Pavan Varma | A PM’s poll speeches, sense and sensibility

The Asian Age.  | Pavan Varma

Opinion, Columnists

Despite his speechcraft, PM Modi’s avoidance of open press conferences raises transparency and accountability questions.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses a public meeting for the Lok Sabha elections, in Mandi district, Friday, May 24, 2024. (PTI Photo)


I think everybody — even among his most trenchant critics — will concede that Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi is an orator par excellence. Words, phrases, the apt quote, evocative vocabulary often enriched by local flavour is a gift he is born with.  Some people say that he uses a teleprompter, but even if he does for certain occasions, the number of speeches he gives in one day itself, is proof enough that his talents as an orator transcend the aid of a teleprompter.

Earlier, the star speaker in the BJP, who could mesmerise audiences with his use of humour, irony, facts, poetry, and turn of phrase, was Atal Behari Vajpayee. I recall when he came to Cyprus as PM in 2002, where I was the high commissioner, his first programme was a speech to the Indian diaspora, numbering thousands of young professionals in the IT sector. Vajpayee was in frail health. To come down from the Prime Ministerial plane, a hydraulic lift had to be used, since his knees were giving trouble. 

When we reached his suite, I reminded him that in the convention hall of the hotel, the Indian diaspora was waiting for him.  I still remember his asking me: “Kya mujhe kuch bolna bhi padega? Will I be expected to address them?” I replied that they had been waiting for hours just for that.  He was visibly tired, but as we approached the venue, we could hear rousing slogans of “Atal Behari zindabad”, and Atalji visibly perked up. He received an uproarious welcome, and then, notwithstanding his fatigue, spoke for 40 minutes, keeping the audience spell bound, and often in splits of laughter. It was quite a feat. 

Narendra Modi has similar qualities of vak shakti, the power of speech. That is why I wonder why he has never in the 10 years that he has been PM, ever given an open press conference, where the questions have not been provided in advance, or the interlocutor(s) is not someone chosen by his media team. It appears to be a transparently choreographed interaction, very different from the normal and spontaneous media questioning in a democracy.

I have seen most of the PM’s interviews, both in print and on TV. He speaks well, but those who are interviewing him, are far too deferential, though they may appear to be asking “tough” questions. What happens in such staged interviews, with pre-selected anchors, is that the PM is more or less assured that no uncomfortable or acrimonious situation will arise, and certainly no hostile question will be asked.  

Frankly, I believe this is detrimental to the PM’s image. He should be far more open to public and genuinely democratic questioning. A monologue, where only he is talking, or an interaction with chosen interrogators diminishes his credibility. All previous PMs in our country — like executive heads in other democracies — have faced their critics in open media debates. In fact, Atalji once reprimanded a very popular journalist for not asking him the really tough questions. He said this was a violation of the essential credo of a free and fearless press. 

Equally, some of Mr Modi’s recent public speeches have unfortunately derogated from the image of a statesman that he cherishes. Unfounded allegations, personalised attacks, rampantly communal statements, even sometimes bafflingly incoherent remarks, have tarnished him and the post of the PM. 

Here are some examples of his utterances. On April 21, he said in Banswara in Rajasthan, that the Congress planned to seize and redistribute wealth to “infiltrators” and “those who have more children”. This was transparently a reference to Muslims. To call a sizeable section of Indian citizens “infiltrators”, was not only reprehensible, but also a direct violation of the Model Code of Conduct, which explicitly prohibits any statements that “may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes, communities, religious or linguistic”. The very next day in Aligarh, UP, while addressing a rally, he said: “I want to warn my countrymen. Congress and INDIA alliance have their eyes on your earnings and property… Our mothers and sisters have gold. It is “streedhan”, it is considered sacred; the law also protects it. Now these people’s eyes are on the mangalsutra of women. Their intention is to steal the gold of mothers and sisters.”

On April 23, at a public meeting in Tonk-Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, he made the claim that “if you have a box in your home in which you store bajra grain that would be subjected to an X-ray (by the Congress).  If you have two houses, and they spot that in their X-ray, one would be taken away by the government”.  To my mind, this is an untruth — since the Congress manifesto says nothing of this sort — and unbecoming caricature. On May 8, at a rally in Telangana, the PM said: “Ever since elections have been announced, these people (Congress) have stopped abusing Ambani and Adani.  I want to ask…how much has been lifted from Ambani-Adani?  Has tempo loads of notes reached the Congress?” Such a statement is startling, both because it is untrue — Rahul Gandhi has continued his diatribe against the Ambani-Adani duo — and also because the PM admits that black money, far from being eradicated, as he has claimed, is available to be sent in tempos. I am told, that as a result of this accusation by none less than the PM, international investors — very sensitive to such allegations — have ordered a forensic audit of the Adani-Ambani groups.  And, finally, on May 22, Mr Modi actually said in an interview to News18, that he does not believe he was “biologically born”, but is a divine presence!

These are truly inexplicable statements. Once again, the comparison with Atalji comes to mind. Anyone who has followed his speeches, will find it difficult to point out an undignified statement. His speech in Parliament in 1998, when he lost the mandate by one vote, should be mandatory reading for all aspiring politicians. 

If the BJP comes back to power, as seems likely given the weakness of the Opposition, Modiji would do well to remember the vital difference between a successful political leader and a statesman.