Narendra Modi is no Atal Bihari Vajpayee
Comparisons are made of the oratorical skills of both. But Vajpayee valued truth, dissent, inclusion. Modi is the opposite, not the inheritor, of such talents.
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The late Atal Bihar Vajpayee had long retired from politics, but his legacy was omnipresent in the Indian polity. He was like Bhishma Pitamaha who lay by the side of the great war and at whom both sides looked to in cases of doubt and disillusionment.
In the last four and half years of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s governance, whenever Prime Minister Modi would hit a new low in the political discourse by peddling some misinformation about deceased or living Congress leaders, we would recall what a respectful leader Vajpayee was, who truly valued his opposition and allowed dissent.
Vajpayee had retired from politics, but his legacy shaped the Indian polity. (Credit: Screengrab/YoutTube)
But with Vajpayee’s departure from the physical world, a void has been created — one that can never be filled.
There is one question now on many media and political pundits' mind — who can ever match up to the stature of Vajpayee and carry forward his legacy?
When Narendra Modi emerged on the national scene, campaigning for the 2014 general elections as a Prime Ministerial candidate, one of the most common comparisons between Vajpayee and Modi was on the basis of Modi’s skills of oratory. But it was a forced comparison, with two purposes. First, it was an attempt to whitewash Modi’s alleged role in the Gujarat carnage of 2002 and bring some credibility to his image.
Second, it was an attempt to place Modi in the same league as Jawaharlal Nehru and Vajpayee, both being great orators. But Modi is nowhere close to these tall leaders in terms of being a great orator, unless we confuse oratory with theatrics and personal attacks.
What is a great speech? Is it only about being loud and aggressive or coming up with one-liners, hashtags and acronyms? Or does the content, intent and emotion of the speech matter? Does honesty matter? Can a leader be a great orator if he obfuscates or makes below-the-belt personal attacks on opposition leaders’ family, origin, mother, even their names?
The answer is in the air.
Let’s examine Modi’s latest speech, delivered on Independence Day. I couldn’t hear the speech on live TV because of a five hour-long power cut. I learned later that in the five hours I was without power and internet, Modi’s “new India” has progressed so much that bored of all the development and prosperity on earth, people were asking Modi, “Next is what?” “Moon”, pat came Modi’s answer. An Indian son or daughter (trans-people not allowed perhaps) will go to the moon by 2022, declared Modi from the Red Fort.
It has now become a habit for the media to run a 'fact check' on the content of all Modi speeches because Modi’s oratorical skills are mostly about delivering apparently false promises and distorted information, with aggressive body language and a high-octane voice.
The idea of a manned mission to the moon too is one such false dream to the poor of this nation, one which had apparently not been thought of in consultation with ISRO and the feasibility not checked.
Certain figures are deeply telling:
• Recent rain and flood havoc in Kerala has caused the state an overall loss of Rs 8,316 crore.
• The Centre has released Rs. 320 crore as disaster relief fund for Kerala.
• A manned mission to the moon by ISRO would reportedly cost around Rs. 12,000 crore.
• As per the 2017 report by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) India ranks 100th out of total 119 countries in the global hunger index.
• We are a nation where millions are still homeless and don’t even get to eat two full meals a day — and the PM is selling them the moon and the stars.
A cruel joke, delivered with great oratory alright.
Independence Day is not an occasion to divide the nation’s history in two parts — 'Before Modi' and 'After Modi. (Credit: PTI photo)
The Independence Day speech is an occasion when the Prime Minister addresses the nation as a whole to take stock of the past and set a vision for the future. It is not meant to be communication for your vote banks. It is not an occasion to divide the nation’s history in two neat linear parts, 'Before Modi' and 'After Modi', and talk in simplistic binaries of 'Before Modi — all bad', 'After Modi — all good'. It is not a time to take cheap jibes at the Opposition or make baseless allegations or lie about one’s own achievements. It is meant to be honest introspection for the nation and its leaders beyond political ideologies.
