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Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Battle of Speeches

Last week was an exceptional one as we were exposed to four epic speeches which went viral, an unusual phenomenon especially since the country is not in election mode and the Parliament is in session. Now I do realize that Parliament IS the place to make eloquent speeches but last many years it has been known more for disruption-adjournment-repeat.
Anyway, the first speech came from the Minister of Human Resource Development, Smriti Irani who delivered a splendid monologue to a stunned house as she alternatively changed avatar from a teary eyed woman who had been wronged to that of  "woman scorned whose fury hell hath not" as she rained fire and brimstone on the hapless looking members of the august house. She balanced her fiery rhetoric with emotions and expressiveness with such finesse that even the most seasoned parliamentarians were bamboozled and took one full day to realize that they had been misled by the minister on several issues. I suspect the privilege motion being brought against her is more out of frustration that they were so enthralled by the oration that they could not catch the lies while she was delivering them rather than the fact that she lied. Of course she still hasn't given a satisfactory reply to the question on why her ministry sent 5 reminders to the VC of Hyderabad Central University which makes her partly responsible for Rohith Vemula's death. However, one must concede that it must have been helluva speech if she could duck such a grave charge!

Then came Congress scion Rahul Gandhi's speech which was quite a revelation since he wasn't tearing up paper, angrily rolling up his sleeves or even making gaffes. Instead, he was being humorous, even self-deprecating but also scathing and sarcastic,ridiculing Modi for his failings. The "Fair And Lovely" metaphor for government's plan to recover black money particularly was a masterstroke but he didn't seem as consistent after the speech. Like Smriti Irani, Rahul Gandhi's speech was much appreciated because it was much unexpected. Probably for the first time he delivered an entire speech without goofing up even once and actually targeting Modi government where it is most vulnerable. With all the right notes he managed to strike, it makes one wonder if Prashant Kishor has already settled down on his new assignment.

PM Narendra Modi's speech in the Parliament may have been hailed by his acolytes as excellent but even as a detractor I believe large part of his speech being a response to Rahul Gandhi only elevated the latter's stature. Frankly, his speeches on election rallies are far more enthralling and his last speech in the Parliament had marks of a statesman but the latest one was a let down. There are too many things happening in the country on which the Prime Minister is meant to speak, as of yet Rahul Gandhi is not one of them. Then again, it may have been a clever ploy to not take on more contentious issues which could give opposition further munitions to attack him. Targeting Rahul Gandhi, whose political capital isn't exactly substantial but who still comes across as the main opponent of Modi in media narratives could serve the twin purpose of avoiding more pressing but contentious issues as well as giving something to cheer up his acolytes who love to hate the Gandhi scion.

Kanhaiya Kumar speaking at JNU
However, the speech that mesmerized millions and made a hitherto unknown student achieve global recognition was made not in Parliament but in JNU campus and by the JNU Students Union President Kanhaiya Kumar. Barely hours after being released from jail Kanhaiya Kumar delivered a stunning speech catapulting him to fame and sending political analysts into a tizzy with some declaring him as the new political star. Now if I were to compare Smriti Irani's melodramatic speech with the finest performances seen in television serials and films, Kanhaiya Kumar's speech reminds me of the famous Mark Antony eulogy/speech from Shakespeare's popular play Julius Caesar. Even those who haven't read or watched the play would be familiar with the line "Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears." In the play, Caesar has just been assassinated, his assassins are in control and Mark Antony is allowed to make a funeral speech but uses the occasion to rouse the Romans against the conspirators by clever play of words. Antony begins his speech being respectful towards the conspirators and goes on to praise Caesar, gradually changing public opinion so that even respectful words are now seen as sarcasm and veiled attack. With a single speech Antony manages to transform the Roman public.

Although Kanhaiya was speaking in JNU campus he was by no means free of duress. He had been released only a few hours earlier on an interim bail of 6 months and with conditions that put him under mercy of the administration. The bail order itself has been called by eminent jurists as "unusual" as it just stops short of indicting him although it wasn't a trial. As such, the pressure on Kanhaiya must have been considerable but the manner in which he delivered his speech, using wit, sarcasm and hard facts to launch a blitzkrieg on BJP/RSS without uttering a single word that could land him in jail again. The sheer brilliance of his oration lay in the fact that he pretty much convinced at least some people that his and his comrades allegiance to the Indian Constitution was much greater than the Sangh Parivar's. His reference to RSS founder being influenced by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy so much so that even the RSS uniform is borrowed from the Fascist is a known fact to students of history but with nearly all but a very few news channels airing his speech live, the message is likely to have reached millions of people who would never have known a lot of facts about RSS, its ideology, its insidious agenda, the government's failed promises and a false narrative built around those opposing the government.

It is impossible to say if he was able to convince the majority of listeners or not but as far as the battle of speeches has gone, Kanhaiya is miles ahead of the other three contenders. After all, from being barely known student leader to suddenly see #KanhaiyaKumar as the top trending hashtag globally on Twitter, news channels repeating the speech throughout the day and the number of hits on YouTube, Facebook and other social media and news sites clearly indicate that he his  speech was far more popular than the parliamentarians' and if the latter care about public sentiment they might consider speaking on real issues.

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