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Millennium Post

Uncommon communicator

There are orators aplenty but few communicators, says Narendra Modi. For Modi, a despised figure among the scribes and intellectuals of India, oratory comes naturally. But is he able to connect with his target group and communicate his message? Has he been able to come out from the widely publicised branding as the ‘maut ka saudagar’? Judged by the media reactions alone, particularly those of mainstream English media, the unavoidable conclusion is Modi’s oratorical skill has failed to impress our top scribes and their favorite intellectuals.

The question is how to communicate the key message to target public! In public life, since the days of Demosthenes oratorical skill, remained the single most critical arsenal to rouse an apathetic and divisive set of people. Demosthenes succeeded in rallying the slumbering Athenians. But that was in a different time and under different circumstances. Athens had a participatory democracy. Oratory was the primary means of spreading one’s message. One could not jump in the arena to argue a point with a written paper in hand.

But how will one judge if the key message has reached the key constituency? The applauds from the audience is an indicator. Modi, arguably the most forceful orator in India of late, receives such applauds wherever he speaks. For Modibhaktas this is heartening. There is, however, one rider. Recall the lamentation of Tacitus on the causes of the corruption of eloquence. He called the orators of Rome during his days as pleaders not orators. Pliny the Elder, the Roman philosopher was more acerbic, ‘The loudest is the applause, and the worst is the speaker.’  Modi-bhaktas need to be cautious.

Narendra Modi knows well communication needs touching the heart of the audience, animating their soul and stirring them to action. This is what Demosthenes did. This is what much later President Abraham Lincoln could do. Martin Luther King Jr took ahead Lincoln’s unfinished task hundred years later. At home it was the great Mahatma who could arouse Indians fragmented in every conceivable way and stitch them into one nation. Like him or hate him but one cannot dispute Modi’s statement that Mahatma had been the greatest communicator of the 20th century.

Stump oratory in the age of communication has lost its importance. First came radio. During the freedom movement Indians used to tune in their radio to listen to Subhash Chandra Bose from the Azad Hind Fauz headquarter. Then came TV, a greater influencer than radio. The US presidential election of 1960 was decided in the TV debate between Kennedy and Nixon. The latter, a consummate politician, was sloppy in the first ever televised political debate in history.

For spreading the messages then came Internet. It is said that President Obama did use the medium successfully. The question is should India follow the Americans blindly? Could it be that this is why Narendra Modi is so active in social media? Does the medium turn somebody into a communicator? Or should we remember what Pliny said some 2,000 years ago and equate the Facebook likes or Twitter followers with paid or unpaid cohorts fronting for their leader?

Leaving aside the medium, let us take a look at the link between oratory and communication. Can one babbling speaker, say Rahul Gandhi, impress his audience? The answer is in the negative judged by the results from state elections in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the recent past. If Congress won some states like Karnataka, Himachal and Uttarakhand there had been several other factors, which could cover Rahul Gandhi’s utter failure as a speaker. But did Modi do any better?  In his home turf Gujarat he did. Since he did not much venture out of Gujarat it is rather early to judge his skill as a successful communicator.

However, the curtain has now been raised.  Modi is the prime ministerial candidate for the opposition BJP. Rahul is not but there is no doubt of the fact that he is the final voice, either of conscience or of arrogance. Like it or not comparison between the style and effect of key messages delivered by Rahul and Modi cannot be swept under the carpet any longer. Howsoever much Digvijay Singh wants to debate Narendra Modi, he cannot reach that level till he is in Congress, a family-ruled outfit.
The political arrangement today has turned every other player in the arena as a bystander. Like the Great War at Kurukshetra one must either be with Modi or with Rahul’s family party. Even certain fence sitters like Mamata and Mayawati will be viewed as potential post-war partners of Modi or Rahul. And as Srinivasan Swamy, president of the International Advertising Association, India chapter said, ‘In politics, rival leaders take the debate to a higher plain and set standard for future’, it is on both Modi and Rahul to set a standard for future.

In his own inimitable hit and run way Rahul has set one. The drama enacted by him, over the ordinance on convicted MPs,perhaps with full support from his image managers, is a case in point. This offered Modi the opportunity to shred the family-ruled party’s style with glee in his Delhi rally. While opinions will vary depending on which end of the spectrum one is – Modi or Rahul, the hitherto non-committed ones will not go with Rahul’s drama. This was a late realisation of the stoned team of Rahul, a team so much stoned in their hereditary affluence and upbringing, that most of them view ‘aam aadmi’ as pliable play dough.

The kid who started his life selling tea in train compartments is now pitted against one who was born with a diamond spoon in his mouth.  The battle lines are drawn.  The country is looking for the communicator not for a stage-managed orator.  There is a clear message for media also. Plain simple communication is now placed against wily communication professionals. Indian media will do well if they just study the West Bengal 2011. 

The author is a communication consultant
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