This was a debate on a no-confidence motion, watched live by 1.25 billion in India and several million NRIs & Indian-origin people around the world.
Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s startling gig in Parliament on Friday is still on everybody’s minds. While other speakers came armed with trolleys of hard copy to back each thunderous claim, Rahul Gandhi’s photogenic dimples alone provided most quotes, statistics and full stops to his charges. Meanwhile, Sonia Gandhi chewed something at a furious pace and thumped hard each time her son stopped — as his speech tutors had taught him — for a “dramatic pause”. Even some Congress MPs wore stony looks.
Forget the Cuddle and the Wink: there are more serious questions. One that for Congress supporters should be particularly important, given the so-called Grand Opposition Coalition that Mr Gandhi’s Congress is a part of and whose only common denominator and chief goal so far is to topple Prime Minister Narendra Modi next year.
It’s a “mahagathbandhan” of disparate — but fiercely ambitious — partners. They were present in full force, some almost certainly incubating preconditions of getting the highest executive office themselves.
This was a debate on a no-confidence motion, watched live by 1.25 billion in India and several million NRIs and Indian-origin people around the world. If proxy voting is allowed, many of the NRIs will cast them with gusto in May 2019.
Given this overall scenario, and be it the BJP or the Congress, wouldn’t any party field its best gladiators?
If it was the Congress’ cause that it must be the party’s PM “candidate” alone to take centrestage at the debate, then it was badly misplaced. This was a Parliament debate, not an election rally.
While Mr Gandhi squinted, glared, squared his jaw and hurled mismatched Lego bricks of charges at Mr Modi in Hinglish, India’s best orator in shuddh Hindi listened, caught the most colourful pieces, and — waited.
What makes a good speech? A strong voice helps, a wavering falsetto does not. Pithy arguments, ready facts spoken, not read off paper, lend gravitas, vague promises to provide them if needed, do not.
A key weapon is the dramatic pause, but always followed by an astounding conclusion, resounding hilarity or a bon mot, not a damp squib.
There must be a rousing beginning, a coordinated crescendo and an inspiring end, not a series of weak bangs ending in ineffective whimpers.
Finally, and in whichever language one chooses to speak — and I disagree strongly with Hindi-only proponents here — it is best to stick to one.
Mr Gandhi’s Hinglish ended up sending a teetotaller PM to a “bar” instead of “overseas”, and was unintended stand-up at its best.
Rahul Gandhi has worked at politics diligently and for 14 long years. He may mean well and is, from my few social encounters where he was present, an unassuming, archetypal “nice guy”. But while Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi were thoroughbred PM material, even many of his well-wishers admit that for all Rahul Gandhi’s likeability, he is simply not the stuff that statesmen are made of.
At an important debate like this, it’s a given that the defending BJP would entrust the crowning arguments to its best speaker, Prime Minister Modi.
Love him or hate him, and no matter how many invisible prompters may be off-camera, Mr Modi mostly speaks extempore. And even his bitterest rivals won’t deny their grudging admiration for the modulation, sequence, eloquence, wit and flourish of his speeches.
So why on earth did the Congress pick Rahul Gandhi?
In the Congress Party, it will always be a Gandhi to stake claim to the PM’s chair. It will always be a Gandhi — and they do photograph well — as the face of the Congress. But must the voice of the Congress Party always be a Gandhi too?
Shashi Tharoor will never be an apex candidate. But he could have delivered a thunderous speech in an English as eloquent as Mr Modi’s Hindi, on behalf of the Congress.
Abhishek “Manu” Singhvi will never climb that high either. But his party could have fielded his cutting-edge delivery, to make its case effectively.
Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jairam Ramesh, Salman Khurshid, Sachin Pilot and many other Congresspersons will continue to be ignored for the top post. But their prowess at oration could have countered Mr Modi and the BJP’s raft of good speakers impressively.
There are many silver-tongued, erudite debaters in the Congress, for whom public speaking is second nature. Where were they?
By ignoring such an A-list, the Congress lost an invaluable opportunity last week. It may have also dug a clumsy dagger into potential coalition prospects, even before the campaigning begins.
After the debate, my driver (and BJP voter) Anil Kumar of Delhi had a pertinent question for me.
“Why can’t the Congress make Rahul Gandhi only the “chehra” (face) of the party, just like they did to Manmohan Singh Sahib?”
He meant no disrespect to the former Prime Minister, but had a valid point.
If the Congress wants to storm into election mode with full fury and thunder, it would be best advised to field its immense and vastly experienced talent pool of speakers outside of the Gandhis and retain the Congress president as its face, but not its voice. (At least as long as it is Narendra Modi who will be taking to the other mike).