“There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face,” wrote Shakespeare. Present-day scholars would disagree. Desmond Morris’s classic People Watching, Albert Mehrabian’s widely discussed Silent Messages and Paul Ekman’s extremely influential Emotions Revealed all suggest that our body language affords a fundamental glimpse into our thought processes. Stances, gait, facial expressions and hand gestures in the species Homo sapiens each tell their own fascinating story. Today, there’s a burgeoning global industry devoted to decoding the tell-tale signs of emotional attitude, especially where public figures are concerned. Consider, for instance, the media attention showered on Michelle Obama’s on-camera eye-roll at a bipartisan congressional lunch earlier this year. Interpretations of this single ocular act ranged from suggestions that the American First Lady had bad table manners to assertions that she was sceptical, distracted, amused, disgusted or surprised. Another recent furore involved Bill Gates’s one-handed handshake with the South Korean prime minister, his left hand casually resting in his pocket. Was Gates being disrespectful or just being himself? Was this a clash between Asian and western values or merely much ado about nothing?
It is a widely held perception that political talk in our own country has become progressively shriller. Every community is prone to instant insult and every higher-up delighted when his feet are caressed by the not-so-elevated. Perhaps we can lower the temperature a bit without necessarily becoming anodyne if we look at these issues from a somewhat different angle. The present essay arose out of a conversation with a colleague, Snehlata Jaswal, an experimental psychologist. We’d both independently observed, like many others, that Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, also the bjp’s potential face for PM, had a particular ability to make himself the cynosure of all eyes. Several reasons could be adduced for this: the general political climate, the current crises of leadership in the BJP, as well the media amplification of Modi’s activities. However, the media had to have something to amplify in the first place. What was this?
Our impression was that Modi offered a textbook example of how verbal as well as non-verbal language is deployed in present-day politics, of how a dominant persona can suddenly emerge centrestage in the hurly-burly of a pre-election year where many narratives compete for attention. I should clarify at the outset that the aim of this article is certainly not to forecast Modi’s political future or to compare him with Rahul Gandhi. This I leave to the pundits. Instead, I wish to suggest through the preliminary research presented here that the discourse of politics shares a large, mostly unexplored boundary with other modes of thought.
First, the famous ‘polarisation’ always mentioned in connection with Modi would be related to patterns in his language output, since language is the main medium the human species use to their structure the world. Second, socially tense situations in this ‘world’, such as the one that surround Modi, are likely to arouse the basic fight-or-flight reactions which have evolved over millions of years. In the case of Modi’s very noticeable facial and hand gestures, our conjecture was that we would see more ‘fight’ gestures in conformity with the famous representation created by brain scientist Wilder Penfield. Third, the performative dimensions of both language and gesture, we hypothesised, were likely to be quite enhanced in the political arena, giving us the opportunity to observe the relationship between thoughts and emotions and their on-record public expressions that Darwin thought was so critical to the evolution of human societies across the globe. The research presented here examines one our most-watched politicians along three axes—the linguistic, the gestural and the performative.
Making Every Bias Show, Count By Word Count
An analysis of 68 speeches translated into English on Modi's website shows how often he uses certain words and themes, and avoids others. He doesn't utter 'Hindu' even once; 'Development' appears 534 times
Language Lessons: In this part of our study, we initiated our enquiries into Modi’s language by downloading a substantialnumber of the speeches over the past two years from his official website this May and undertaking a simple analysis of the main themes repeated therein. Perhaps the single most striking fact we immediately discovered was that the word ‘Hindu’ did not even occur once in all the 290 pages of text we analysed. As we investigated the case of this missing word further, here are just some of the regularities we found. Emergent from the word counts analysed was a strong pattern of contrasts in Modi’s speeches. That is, as our bar-graphs demonstrate, one in every pair of vocabulary items outperforms its counterpart by an extremely significant statistical margin: for example, global versus local; industry/business versus labour; power (not the hydroelectric sort, which we factored out) versus money; youth versus age; poor versus rich; and technology versus the social sciences.
A determined effort to include women is revealed in the bar-graphs on gender. Women, these graphs show, are mostly seen in relational terms (sisters, mothers, daughters) except for the ubiquitous use of the term ‘ladies’, which appears to be a polite way of referring to working women. References to men and brothers, understandably, outnumber ones to women and sisters. To me, perhaps the most interesting feature hidden away in this gender-chart is that sons are mentioned twice as often as daughters.