But Narendra Modi has an insatiable hunger for power. It was expected that in his last speech at the Red Fort, with an eye on the 2019 general election, he would launch his election campaign and that’s what happened. The speech had only one central theme — Modi. It was all about positioning Modi as the Prime Minister for another term, and he did it by constantly attacking “others.” Like nationalism survives by constantly othering an invented enemy who is both hated and feared, Modi too always positions himself against “those people before” and tries to prove his worth in contrast. Almost every sentence on every topic came with the false narrative of 'before' and 'after'. None of the allegations, how bad things were Before Modi or the tall claims about how great things are After Modi, were backed by solid data.
For instance, Modi reportedly claimed that before, all rations were stolen by fake beneficiaries but due to his efforts, six crore fake beneficiaries have been busted. There is nothing on record to back this figure of six crore. In fact, in his enthusiasm, Modi forgot that earlier, he had made a similar claim — it was four crore back then. In February 2017, in the Lok Sabha, Modi reportedly claimed that Aadhaar cards have helped weed out four crore fake ration cards. This claim was later proved to be a lie in an RTI application when the relevant authorities failed to provide any information to back Modi’s claim.
From left: HD Deve Gowda, Manmohan Singh, Gursharan Kaur and Rajnath Singh at the Red Fort on August 15, 2017. (Credit: ANI/Twitter)
While bragging about the various schemes he launched, Modi took a swipe at the UPA government, saying that in “earlier times”, schemes were launched but middlemen or corporates took away the cream. But a simple Google search will show you that government websites to academic journals, these are all full of the success stories of the MGNREGA scheme – the world’s largest anti-poverty scheme.
The comparison with Vajpayee, his oratory or vision, could not be more stark.
Compare this false narrative of ‘before and after’ with a speech Vajpayee made in Parliament where he said, “I will never say that no progress happened in the years before me, saying that would be disrespect to my own nation and its people.” Modi’s speeches, including the latest one, are often bereft of real facts, but to prove his point, he vaguely refers to unnamed ‘foreign’ ‘international’ reports, hypocritical because time and again, the Modi government has rejected several international reports flagging the real issues of the nation. Here’s a representative list:
• May, 2018, Press Council of India rubbished the Press Freedom Index, in which India slipped two places to rank 138th among 180 countries.
• May, 2014, India rejected the findings of a World Health Organisation (WHO) study that ranks New Delhi as the world’s worst city for air pollution.
• June, 2016, Government rejected the study on pollution published in the Geophysical Research Letters Journal of the American Geophysical Union, which concluded that Indians lose six years of their lives because of pollution.
• June, 2018, the National Commission for Women (NCW) rejected the latest report which said that India is the world's most dangerous country for women.
• Far from being a speech about India’s independence, Modi's latest was a performance review speech complete with theatrics. Modi only said what he wanted to say, without bothering to touch upon real issues. And this is a fundamental difference between Modi and Vajpayee as the latter always maintained through all his speeches that India is ultimately represented and built by all political parties.
Vajpayee was deeply political. But he never got personal. (Credit: PTI Photo)
Vajpayee sensed a downfall in the quality of the political discourse and a lack of respect for dissent in his time itself. He would often fondly remember Nehru and how he allowed healthy dissent. He once shared an anecdote from his younger days when Nehru was alive and he had said something strong to Nehru, to which Nehru later smiled and said, “Aaj to bada zordar bhashan diya (Today, you gave a powerful speech).”
“Today any such criticism is like inviting a sore enemy,” said Vajpayee in his time.
Things have become much worse today, when criticising Modi is not just inviting enmity, but you can be labeled 'anti-national', jailed or lynched. At the helm of this growing lack of respect for, and attacks at, dissent is Modi himself as he constantly makes all discourse about himself alone.
Unless he addresses this concern in his speeches, he is no great orator. Unlike Vajpayee.