I’m a sucker for a good speech.
I remember the 2001 day George W. Bush was inaugurated as US president — but I don’t remember what he said. Rather, I remained glued to the departing Bill Clinton’s every word; they practically pushed him into the plane to get him to leave Washington, and even then, he was still talking.
Over the last few months, the art of oration has taken on a new dimension, thanks to an entrant on the US political scene named Barack Obama whose words penetrate the very bone.
I know. Two years ago last month, two years before he’d become the Democratic nominee for president, Obama was the guest speaker at my younger brother’s college graduation. He said, and I quote, even as I cringe at whittling his words to just these gems: “...we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained.
“...I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. ...It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential — and become full-grown...the choice is yours. Will the years pass with barely a whisper from your generation? Or will we look back on this time as the moment where you took a stand and changed the world?”
After the ceremony, I hugged my idealistic baby brother and whispered, “I don’t think that consulting job was for you.” I credit Obama’s speech for giving him the guts to quit a year later and join an education non-profit.
Fast forward to last week, when I found myself following Rahul Gandhi on the campaign trail in Amethi, Uttar Pradesh, his home constituency. I waited and waited for the new dynamism all the world reported he would display. His youth and personable style had led some to dub Gandhi the “Indian Barack Obama”.
And then came this week, where for two days, we Indians glued ourselves to Lok Sabha television. And what became evident, amid the theatrics and allegations of corruption and bad governance, is that our politicians are terrible communicators. Definitely with each other (Rahul Gandhi and Manmohan Singh being the most obviously harassed and heckled) but, more importantly, with us.
You might say: It’s all a show anyway. It doesn’t matter. They are just enacting a drama for the cameras. Only the poor vote anyway.
Yet, the poor are the ones who most deserve the direction and inspiration that words can offer. In Gandhi’s case last week, he seemed sincere enough but his self-admitted “plain speaking” style feels of the tenor one would use to give directions to the nearest petrol pump. And the people of Amethi— who want their populist politician to give, give, give — could have used some straight yet supportive talk that motivated hem to seize control of their destiny. They have roads, schools, hospitals, they even have industry. How about a modification of US president John F. Kennedy’s famous challenge: Say, “Ask not what Rahul Gandhi can do for Amethi, but what Amethi can do for Amethi”. You get the drift.
And in his speech this week before Parliament, one oddly lauded in the press, Gandhi should have let his voice rise and roar above the din of protesters. He should not have paused for the umpteenth time and looked to the lovably bumbling Speaker Somnath Chatterjee — and then a lunch break — to save him. A raging Rahul, now that would have sent a message.
Notice, for example, that Lalu Prasad drew no such interruptions. I understood little of what he said (and my colleague who sits next to me insists the railway minister cannot be translated). And why did the House remain attentive as Jammu and Kashmir’s Omar Abdullah raced against a clock to swear never again to align with the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance?
There is a reason that Toastmasters, the non-profit group that educates on public speaking, claims its mission is “Creating Speakers. Creating Leaders.” In Parliament, as in the corporate board room, the way we present our ideas says much about how we lead.
For this government, there is little time left. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who I once encountered and found to be fabulously charming one-on-one but morose and meek before large gatherings, began to show signs of a shift in speech style, or at least substance, as he lashed out at BJP leader L.K. Advani and advised him to get a new astrologer. Let’s hope Singh really rushes reforms and effects change now, the proverbial walk matching the talk. As for the heir to the party? Since Abdullah doesn’t stand a chance, it’s time to start scouting the Toastmasters.
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