The campaign for electing members of the 16th Lok Sabha has witnessed intense and incisive verbal spats by political leaders, ranging from oblique references to direct personal attacks. Speeches at election rallies involve swaying the voters’ sentiments by words, using divisive ploy by political leaders. Heightening the political fervour, you have speeches on expected lines – caste, religion, poverty, policies, personal statuses and alliances, inflation, corruption, governance, growth and a plethora of subjects – hurled at you as a voter. But in the election of the 16th Lok Sabha members, as the process sees its climactic end on 16 May, the speeches have become desperate, vicious and ridiculously personal.
Captivating and convincing your voter has become the sole aim of political leaders during their speeches. The raging warriors and party stalwarts during this national election – the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi, Congress’s Rahul Gandhi and Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal - have been delivering speeches across India wooing voters. Latest addition to the bandwagon is Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who is very pro-actively taking part in the election campaign recently, much like her brother and archrival NaMo.
Kejriwal seems to be facing some sort of a setback in these elections, as none of his speeches are trending. Interestingly, Priyanka’s introduction, rather her strategic emergence, is Congress’ attempt to pull out its trump card in the realm of speech warfare. With stark similarity to her grandmother and former prime minister Indira Gandhi, Priyanka raises the popularity bar amongst voters, compared to other Congress leaders.
Political analyst Arvind Mohan feels that Priyanka’s entry has surcharged the atmosphere as she is seen as the harbinger of change. ‘Earlier, it was Modi versus Rahul. But with Priyanka campaigning and delivering speeches in Rae Barelli and Amethi, the political discourse has changed. She, too, is aggressive and incisive in her speeches. Earlier, compared to Rahul, Modi was seen as the more belligerent speaker who involved the audience with his words. But now, Priyanka has thrown a challenge to him. She speaks confidently and enthralls her listeners with her wily rhetoric. Congress has been on the backfoot since the very beginning, but with Priyanka entering the fray, aggression has been invigorated,’ explains Mohan.
Graceful yet fierce, Priyanka has hit back at the BJP for attacking her husband Robert Vadra’s involvement in land deals in Haryana during her speech in Rae Barelli. ‘The more they attack my family, the stronger we would emerge,’ she had said. Then came in her attacks on Modi. ‘When you talk of women empowerment, you should stop tapping our phones,’ she said, taking a jibe at Modi’s name figuring in Snoopgate. After this, her remark that India doesn’t need a ‘chhappan inch ka seena but a dariya jaisa dil’ (not a huge chest but a big heart) was heard. Finally, came in her sharpest attack when she said that the opposition party was scrambling like ‘baffled rats’.
Noticeably viewing the trend in subjects of election speeches, noted sociologist Shiv Vishwanathan said, ‘Now, the election speeches are just moving towards personal attacks. There has been only some debate on real issues but now it seems like there is almost desperation of speeding up of personalities. Priyanka’s introduction has changed things a bit for the Congress. While even during the course, Rahul’s speeches have improved.’
He goes on to explain, ‘Modi now seems tired but he knows his win is assured. He is a man who seems to have found his second steam and will pull it through to Delhi. His body language indicates he is moving towards success and victory. Modi knows that he is going to make it like a marathon runner who is coming home, sure of a grand reception and certain of victory.’
Simply from Narendra Modi’s posturing before a speech, you know the man has done his research and homework. In comparison, Rahul’s speeches seem to be more reactive. Also Rahul tries to showcase the achievements of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, but in a way his speeches fail to pack a punch. Subjects like women empowerment, youth issues, MNREGA, right to education and corruption – these seem to be playing on a loop, when he speaks anywhere in the country. His constant jibe at Modi’s Gujarat model is way too repetitive, even though he tries to package it as the ‘toffee-model.’
Arvind Mohan notes the mode of travel of these leaders in terms of reaching the voter. ‘Rahul travels by helicopters, so most of his rallies are held in smaller cities or villages. But Modi travels by plane so if you see his speeches are delivered mostly in big cities or towns. But as for the content recently it has been only about personal attacks going up tremendously as compared to issue based speeches. Initially, issues which came up in speeches were caste, Muslims and women. But now they have been replaced by personal jibes which do not have any impact on voters at all. Maybe to an extent Ramdev’s honeymoon speech has led to polarising Dalits in Uttar Pradesh.’
‘As for a Modi wave, it seems more of hype as it was in the India Shining campaign. But in this case it is about one man and there is a lot of frenzy around him. It is only in the urban educated areas that this wave might work. Also all the advantage of the downfall of Kejriwal has gone solely to Modi,’ he adds.