Other observations arising from these counts concern the social linkages made between region, nation and faith. Here we notice at once that ‘Gujarat’ occurs far more frequently than ‘India’ in Modi’s speeches. Now, this in itself might not be revelatory since many of these speeches were delivered to Gujarati audiences, but it does indicate that ‘India’ is (or was, till now) for the most part refracted through the lens of Gujarat. Indeed, several speeches end with the ringing call ‘Jai Gujarat’—not necessarily extending to ‘Jai Bharat’, as exemplified in Modi’s long speech on Gandhi on May 1, 2010.
In this speech, Gandhi appears, in Modi’s vision, firmly ensconced within a ‘Mahatma Mandir’ in Gandhinagar. Thus, while ‘Hindu’ might have been a missing term, we did discover a significant number of references to temples and mandirs, though none to mosques. Correlating this with other patterns in Modi’s text, however, we found that the crucial Gandhian virtue of tolerance was by far the lowest on the roster of positive emotional attitudes (happiness, hope) alluded to.
Among the ‘negative’ emotions similarly mentioned by Modi, ‘anger’ and ‘fear’ were the most frequent, in contrast to ‘shame’, which occurred only thrice, and ‘guilt’, which like those other missing words ‘Hindu’ and ‘mosque’ did not occur at all. ‘Peace’ often figured as an ideal but so did ‘victory’ and ‘fight’, which notions will soon bring us to the next section of this essay concerning the import of ‘fight or flight’ gestures in the political arena.
Overall, from the evidence of this ‘language’ section, we might argue that the persistent pattern of very extreme contrasts we have found in Modi’s speeches sets up an interesting conceptual tension between opposites and, consequently, as we had hypothesised, a perceived ‘polarisation’. Rather than discursively interpret these rather compelling contrastive results further, let me, then, just point out that they are very likely a strong factor influencing the public impression of Modi as a sublimely focused leader with a singularly prophetic vision about the direction in which he is headed. At the same time, the sharp verbal divergences found in Modi’s speech could indicate a personality unwilling or unable to engage in nuanced dialogue and debate, with a limited and unipolar view of the world.
Genetic Gestures: In the long history of human communication, gesture preceded language by at least 50,000 years. When language developed, this basic non-verbal system continued to support and augment our talk, often revealing the instinctive fight or flight reactions that our more ‘intentional’ spoken words did not. It is the hidden set of relationships between gestures, feelings and worldview that, as mentioned earlier, Darwin put on the research agenda of psychobiology more than a century ago. It has also turned out since Darwin’s time that our brains pay vastly more attention to some parts of our bodies (notably, hands, mouth and eyes) than to others whether we are consciously aware of these effects or not.
The research for this section of the essay was initiated by first simultaneously downloading over a hundred photographs of Modi and Nitish Kumar in early May. Based on these downloads, we made an initial categorisation of facial expressions and gestures and found startling differences between Modi and Nitish’s physical stances. In terms of facial expressions, Modi displays a very serious demeanour most of the time as opposed to Nitish. His repertoire of gestures is also far more versatile.
The ‘social tension’ indicated in our second hypothesis is thus very much in evidence in the photographs we have analysed. While in many respects, Modi conveys the impression of firmly standing his ground and holding his torso and body rock solid, these body stances appear in stark contrast to his expressive ‘hands-on’ talk which can be more or less arranged in a graded series of responses from fight to flight.
Since we found such plausible primary evidence for the classic fight-or-flight responses in our analysis of Modi’s body language, we decided next to test whether audiences perceived these as clearly as we did. Here we designed a series of ‘implicit association tests’ and conducted them in six multiple choice parts that took two or three minutes to complete. These related to a) syllables; b) words; c) sentences; d) speech acts; e) emoticons and f) matching gestures to the politicians who use them.
The basic demographic data (barring names) of our participant volunteers in these tests shows them to be part of that educated, technologically savvy and often young demographic considered an important section of potential Modi-voters. These corroborative surveys again yielded satisfyingly significant results from a statistical point-of-view, showing that our respondents were, by and large, enormously skilled at identifying fight (aggressive) or flight (defensive) gestures, even though they did not know the purpose of our tests and so did not have any inkling about the ‘correct’ answers. Our results suggest that it is quite possible that people are indeed subliminally influenced by a strong ‘fight’ gestural system used by a given politician. However, as mentioned, we also found respondents to be less certain about ‘flee’ gestures, find gestures like the ‘open palm’ ambiguous and often choosing the antonym rather than the target in such cases. In our study, Modi’s were gestures were almost invariably judged to be heavily skewed towards an unambiguous ‘fight’ schema.
