors aside, it is oratory that plays the most important role in popularising a leader and preparing a stronghold for him. Political oratory stems from the socio-cultural texts of a politician’s formative environment. These texts are integral to his world — he would have heard, read, recited, remembered and lived them during his impressionable years.
Politicians derive the tone, tenure and metaphorical content from their favourite cultural texts, which they freely use in their speeches.
Indira Gandhi, one of the most powerful orators of her time, would revive memories of the social suffering of the marginalised and other oppressed groups in her speeches. Her oratory, replete with phrases such as garibi hatao (eradicate poverty) and Harijan dahan(burning of dalit villages), was designed to provoke social jealousies against the dominant classes and made her very popular.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s political addresses, on the other hand, leaned heavily on Hindi poetry. For instance, some of his speeches were influenced by Rashmirathi, a mahakavya (epic poem) composed by the famous bard of the post-independence era, Ramdhari Singh Dinkar. Rashmirathi is a poetic narrative of the trials and tribulations of Karna, a powerful but cursed character in the Mahabharata. The vir-rasa (tone of valour) that Dinkar used in his epic to evoke nationalistic fervour, was effectively emulated by Vajpayee to communicate with his audience.
The former PM’s style became so popular in the Hindi belt that many of the BJP’s younger crop, including some of the party’s women, would dip into it for their own speeches.
Then there was Janata Party leader Chandrashekhar, who was also the country’s Prime Minister for a while. He’d lean extensively on rural folklore from northern India to get through to his audience. His political oratory, reminiscent of the traditional art of story-telling typical to the Indian rural family setting, is what made him a hit with his people.
Even the immense popularity that a leader like Lalu Yadav enjoys, rests firmly on the foundation of speeches that address the heart of his audience. And analysis of his oratory will reveal that it bears the tone, tenure and cultural memories of Radio-drama Loha Singh, which was composed by famous Hindi and Bhojpuri playwright Rameshwar Singh Kashyap.
Loha Singh was a very popular radio opera (drama) in Bihar that began to be aired on Patna Akashvani after the China war of 1962. The protagonist in this drama was a retired soldier Loha Singh, who spoke in a mix of slangs culled from English, Hindi and Bhojpuri. Sample this: Ari o-Khaderan ko madar, Jab hum Kabul ke morcha pe tha nu (O Khaderan’s mother, when I was posted on the Kabul front). The radio drama, which was spread over as many as 400 episodes, was extremely popular in Bihar and the Bhojpuri region of Uttar Pradesh, between the 1960s and 1980s. In fact, it pervaded practically every household in these regions from mud-huts to mansions and enjoyed several reruns in the period that it was and entertainment staple. It constructed a popular narrative for both, the local Bihari and the migrant. Lalu Yadav and many of Bihar’s socialist student leaders of the 1970s were quite taken in by Loha Singh’s form of oratory. It is believed that during his years at Patna University, when he was emerging as a student leader, Lalu Yadav used the Loha Singh style in delivering his speeches to good effect, attracting an audience of thousands of fellow students. Many socialist leaders from the youth brigade of that time, from the Bhojpuri region of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, delivered their lectures in a mixed Bhojpuri-Hindi-English dialect. Several drew from Lalu’s popularity and kept bringing back Loha Singh into the mindset of their audiences in order to forge a connect with them.
Down south in Tamil Nadu, MDMK leader Vaiko skillfully used characters, stories and images of Sangamas to reach out to his people.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, however, seems to have changed the rules of the game, using a setting created by the country’s electronic media. His speeches thrive on the argumentative and debating font typical of this medium. They are delivered in the style of the sanghpracharak (propagator) who delivers baudhiki (an intellectual and informal talk). The Prime Minister also draws on popular cultural texts such as the Mahabharata in his oratory.
Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi has also begun stepping into the domain of culture and has relied on the Mahabharata and other classical literature frequently in his discourses. In one such delivery, he even compared the Congress with the struggling Pandavas (the good souls), during their 13-year exile. Mahabharata, in fact, has been more frequently been used that the Ramayana in political oratory. Modi, for instance, has been known to frequently use symbols and characters from Vyasa’s epic, along with its moral lessons. In fact, Indian political oratory is now peppered with references to the Mahabharata on both sides of the fence. Bundle that with Twitter, Facebook and electronic media debates and you have a modern sophisticated message delivery mechanism that political parties have woken up to in recent years.
Analysis by Badri Narayan, business-standard