Facts are most important when one gives a speech, Mohan notes and on many occasions Modi has bungled up. ‘His campaign has been going on very well but then he mixed up facts once he said that Gujarat’s kite industry was worth Rs 500 crore, after which he made the figure to Rs 700 crore. There is a strategy in the way he speaks but such mistakes are childish by a leader of his stature.’
Renowned sociologist Dipankar Gupta says, ‘They are just tossing symbolic references and there is no discussion on real issues. With the recent one like rats and damaad shree, they are degrading the entire process. It is very sad. It has become a personality driven contest than one-on issues. No doubt there was an optimistic Modi wave, but it is very difficult to sustain it over a period of six weeks during the entire election phase. It is difficult to pursue the wave but it is evidently been there.’
Modi has been clear about his agenda in each speech emphasising on good governance, growth and development. He said this right after his Vidhan Sabha victory after a rally. He went for a complete makeover. The third straight victory of his party in the Gujarat assembly elections in 2012 paved the way for his appointment as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. In his victory speech in Ahmedabad, he set the agenda for the polls – ‘good governance and development’. He stressed on how people had ‘risen over greed and casteism and religion based politics.’ After this in July 2013 during an interview to a leading news agency his infamous ‘kutte ka bacha’ (puppy) remark while expressing regret over the 2002 Gujarat riots snowballed into a huge controversy.
Meanwhile, the Congress was busy setting up the stage for Rahul to take up the reigns. In January 2013, during the party’s Chintan Shivir, Rahul was anointed as the party’s vice president were he delivered an emotive speech explaining how ‘power is poison’ as believed by his mother. This idiom later became a catch phrase for the Congress and BJP to indulge in speech warfare.
In fact, it boomeranged as Modi hit out in April 2013, while wooing voters in Karnataka before elections said, ‘The Indian society never disregards the words of a mother. But there is one mother who says, ‘power is poison’. But what does the son do? He comes to Karnataka and screams, ‘give us power.’’ Modi from then on unleashed his scathing attacks on the Gandhi parivaar.
This phase reached its peak when Congress president Sonia Gandhi accused BJP for indulging in ‘zeher ki kheeti’. Soon came Modi’s acidic reply reinvoking the ‘power is poison’ remark, going on to say how Sonia had seen so many years in power thus swallowed maximum amount of poison which was being spewed. The BJP was preparing for Modi’s national role despite fissures in the party erupting in the public space. In early June 2013, during the party’s two-day National Executive meeting in Goa, Modi was appointed as Chairman of its Election Campaign Committee for the 2014 polls. He slammed the Congress saying that the country needs to be free from their rule. Party patriarch LK Advani skipped the meet, making his displeasure with Modi’s elevation public. Soon after this Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) split from the BJP in mid-June 2013, as the Bihar chief minister confirmed that the 17-year-old alliance between the two had ended. After this, in July 2013, Modi, at a rally in Pune, accused the Congress of wearing a ‘burqa of secularism’ and ‘hiding in a bunker’ when confronted with a crisis.
Rahul’s new role in the party was defined on 17 January 2014, as not the nominee for prime minister but to head the party’s campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. In his 45-minute speech at Talkatora stadium in Delhi, Rahul hit out at BJP and AAP for their marketing techniques. Mocking them he had said, ‘Opposition parties can say anything. Their marketing is very good. They are the ones who will sell combs to the bald. Now, some new people have joined the bandwagon. The earlier ones used to sell combs to the bald; the new ones are giving haircuts. They are giving a haircut to the bald.’
It was on this day that Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyer elaborated on Modi’s background as a tea-seller. From that moment onwards, Modi encashed on this every time he got an opportunity during his election rallies.
In February this year during a rally in Dehradun, Rahul accused the opposition for indulging in ‘khoon ki rajneeti’. He said: ‘It (BJP) practices politics of blood. They don’t see anything but power and power at any cost. They can pit communities and castes against each other; they won’t hesitate in spilling blood if they find it necessary to usurp power.’
Be it the attack on Modi for Snoopgate, or Modi mocking Rahul as Shehzada, Priyanka terming BJP leaders rats and to top it all you have ridiculous comments by leaders from the Samajwadi Party leaders – Mulayam Singh Yadav, Abu Azami and Azam Khan - all meant to polarise the votes in UP. Adding to that is Amit Shah’s revenge remark and in the same league fall Praveen Togadia and Giriraj Singh. On similar lines, Farooq Abdullah spoke out his mind and finally the icing on the cake came with Baba Ramdev’s ‘honeymoon’ remark against Rahul Gandhi.
Though beginning with oblique remarks, in recent times the latest statements by politicians have become increasingly acerbic, unbearable and intensely personal, drowning out the natural drama of the democratic process in its very Indian alphabet soup of acronyms. The word play that was expected from the crème de la crème has deteriorated into mere word lash. Unfortunately.