Now, we had found our respondents clearly recognised ‘fight’ gestures, overwhelmingly choosing ‘target’ or ‘close to target’ word-to-image matches when presented with verbal or even ‘emoticon’ multiple choices. So our next set of two somewhat more explicit tests asked people to associate the ‘fight’ and ‘flight’ gestures in our stimuli with fully fleshed-out figures. First, with four present-day politicians (the chief ministers of Bihar, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa, all male, all in their 60s and all voted in for at least two terms); and second, we also asked respondents to associate these with four nationally recognised leaders of a bygone era.
As our bar-graph demonstrates, people significantly associate the first three fight gestures with Modi rather than any other politician. Interestingly, the ambiguous ‘hands in front of face’ gesture is also attributed to him, although in this case, we have to record that some participants recognised Modi since his face was partly visible. But this would indicate that they had in fact already noticed that this gesture was characteristically a ‘Modi’ one. In short, whether it is ‘fight’ signal or ‘flight’ (for example, a defensive arms across chest), in general it appears that people pay far more attention to Modi’s body language than to any other current politician.
Now And Then
Modi is more demonstrative but less open. From the old guard, only Sardar Patel comes close
With regard to the association of the fight-or-flight gestures with iconic political leaders of the past (Netaji Subhash Bose, Sardar Patel, Pandit Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi), my hypothesis was that very few of the gestures we studied in today’s politicians would be found during the Gandhi-Nehru era, as the Congress was then unchallenged and the strong regional pulls that we have today were absent. This paucity of peer rivalry would imply that fewer ‘fight’ gestures would be on display then, a hunch that was confirmed when we looked at the archive of photographs of the four chosen politicians from that period.
What is noteworthy is that this lack of visual evidence nevertheless does not appear in the least to prevent people from constructing a persuasive narrative of ‘strong’ (fight) and ‘weak’ (flight) gestures which they associate with national leaderships, past and present. This lends considerable credence to our basic hypothesis that language and gesture powerfully intertwine to influence our political allegiances and the choices we make, or, to put it more bluntly, how we vote. The next section and final section is on the narrative ‘performativity’, surely an essential an element of political success.
Formative Performatives: From Sigmund Freud to Erik Erikson to Slavoj Zizek, psychoanalysts have all repeated in one way or another Wordsworth’s haunting slogan that “the child is father of the man”. This may be true but recovering the formative psyche persona of a political leader is no mean challenge. In Modi’s case, we have only a few photographs and even fewer introspective accounts in the public domain recording his youth for us. Yet, the little that we do have speaks for itself.
This section introduces us to an earnest boy in a home-guard uniform; a student assaying the part of a brave Kathiawar chieftain in a school play; a young man with his hand upraised in a characteristic debating gesture and, finally, a full-bearded visage that it is hard not to describe as brooding. How do we read these ‘actorly’ images? In this last section, we return to our third hypothesis that the performative dimensions of both language and gesture are likely to be significantly enhanced in the political arena. We also seek to relate this theory to our second hypothesis, outlined in the previous section, that any political ‘action’ is inherently stressful as the political actor is always under surveillance, his ‘image’ being online and on screen 24x7.
Modi has of course been emphatic on the matter in his much-cited interview with Karan Thapar: “I have not spent a single minute on my image...I am dedicated to Gujarat. I never talk about my image.” Now, the second and third of these declarations may well be true, but the first is more problematic. We are told that, like the nationalist leaders of old, Modi has niftily designed his own self-identifying brand of garment, the popular Modi kurta with workmanlike cut-off sleeves. His choice of the symbolic nationalist colours saffron and white, with only a hint of greens is also evident from his photographs and his penchant for flamboyant turbans would not escape being dubbed as grand and showy plumage displays by some evolutionary biologists.
