Narendra Modi has been celebrated for his clarity of vision and powerful oratory. But lately he has begun to look like a wordsmith who trips on his own words

The more Narendra Modi talks, the more he keeps a whole lot of folks busy: Television debaters who have to decode what he said; Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) spokespersons who have to contort themselves out of shape to defend him; bloggers and social media junkies who have to give up sleep to tweet, blog and get creative with jokes and eulogies; and political commentators who have to struggle to keep pace with the NaMo controversies.

Up until now, NaMo has held his audiences spellbound with his oratory. From the India Today conclave attended by high society folks to the many lectures to the young and trendy at college functions, the BJP’s Prime Ministerial-aspirant has been a hit on the lecture circuit. The speeches and audience behaviour have followed a pattern: a fantastic assemblage of facts and figures on Gujarat followed by standing ovation and exclamations of delight at India finally finding its saviour — a politician with brains, charisma and administrative acumen.

Reuters interview

But Mr. Modi’s last two outings have got even the admirers scratching their heads because the smart man who enticed with a miasma of words has been shown to be unsmart in the way he used words. The Kutte ka bachcha (puppy) reference in his Reuters interview was a bad analogy made worse by the BJP’s defence that it showed his compassion towards all living things. Secondly, how does that phrase make for an answer to a specific question on whether he regretted the 2002 anti-Muslim violence?

If anything, Mr. Modi’s answer to the question shows this: he is in his elements when addressing the converted, but unsure and evasive when forced to come out of that comfort zone — and this despite the easy ride given to him by the Reuters correspondents. Mr. Modi answered the violence question in two parts. He said the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team (SIT) had given him a “clean chit” in the 2002 violence, thereby equating the SIT with the Supreme Court. The interviewers did not cross question him on this nor did they point out that a court in Gujarat is currently hearing a protest petition against the SIT report.

The second part of the answer was dodgier still. To quote: “Another thing, any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we are sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not?... If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.”

The answer changed from “we are driving a car” to “we are a driver” to “someone else is driving a car.” Is it a Freudian slip that he first said he was driving the car, and then changed to “sitting behind” when he realised the implications? The inference is difficult to avoid in the context of the 2002 violence.

This is one question for which he should have been prepared and yet he wasn’t. The bit about “something bad” happening “anywhere,” is so problematic that it had the usually cocksure Ravi Shankar Prasad fidgeting for a way out. On a show with Karan Thapar, the BJP spokesperson protested over and over that anything bad happening “anywhere” would sadden Mr. Modi. “Can’t you see that he said ‘anywhere’?” he asked in anguish. Unfortunately for Mr. Modi and Mr. Prasad, the question was not about “anywhere.” The Reuters hacks were not measuring Mr. Modi’s compassion levels for awful things happening to people all over the world. They wanted to know if he felt any regret for 2002. Mr. Modi could have said he had been cleared by the SIT and he was confident of eventually being cleared by the Supreme Court. He could have argued that despite his administration’s best efforts there was violence which he regretted.

But of course, if he had said that, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) would have come after him with a sledgehammer. That the RSS is setting the direction for Mr. Modi is clear from the “burqa of secularism” accusation he hurled at the Congress at a college event that followed the Reuters interview. Why burqa and why not a more neutral piece of garment such as ghunghat (veil in Hindi)? Obviously because burqa is Islamic. If there was doubt on who the target was, it was cleared by a Shiv Sena spokesperson who said at a TV discussion that the usual way to bring a criminal out in public was to wrap him in a burqa.

As 2014 draws nearer

The problem is going to get worse in the coming days because Mr. Modi is attempting to fuse hard Hindutva with an image overhaul ahead of 2014. The silk and chiffon crowd that has been hearing him out at corporate galas might worship him but it is unlikely to want its superhero to come as a package deal with the scrappy Bajrang Dal. And hence the simultaneous wooing of Muslims by Mr. Modi. However, the contradictions are too glaring to be papered over by his usual skill with words.

In any case, a careful listener of Mr. Modi’s speeches will know that often he just throws words and ideas around. One example is his suggestion at the India Today conclave that the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme be renamed the Mahatma Gandhi Development Guarantee scheme. The reasoning he offered was that while the former implied the beneficiary was in poverty, the latter made her a participant in national development. Predictably, the proposal was received with ear-splitting applause. But laws have to be clear and specific about what they want to achieve. If the aim is to guarantee jobs, the title has to reflect it. Changing jobs to development makes no sense. By this yardstick, the Food Security Bill will have to be renamed Happiness Bill.

More claims

So with a whole lot of claims about Gujarat. Speaking at a college meet in Delhi, Mr. Modi said Gujarat was a leading producer of milk and supplied milk to Delhi. Figures put out by the National Dairy Development Council show that Gujarat is the fifth largest producer of milk in India. And yes, Amul milk does service parts of Delhi but Mr. Modi actually fought with that great Amul man, Verghese Kurien. The Gujarat Chief Minister said Gujarat sent okra to Europe. I could not locate the statistics for this. However, I learnt that okra is consumed largely by Indians in Europe. Secondly, according to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APECA), which functions under the Union Ministry of Commerce, Gujarat is the fifth largest producer of okra. APECA also said it had sanctioned Agri Export Zones in six States, including Gujarat.

Mr. Modi insists that for him secularism is “India First.” Will any political party say that it believes in “India last”? He has a way with words but words have a way of spinning out of control.

For an opposing view, see Ashok Malik's aerials

vidya.s@thehindu.co.in

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