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Backstory: Where Have We Heard This Before? Calling out Modi’s Repetitive Speeches

A fortnightly column from The Wire’s public editor.

As the election season unfolds, we need to brace ourselves for prime ministerial speeches coming at us like birdshot, in multiples of thousand. Everybody, or almost everybody, believes Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a great speaker, an orator no less. Listening clubs have been set up so that the public can harvest each word of his Mann ki Baat. Online armies lie await to forward them into the ether. Watch all those anxious men and women arraigned behind the prime minister when he delivers his parliamentary speeches – MPs they may be, but they cheer him on like schoolchildren, sometimes thumping their desks prematurely before he has quite finished his point (wonder if there is a faceless babu out there who has been put in charge of recording the number of times they applaud their leader, or – woe be them – look at their watches). In fact, the last two parliamentary speeches of the prime minister, made on February 7 and July 22 respectively, sounded so alike that apart from the framing context of each and the fact that the protagonist thankfully wore a checked waistcoat on the first occasion, it would have been difficult to tell them apart.

But does this tedium ad infinitum not register on our independent media? In these four years – four and a half if you count the half year of pre-2014 electioneering – they have given him the rare privilege of telecasting his speeches live (good for TRPs, the bosses argue, and all this bounty for free). The intriguing question is this: why hasn’t the sheer repetitiveness of it turned off the editors since it seems to be increasingly turning off viewers? Why are these speeches allowed to still run with titles like ‘NaMo’s parliament roar’; ‘PM sounds the poll bugle’ or ‘Modi gives it back to the opposition’. Why do the media have to function like those poor souls seated behind the prime minister in parliament, drawing their cues from his every word and gesture? When was the Indian media elected to power on a BJP ticket?

There are four principal tropes that figure in every Modi speech.

First, there is the theme of New India awaiting every citizen. Much like achche din, it is just round the corner.

The second topic is the “amazing record of Modi rule”, where roads and rail lines have been rolled out, electricity poles installed, where kisans get soil cards and granaries, “gareeb mata”, their pensions, housewives, their free gas cylinder and Muslim women protection against triple talaq. A land where “five crore deshvasis” have emerged out of poverty and the number of jobs is rising dramatically – not just any old job, but stand up jobs for start-up aspirations and patriotic instincts.

The third talking point is the Congress as principal spoiler of the ‘New India’ dream. Here the focus is on the parivar – mother and son – whose ignorance and arrogance know no bounds; who are out to steal his chair; who treat everyone with complete disdain. The Congress treatment of Sardar Vallabhai Patel – the man who would have controlled Kashmir if he had been prime minister – is a particularly important Modi refrain, suggesting that the Sardar super statue now getting readied in one corner of Gujarat is being earmarked to play a major supporting role in the BJP’s poll arrangements of the near future.

Finally, there is Modi on Modi, the ‘kaamdaar’ against the Congress’s ‘namdaar’, the poor mother’s OBC son from the rural backwaters who works as both chowkidar and the bhagyadar against the “tukde tukde” lot who are out to divide Mother India.

These four main ingredients, used with variations, dashes of regional flavour, a pinch of personal mood – it could be playing martyr one day, or the triumphant hero, the next – along with the conscious excision of contemporary issues that disturb the balance, such as lynching, are what constitutes the archetypal “prime ministerial” disquisition.

What’s interesting to understand about the present moment, though, is not just what Modi’s words are, but whether they are resonating quite as much as they once did with the public. As a commentator in The Wire (‘Trust Vote Victory for BJP Has Also Brought Alliance Woes to the Fore’, July 22) discovered, the common refrain on July 22 after Modi had finished his marathon one-and-a-half hour peroration in the Lok Sabha was that he had tied himself up in knots over performance data, “Janab aankron mein phans gaye!” This while Rahul Gandhi, his upstart opponent, may have actually been successful in unsettling him beginning with a paperless speech and ending with an unreciprocated hug (‘A Memorable Hug in Indian Politics’, July 21).

That Modi was thrown by this crafted, even crafty, demonstration of love was quickly made evident by the uncontrolled aggression with which he responded, descending to mimicking Sonia Gandhi, which made some in his ranks squirm with discomfort. It showed that he was “still in opposition mode despite having ruled for four years” (‘In Modi’s Rhetoric and Silences, More Than a Hint of Unease’, July 21). But will the Congress-centric approach that carved that 2014 general election victory still work for him? According to the piece, ‘The No-Confidence Debate Reveals that 2019 is Far From Settled’ (July 22), it will not. The writer argues that because Modi focuses so much on the Congress, he ends up “reaffirming the Congress’s historical relevance and role”.