Prima facie, it would not, therefore, be entirely odd to suggest that Modi is, at least subconsciously, aware of the impression he makes. Returning to Modi’s childhood, one of the few on-record incidents from this period informs us that he volunteered “to serve soldiers in transit at railway stations” during the Indo-Pak war. Whether this anecdote is true or merely the stuff of political legend, let us try and decode this remembered gesture. Whom was the Lion of Gujarat moved to serve in his formative years? Answer: Soldiers. We could well, were we to go by this evidence, suggest that Modi’s key emphasis on ‘strong’ leadership cannot be read separately from this early internalisation of external threat, the body-politic now requiring soldier-like responses from Modi the political general in his ‘campaigns’.
We have long known in body language research that the left and right side of our faces tell different stories. The right side of our faces, all our faces, is the more social side, the actor’s side, if you like, while the left side is the less-socialised truth-telling side. In moments of stress, these two parts produce increasingly divergent narratives. The power of the proscenium play and the key constellations in Modi’s semantic universe thus could come together very interestingly in a face-reading exercise.
When President Bill Clinton was questioned about Monica Lewinsky, the two sides of his face, experts alleged, showed very different emotions. Such ‘tests’ are of course not admissible as legal evidence, but they do tell gripping Rashomon tales. And, broadly, make certain patterns. We used five micro-expressions from Modi’s TV interviews questioning him over the 2002 carnage in Gujarat. We then asked respondents to identify separately the ‘half-face’ expressions shown by Modi. Some did complain that this test did not ‘make any sense’ since they were only shown a randomised half-face. Despite this, the results were both ‘dramatically’ and statistically significant.
The respondents who participated in this test unambiguously identified anger as the dominant emotion on the ‘truthful’ left side of Modi’s face while ‘happiness’ and ‘surprise’ were the emotions shown on the socialised side. This was a consistent and significant statistical difference and actually correlates with the linguistic word count bar-graphs shown earlier where ‘anger’ was again the most mentioned emotion. In general, negative and positive emotions are very distinctly identifiable on two different sides of Modi’s face during these tense moments.
In conclusion, we must acknowledge that the results of this small study are not conclusive. They are, rather, suggestive. Bar-graphs and pie-charts are reductive devices that capture just part of a much more complex narrative. Considerations of space and limitations of language (we only studied Modi’s speeches in translation) did not allow for a subtler grammatical analysis. Modi’s speeches abound in word-play (‘life/file’), acronyms (eg STCs standing for ‘Superior Technology Centres’, PPPs etc), one-liners, jokes and anecdotes. He is quite obviously a prestidigitator with language and, like all professional magicians, ready to ally with virtual technology to create stage effects in which doubt is out and contradictions banished. Does he succeed in this effort? What accounts for his enormous attraction for urban youth and his party cadre, even as he continues to fuel grave suspicion and opprobrium in others? Why does he hold the media in such complete thrall, generating pop-tags like “game-changer” by the minute despite his chequered past? I hope that we have generated some interest in our attempt to answer this complicated set of questions in ways that relate to the Innere Sprache of our existence as well as to all-too-pervasive realpolitik.
By Rukmini Bhaya Nair with Dr Snehlata Jaswal, Ashish Ranjan and Adarsh Prasad.
(Rukmini Bhaya Nair, well-known critic and writer, is a professor at the department of humanities and social sciences, IIT-Delhi. The views expressed are her own.)
Pernicious propaganda masquerading as analysis (Manwatching Mister Modi, Jun 24). That’s what Rukmini Bhaya Nair’s piece amounts to. With pseudo science, she has tried to project Modi as a demagogue, while the fact is that this man communicates—and communicates well—as a leader, whereas, to hear from the Congress leadership, one has to tease out a couple of words from them as they step into their cars.
Bahu Virupaksha, Pondicherry
Most of us see Modi as a no-nonsense, non-corrupt, dynamic person and a bit of a reasonably dictatorial fascist go-getter from his speech and body language. Please, Ms Bhaya Nair, leave him alone. He’s no “patient etherised upon a table”, to borrow Eliot’s words.
Col C.V. Venugopalan, Palakkad
While I’m no fan of Modi and do not think he’ll be prime minister, I despise such one-sided Modi-bashing articles. Why doesn’t Ms Bhaya Nair research the articles published in Outlook for how biased they are? If Modi is popular, it’s because people are frustrated with corrupt politicians who are spineless when it comes to protecting the country’s interests and are terrified of criticising the minorities even when they are at fault. Modi has done nothing but capitalise on these sentiments.
