Three speeches, three futures

Last Sunday, Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Sitaram Yechury all put in very different performances, each insisting that they represent the people. Each party seemed to take the poor as a pretext for politics, yet is absent-minded about their real concerns

Updated - April 23, 2015 08:09 am IST

Published - April 23, 2015 02:55 am IST

Shiv Visvanathan

Shiv Visvanathan

Politics has a strange way of making you rethink ideas and stereotypes by merely juxtaposing events. Just as one finishes typecasting persons and parties and feels smug about such judgments, politics delivers a series of googlies forcing a rethink. Last Sunday, one saw such a juxtaposition of events when three leaders addressed mass meetings. The triad of speeches included >one by Rahul Gandhi who was returning from his sabbatical and addressing a kisan rally. In the >second, Sitaram Yechury was taking over as the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) from his more tacitum predecessor, Prakash Karat. >Finally, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was addressing a rally of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) workers after his return from Canada.

Foil to the other None of the three speeches was by itself exceptional. But each of the trio, and then together, created a conversation as if three hit movies had been introduced on the same day. The first surprise was that of Mr. Modi. He looked almost reluctant to be in India after the highs experienced after visiting Europe and Canada. In all his overseas visits, it is clear that Non Resident Indians (NRIs) dote on his nationalism and his alleged efficiency while he revels in their success and their enthusiasm for him. After the exciting NRI engagements, India almost seems banal and disappointing to him, one could say. Mr. Modi, in his speech, seemed to complain about the Indian gene that discourages an approval of authority. The native Indian, unlike his counterpart abroad, is a determined contrarian. Worse, the Opposition seemed to have stolen Mr. Modi’s punch lines. His voice had more of a bully’s humour and he almost sounded like yesterday’s newspaper.

In contrast, Sitaram Yechury sounded human, relaxed, even casual. As visual appearances go, the careful grooming of Mr. Modi was not for him. Mr. Yechury almost looked like an absent-minded boy scout being asked to take over his party. He presented a clenched fist which lacked a dramatic touch. This gesture was informal, almost absent-minded, as if he was flagging down an auto. Yet, one realised why he is the human face of the party. He sounded almost matter of fact. The CPI(M) tried to create a sense of drama but the performance on the podium appeared almost listless.

While Mr. Yechury enacted his leadership role, I looked at how Rahul addressed the kisan rally. For once he was coherent, sentences flowed into each other; now, he seems ready to be a leader. Senior Congressmen smiled with content that their “slow” nephew had blossomed at last. The realists knew that he has years to go but at least for the 22 minutes he spoke, his spirit of leadership seemed willing.

Each leader enacted a characteristic script which acted as a perfect foil to the other. Mr. Modi began, didactic as ever, realising that his party has been slipping while he was playing to audiences abroad; the BJP is now losing initiative and is being seen as anti-poor and anti-farmer. Mr. Modi has begun to sound like a speaker at a FICCI meeting and when he declaims that his party has been pro-poor, he sounds hollow. The charisma is gone. The poor do not interest him. He projects them as a Congress conspiracy. Now, Mr. Modi wants to talk of the second stage of development; of his exploits and negotiations abroad. He wants to tell his aspiring masses that his negotiations with France and Canada have enabled him to access nuclear energy. He sounds like Father Christmas but the audience is not convinced.

Rahul worked hard in presenting a pro-poor Congress, listing out the party’s attempts to waive rural debt, and remembering how he had promised to fight for them. He contrasted this with Mr. Modi repaying his electoral debt to the capitalists by selling land. He talked of the tribals from Niyamgiri, Odisha, as his little fiefdom, and cited how 400 of them swore to him that if they lost their land, they would become naxalites. Rahul seems more alive, almost grateful for the land issue. What began as a morsel of an issue might turn out to be the crystal seed of a Congress revival. Rahul attacked Mr. Modi with ease contrasting the indifference of the BJP to the Congress’s attempt to side with the farmer.

Reinventing a party I was watching the show with Kiran Majumdar Shaw of Biocon who detected a deep immaturity in the Congress. She claimed that in being a pro-farmer, pro-tribal, Rahul sounded anti-development. For a corporate leader, there is no greater heresy. She ended by saying that the Land Acquisition Act needs to be read and understood. Suddenly one realises that what one has on hand is a major class battle.

It is here that the CPI(M) was in the limelight. In his acceptance speech, Mr. Yechury was relaxed, uttering a few happy lines in Telugu and Hindi. His ease of language was a foil to Rahul’s, and his relaxed sense of leadership, a dramatic contrast to Mr. Modi’s. Whether it is the Congress party’s masses or the CPI(M)’s classes, both seem ready to battle the aspiring generation of Mr. Modi.

There was a vestige of scientism in Mr. Yechury’s speech. He talked of the objective situation and referred to the BJP as a communal party enacting the neo-liberal agenda. He accused the BJP of confusing history with mythology, of being anti-scientific. Like most Marxists, he appealed to history, claiming that history is on his side, inviting the CPI(M) to enter into battle with the BJP. Yet, he was so amiable that one was not quite sure whether he was delivering a lecture on table manners or on class war.

One wished that there was less certitude and more doubt. He talked of his comrades dying in West Bengal due to the Trinamool Congress’s aggressive and violent ways. There was no moment of reflection, or of guilt that this culture of violence was initiated by the CPI(M) when in power. The personality of the man dominated the moment. With the entry of Mr. Yechury, even people critical of the CPI(M) felt that “ acche din aagaye hai ” (good times are here). In his speech, he did not have to strain for effect like Mr. Modi or Rahul had to. It was clear that the CPI(M) has found a leader who can reinvent the party of the future. However, his claim that socialism is the way for the future sounds happily old-fashioned.

One needs to contrast the atmosphere of the three speeches. The CPI(M) oozed a sense of solidarity. The Congress looked at its potential leader avuncularly. There was a sense of hope, and of modest expectation. On the other hand, the BJP atmosphere was surly. Mr. Modi was almost disappointed with India and he told his cadres to work hard and ignore ‘the games of the media’. This response reminded one of sour grapes. The man who was, hitherto, the darling of the media, suddenly felt that things are not the same. One could sense unease beneath the superficial calm in his party. He realises that the BJP faces an uphill battle in Bihar and that his party has messed up the script in Jammu and Kashmir.

A hollowness Even as the detached spectator prepares the report cards of the three men — awarding an ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ to Mr. Yechury, Rahul and Mr. Modi respectively — there is an unmistakable sense of dread. One wants to join in the celebration of the prospect of revival of the CPI(M) and the Congress but there is clearly a degree of hollowness around this political exercise. One wonders whether the three parties can offer much to address the ongoing crises in agriculture, the way to revive the economy and open and good governance. All three thrive on old categories and have little sense of the future. There has never been a time where political ideas in the public sphere have lagged so far behind the imperatives of institution building. It is a strange time for India, what a friend called “a conspiracy of mediocrity and hysteria”. At this moment, a touch of civility almost seems like a moment of genius.

Each party seems to take the poor as a pretext for politics and yet is absent-minded about them. The Congress has a seasonal interest in the issues of the farmer. The CPI(M) has for long ignored issues related to marginal groups and instead focussed only on organised labour. The BJP prefers the middle class and finds the poor an obstacle to development. One is almost desperate and wants to say “stop the train, I want to get off”. One faces a desperation, where the crisis of faith is so deep, that even a few morsels of hope make one grateful.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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