One was speaking from Delhi’s Lal Qila, a 17th century fort built by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan as his residence.
The other was speaking from a more recent edifice, the RR Lalan College in Bhuj, Gujarat, that was established in 1953.
One was delivering his 10th address as Prime Minister. No one, other than Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Indira Gandhi, his daughter, has delivered more.
The other was delivering a speech that he hoped would teleport him to New Delhi, in time for him to speak to the country from Lal Qila next year.
Whichever way you look at it, the speeches of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi (who is wont to speak of Gujarat as if it is a different country) were a study in contrast.
First, the superficial bits.
Singh’s speech lasted 31 minutes. Modi’s, 48 minutes.
Singh spoke to an audience comprising cabinet ministers, diplomats, children from schools and some members of the public. Modi’s audience was made up of mainly locals from Kutch, BJP party workers and politicians from the area.
Both spoke in Hindi.
The Prime Minister was dressed in white kurta pyjama, dark blue jacket and his trademark light blue turban.
The Gujarat chief minister wore a white festive kurta pyjama, a white stole and a red turban.
Singh’s voice was its usual wheezy self. (We wonder why Indian politicians can’t take speaking and intonation lessons. Remember The King’s Speech and Margaret Thatcher?)
Modi’s voice was stronger, his delivery more forceful.
The Prime Minister’s speech
Singh started off by acknowledging the havoc in Uttarakhand and the accident involving submarine Sindhurakshak on Wednesday, but his speech had three broad themes. It mentioned the contribution of Nehru (institution- and nation-building, central planning, industrialization); Indira Gandhi (space exploration, the Green Revolution); Rajiv Gandhi (technological and economic modernization, Panchayati Raj); and P.V. Narasimha Rao (liberalization). In a footnote of sorts, he also mentioned his own government in this section (inclusion, economic growth, entitlements). Interestingly (or expectedly, depending on how one looks at it), he ignored the contribution of what is perhaps the most reform-minded government India has ever had, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance that governed India between 1999 and 2004, effectively setting the stage for those who came later to reap the benefits of 8%-plus growth.
He then segued rather well into his second theme, a detailed description of the achievements of his government: the food security Bill, agriculture, Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the decline in poverty levels, Right to Education Act, National Rural Health Mission, and “good progress” in “the infrastructure sector”.
The third theme of his speech can broadly be described as the challenges India faces.
Singh spoke of slowing growth (he promised it wouldn’t last), national security (he referred to Pakistan but didn’t indulge in the kind of chest-thumping bravado that wouldn’t have been out of place on Independence Day (and would have pleased the masses), corruption (he said the Right to Information Act and the work-in-progress Lokpal legislation would help), hurdles that have stalled projects, and slowing foreign investment.
The speech ended, as speeches are wont to end, on a high note: “If in the future, we can achieve the same kind of progress as in the last decade, the day is not far off when India will be rid of poverty, hunger, disease and ignorance. Our India will be prosperous and all its citizens will be equal partners in this prosperity, irrespective of their religion, caste, region or language. We will also need to build an environment of political stability, social cohesion and security for this to happen. Let us all re-dedicate ourselves to building such an India together.”
Narendra Modi’s speech
First, a disclosure. We did listen to Modi’s speech, and we also saw liveposts on it on www.niticentral.com and a fairly extensive report in news.oneindia.in but we could not find a transcript of the address.
Modi had several things working for him. He spoke after the Prime Minister, and could tweak his speech in response to Singh’s (like he did when he pointed to the lack of mention of people across the country who responded energetically and generously to the natural disaster at Uttarakhand, and to the lack of specifics on what exactly the Prime Minister planned to do about Pakistan, which has, in recent days, ratcheted up the intensity of its anti-India campaign).
Modi also had the advantage of being in the Opposition (which meant he could criticise the government, and, as we all know, there are a lot of things the current government can be criticized for), and at a stage in the run-up to the elections where he doesn’t really need to focus on the specifics. Peppering his speech with statistics from Gujarat (a state he has ruled since 2001), Modi pressed all the right buttons: employment, development, corruption, the weak rupee (“Please tell us how you will strengthen the rupee,” he said).
He spoke of corruption, and according to niticentral, likened “each incident to a serial on television… they earlier involved uncles and nephews” (a dig at Pawan Kumar Bansal, the former rail minister whose nephew was at the centre of a cash-for-jobs scandal), which “has changed (to) saas, bahu aur damaad” (mother-in-law, daughter-in-law and son-in-law—a dig at Robert Vadra, the son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who is at the centre of a controversy over his dealings with real estate company DLF Ltd).
Modi also put himself at the forefront of India’s ongoing issues with Pakistan (Gujarat, he said, was closer to Pakistan than Delhi), and also mentioned China’s incursions into Indian territory and the shooting of Indian fishermen by Italian marines. And he criticised the food security legislation for not being inclusive enough.
Interestingly, he praised President Pranab Mukherjee’s speech on the eve of Independence Day, that seemed to present a far truer picture of the country’s problems than Singh’s speech.
All of this was delivered in a style Modi has made his own—part impassioned (when talking about a larger vision), part nationalistic, even jingoistic (when speaking of India’s security), and part bantering (when criticizing the government, Singh, or Sonia Gandhi).
Fortunately (or unfortunately; again, depending on how you look at it), elections aren’t won or lost on the strength of speeches, but Modi’s definitely had the edge.
Still, we believe both speakers missed an opportunity. Singh, in presenting an accurate picture of the mess the country finds itself in, and his gameplan for getting out of it. And Modi, in articulating his policies (especially economic and foreign) for India.
Maybe both are saving it for the national debate that Modi challenged Singh to in his speech.