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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Why Kanhaiya Kumar is dangerous for Narendra Modi
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Why Kanhaiya Kumar is dangerous for Narendra Modi

The three best speakers of our time are Bal Thackeray, Lalu Prasad and Narendra Modi, but Kanhaiya, rustic in delivery, intellectual and highly aware, trumps them all

Kanhaiya has something no other speaker in India has today—romance. Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan TimesPremium
Kanhaiya has something no other speaker in India has today—romance. Photo: Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times

It will interest readers to know that the highest paid professionals in ancient Greece were sophists. These men taught rhetoric and reasoning to the sons of the Athenian rich. I read in one of the Platonic dialogues, I think it is Protagoras, that fees for their tutorials and lectures could go into the millions in modern money. This is in the decades just before Aristotle, so what the sophists taught was a jumble of rhetoric and geometry and astronomy and theology and poetry all rolled into one. But the most important bit was learning how to think and speak.

Under their jury system, Athenians had to defend themselves, or pay someone to do it, so there was money to be made in such learning. Of course, the most important place to deploy verbal and logical skills was in politics. It is not without reason that we have lost so much material from that period—only one full trilogy of the tragedies of Aeschylus survives, and if I am not mistaken we have only Aristotle’s notes on The Organon and none of his lectures—but we still have in full Demosthenes’ attacks on Alexander’s father (the Philippics).

Romans set great store by oratory, as we know, and Quintilian’s textbooks on the subject tell us how seriously it was studied. Great moments of Roman history are punctuated by someone mounting the forum and letting rip in public, like Brutus and Cassius after dispatching the tyrant.

Speakers were classified by their style. Of Julius Caesar’s prose it was noted by Cicero (minister Smriti Irani no doubt already knows this) that it was beautiful and unadorned, like a Greek statue. Meaning clean, spare and lean, without adjectives and self-reference. In his writing, Caesar does not puff up his own role in The Civil Wars or his classic first work, The Gallic Wars.

Thucydides writes in his History Of The Peloponnesian War of the demagogue, i.e., “mob leader", Cleon, who constantly goads the Athenians to war through his speeches. I should add that unlike our fraud Hindutva demagogues, who wage war on our own people and are all talk and no action (mercifully) when it comes to Pakistan, Cleon is different. Thucydides writes that he takes up generalship and quickly settles a battle most believed to be unwinnable. Even so he is attacked, and the playwright Aristophanes skewers him mercilessly for his speeches.

I am writing all this because of Kanhaiya Kumar’s speech at the Jawaharlal Nehru University on his return. Why is it important? Many Indians have been anguished at events in our country. They saw their views mumbled, hedged, needlessly qualified, or put forth inarticulately in Parliament (child prodigy Rahul G as usual doing a shabby job) and on television. Kanhaiya’s full-throated and lyrical stand was like the rain on parched earth.

In his superb work Crowds And Power, Elias Canetti describes the crowd-building and unity of sentiment that such a gathering produces (and which always dissipates when the speech ends).

But here I am not writing about its import so much as the style of Kanhaiya’s speaking, his oratory.

I have long felt that the three best orators of our time are Bal Thackeray, Lalu Prasad and Narendra Modi. Thackeray was the best of the lot: unpredictable (I heard him screaming at 50,000 Marathis in Mumbai’s Shivaji Park in 1995 because Enron’s Rebecca Mark had visited him that morning and his neighbours had left their undies drying on their balconies), animated and very funny. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the person many consider good, I do not rate highly and more about that some other time.

Writing in The Indian Express (“Reverse Swing: The Beauty Of Sedition", 6 March), Tunku Varadarajan said: “Of those in office today, Narendra Modi is India’s orator-in-chief, in spite of a tendency toward self-congratulation. He can mesmerise a crowd, his words a mixture of promise and menace. His granite face and bearing add to the effect of authority. Lalu Prasad is a favourite: not for his message, which is provincial and bogus, but for his jaunty folksiness, his devil-may-care phrasing, and his obvious glee in playing the bumpkin who steals a march on city-folk."

Lalu Prasad has the ability, like the terrific stand-up comic Raju Srivastava, to transcend class and appeal to those who do not engage with his material intellectually (because it is basic and reductionist) but can appreciate the quality of the delivery.

Modi does not have this ability. The intelligent Indian is put off by him because substantially he is thin and unoriginal. Also, to those of us who observe and understand these things, stylistically he is exaggerated (like an actor of Bengali jatra or Ram-Leela). He is great, according to me, because he is popular. What he does is heroic bombast.

His quality lies in energy, good reduction, and in excellent and memorable coinage. Unfortunately for him, this last bit also leaves him vulnerable to being skewered because it can be identified as being jumlebaazi (catch-phrasing). He is heavily self-referential and that also in the third person.

What about Kanhaiya? He is better than the three men I named above. He is rustic in delivery, intellectual as a PhD scholar will be, and highly aware. He avoids much reference to himself. He is relaxed and has lovely body language. Writing for the Mint website, Rajyasree Sen observed something crucial: “But a fresh-faced, clean-shaven Kanhaiya standing up, not whining about how he’d been beaten up by lawyers or made to dress up absurdly in riot gear while entering court, renewed my faith in student politics...."

That restraint is important. Speaking like that, for 48 minutes straight at an important moment, when the world is watching, when the heart is racing, is difficult. It requires control and pacing. Mere passion is not enough. It looks easy to the TV audience but it is not of course. It takes talent. I cannot do it and I have been speaking in public for 25 years.

Was Kanhaiya’s success a one-off? No. His interview with CNN-IBN’s Bhupendra Chaubey (who is genuinely bilingual and therefore questioned him best) showed the same restraint, thoughtfulness, forgiveness and charm. And it showed clarity and consistency. Kanhaiya can reframe the argument brilliantly on his terms. His reductions are difficult to argue against.

This is a dangerous man. Modi should get his people to back off, ignore him and get him off the channels (even though that may now be hard, it will become easier if they do not provoke him further). Kanhaiya has the ability to engage the intellectual and the crowd. He has something no other speaker in India has today: romance. He can drive the stake in cleanly and repeatedly, as he showed us in one magical night.

The peasants are in rebellion from Haryana to Gujarat to Andhra Pradesh. The Dalits are seething at the doings of Bharatiya Janata Party MPs and ministers. The Adivasis are being trampled on by this government (see Nitin Sethi’s vital reporting in Business Standard). The Muslims are being bullied, cruelly and insensitively.

The country is ready for someone to mount the forum.

Aakar Patel is executive director of Amnesty International India. The views expressed here are personal. He tweets at aakar_amnesty.

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Published: 11 Mar 2016, 11:32 AM IST
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