Rahul Gandhi hugging Narendra Modi, and winking afterwards. Credit: PTI

Rahul Gandhi hugging Narendra Modi in Lok Sabha, and winking afterwards. Credit: PTI

But the opposition’s greatest gain perhaps was to walk away with an issue that has the potential of haunting the ruling dispensation in the days ahead: the Rafale deal. As The Wire piece, ‘Narendra Modi’s Speech in Parliament Made His 2019 Campaign Priorities Clear’ (July 22) argues, “There is no historical precedent for the price of a fighter jet being kept a secret. The matter is being examined by the comptroller and auditor general currently. Why HAL was jettisoned and Reliance brought in as a partner in the eleventh hour also needs explanation.” Tricky questions that prompted one writer to see it as BJP’s “Bofors” (‘Is the Rafale Deal Turning out to Be BJP’s Bofors Moment?’, July 26).

The great irony is that while the mainstream media was on the frontlines in exposing the Bofors scam of the 1980s, even to the point of ensuring the defeat of the Congress party in the 1989 general election, today they are far happier doing – after all these years – evergreen “exclusives” on Bofors, rather than potentially fly into trouble in Rafale jets.

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What’s up with WhatsApp?

Tech issues tend to be gobbledygook to most readers, especially if it they are further mystified by issues of law, which is why I found the piece with the alluring title, ‘If Whatsapp Were to be Put on Trial, What Would Its Offence Be?’ (July 25) worth a second read. The two law students who wrote this piece smartly called out the government’s many-layered bluff on its response to the rise in mob hate crimes.

First, instead of dealing with lynching as a crime, the government focuses attention on the alleged cause of the crime, i.e., fake news. It then places the responsibility for fake news, not on the creators of fake news, but on the platform that disseminates it – WhatsApp. Simultaneously, in the name of addressing fake news, it demands increased access to the data handled by the platform while at the same time failing to describe what it means by “fake news”. If the contours of the offence remain undefined in a manner free of bias, the writers argue, “it is highly unlikely that charging WhatsApp as an abettor is a workable strategy” and it could in fact be a route to indirect state control of media content.

I agree with the general argument the authors make but they could have also simultaneously critiqued the supersmart marketing techniques of WhatsApp – or rather of Facebook which owns it – that allowed what was meant to be a free, simple, texting device to mutate into a full blown media platform, through access to limitless chats and quick forwards. Without business strategising, WhatsApp could not have emerged as the biggest story- and video-sharing platform in a country where 200 million use it, most of them without a modicum of understanding of net etiquette or ethics.

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My mail bag was a mixed one this time. On the one hand, The Wire received a very pleased response from a contributor, on the way his piece (‘The Battle That the Victors Lost: The Artistic Legacy of the Spanish Civil War’, July 22) was presented: “I cannot thank you all enough for so beautifully presenting my piece on the Spanish Civil War. The second part looked so much better after its very imaginative recasting. Also grateful for correcting my error: I didn’t know the Guernica tapestry hangs inside the Security Council chamber, and not outside it.

On the other hand was a response from a very irate Anand Grover, senior Supreme Court advocate and director of the Lawyer’s Collective (India), who found serious biases in the piece, ‘Experts Oppose Proposed Anti-Trafficking Bill, Ask for It to Be Sent to Standing Committee’ (July 19), based on a press conference in which 10 groups had participated. He mailed, “There were a large number of speakers at the press conference but what they said did not get reflected in the story, with only one group’s opinions largely reflected. This is in contrast to other mainstream newspaper reports, which presented the full diversity of views on the issue – which was ultimately the message of the press conference. The Wire should have taken care to check the piece for accuracy and balanced reporting at the editorial stage so that the reporter understands the importance of being true to the facts placed in the public domain.”

In another mail, The Wire reader R. Joseph from Mumbai, believes that there has been “a drastic fall in reader responses, even for many popular articles.” While he doesn’t know the reasons for this in the case of other letter writers, in his case he says his “comments have been pending moderation for months; one being to the article ‘In 27 By-Elections Across 15 States Since 2014, Story of BJP Decline Writ Large’ by The Wire Staff (June 6), and under the profile name of RJ.” He believes that the issue warrants a check of The Wire’s website systems so that course correction measures can be put in place.

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Last question: Does every report, op-ed, editorial, caption on Imran Khan, prime minister designate of Pakistan, have to come with a cricket metaphor attached to it? Is this clever, or just lazy, journalism? Glad to note that The Wire’s copydesk resisted the temptation to bowl us over (oops!) with cricketing allusions for the stories it carried on him.

Write to publiceditor@thewire.in