At many Indian election rallies, a good part of the crowd shows up just to see the helicopter land in a dramatic swirl of dust, and deliver their candidate. Then some of them leave even before the speech, knowing that it is going to be deathly dull.
This is one of the quirks of Indian democracy. With a vast population, many of whom see politics as a key path to power and wealth, India does produce a few world-class, even world-beating orators like Narendra Modi, or Atal Bihari Vajpayee before him. But to a surprising degree, many leading politicians mumble and stumble at the podium, making one wonder how they got there in the first place. Democracies like the US also produce some politicians who are considered stiff, remote, academic or all of the above (Hillary Clinton, for example). But in India, the bar for oratorical talent is unusually low.
Why? Over the last two decades, I have followed dozens of Indian campaigns, and my sense is that Congress sells the glamour of the Gandhi family, and does not worry much about speaking skills. The regional parties tend to mobilize the loyalties of one community around a Chosen One, chosen for ties to that community and not oratory power.
A leading example is Mayawati, who my travel companions and I have seen at the lectern many times, going back to 2002, without any sign of improvement. It’s hard to imagine any of her aides offering her any tips, either. Imperious, she stands alone on stage, sometimes accompanied by a fan blowing only on her, speaking in a steady drone, her words without wit, her eyes making little contact with the crowd.
Her mainly Dalit supporters see her as their champion and begrudge neither her diamonds nor her monotonous delivery. They don’t have to be paid and bussed into rallies, like the supporters of lesser draws. They flock to her on every imaginable conveyance, oxcarts to tractors and motorbikes, chanting slogans such as ‘Betiyon ko muskurane do Behenji ko aaney do’ that are often more mesmerizing than anything Mayawati has to say.
It’s not only her. Many regional leaders have a voice and style that violates every rule of public speaking 101: eyes glued to a prepared text, failing to connect with the crowd, a voice as flat as the EKG of a corpse. We have seen Mayawati’s old rival in UP, Mulayam Singh Yadav, a diminutive figure who often stands on a stool behind the podium to gain height, speaking in a mumble, laboring to make himself understood. Yet he is as beloved by Yadavs as Mayawati is loved by Dalits.
The list of oratorically challenged regional leaders also includes Naveen Patnaik in Odisha, Deve Gowda in Karnataka and memorably the late Jayalalithaa, despite her earlier career as an actress. Jayalalithaa often conducted a slow-motion road show, perched in the front seat of a rolling van, her face lit from below like a statue of the gods. Rarely speaking at all, she fixed her eyes stonily on the horizon not the crowds, yet hundreds would prostrate themselves on the street in her wake.
At a 2016 rally in Villupuram, we watched as Jayalalithaa sat alone on stage at a desk, reading from a stack of papers the list of goodies her government had provided, as a crowd of 200,000 struggled to keep their feet in the 40-degree heat of the mid-afternoon sun. When she was done, she left immediately, stopping to speak to no one.
The Congress has produced some orators capable of rousing the masses, starting with Jawaharlal Nehru. Dubbed the “Goongi Gudiya” or mute doll early in her career, Indira Gandhi developed into an effective speaker. But the current generation still underwhelms. After reading her first speeches in heavily accented Hindi from a Roman script, Sonia has grown fluent but is far from riveting. Rahul has improved too, his speeches more current and less lost in academic abstractions, but his delivery also falls well short of Congress’s main rival.
Better speakers tend to come from the BJP at least in part because many are drawn from the RSS, which emphasizes in-house debate and trains leaders on how to spread its word.
Modi, of course, is the most impressive. His words biting, his timing impeccable, he can forge an intimate connection with vast crowds, all craning their bodies toward him as if drawn to an intense point of light. Back in 2007, one of my travel companions asked him where this talent came from, and he replied, “It is a gift I was born with.”