Vishnu, New York
Quite an interesting collection of words, charts and graphs, but what do they add up to and to what purpose?
Charan Rawat, Mumbai
Would you apply some of your psycho-babble to the nation’s son-in-law, Robert Vadra?
Pradip Singh, Stafford, UK
Your analysis of Modi would have made sense only if you’d made a comparable analysis of Sonia or Rahul Gandhi. But that would be blasphemy!
Sanjay Mittal, Delhi
How bombastic can analyses such as Ms Bhaya Nair’s get! Would she venture such an analysis of Sonia Gandhi, for whatever it might be worth?
Kay Shiv, Zuarinagar
With this article, it’s Modi who has exposed the media—its obsession with him has reached manic proportions.
Was it just a coincidence that while you had a cover story on the mind of Narendra Modi, your sister publication, Geo, had a feature on Adolf Hitler. The similarities between the two are striking—a gift of oration and an unfailing ability to seize opportunities for self-aggrandisement and hype.
Bhaskar, on e-mail
From running a tea stall to racing for the prime minister’s post, Modi’s journey is no mean achievement. Psychologists may consider him an enigma and his opponents may speak of ‘Namonia’ and ‘Namonitis’, but there’s no denying that lots of people think of him as the strong leader—in the mould of Kemal Ataturk or Lee Kuan Yew--that India needs now. Modi may have a few weaknesses, but, when vested interests, corruption and entrenched interests are eating away at the body politic, he comes across as a saviour. If he goes astray, he should be booted out—no second chance.
M.A. Raipet, Secunderabad
It doesn’t require the services of linguists from IIT Delhi to decipher what’s cooking on Modi’s mind. It’s easy to tell this great living lie. And everyone knows about Godhra, post-Godhra and his outbursts against the minorities.
Dr George Jacob, Kochi
I found it startling that the word ‘Hindu’ was missing from the over 290 pages of text of speeches Modi made in two years. And he’s called a votary of rabid Hindutva. What sort of an irony is that?
Rajiv Chopra, Jammu
Thank you to all those who have taken the trouble to read the article and share their thoughts. Out of the arguments made here, there are two that perhaps need answering. So here they go.
1. The first part of the article compares outcomes (relative percentages of population of the religions concerned) irrespective of the process that led to those outcomes - whether immigration, relatively faster population growth or conversions. This was for two reasons. One, to put the figure of 2.3 per cent in "numerical perspective", as the article itself explained. The second reason was that outcomes are ultimately what the crux of debate is about. The rest of the article in any case dealt with process - or conversions in this case, from both a contemporary and historical perspective.
2. Some commenters have tried to cast doubts on the reliability of Census 2001. Those who do this should bear in mind that Census 2001 was conducted by a BJP government. Considering the extreme importance that BJP gives to this issue, it would be reasonable to expect that IF it had perceived a problem with the methodology that was distorting the numbers, it would have fixed it. As the article mentioned, BJP or BJP-supported governments have been in power for 10 of the last 40 years, or about a quarter of the time, and the only reasonable conclusion one can arrive at is that any misreporting of numbers, real or perceived, would be marginal and hence, not of importance.
To all other arguments made, my answer is the following: Please read the article again, with particular focus on the quotations of Vivekananda and Monier Williams, and the history of the missionary efforts in Bengal and their outcome.
Gestures, expressions and style cannot hide the facts of negativity. People of India will never forget religious riots of 2002 leading to killing of thousands of innocent people without getting any protection.
Minorities dont like him because he is against enticing mass conversions and appeasement and preferential treatment of minorities to the majority, which is bandied about as secularism. Just compare the plight of minorities in developing countries with that of them in Bharat. Instead of being grateful for their comparative wellbeing, they complain and complain in order to wring out more concessions from the hapless majority, which is hopelessly divided. The only people who continue to suffer indiginities and ill-treatment are the dalits, which is indeed a shame.
This article confirms that the anti-modi brigade is running out of subjects now. I feel sorry for them as they have to run this compaign till 2014 election. Ishrat case is not going to any far. In fact, if the Congress and lackies like outlook try to make it into an issue, it may boomrang on them. They need to invent something new pretty fast.
Chanakya to Chandragupta: Modi's mask is gone
A day before he was sworn in as the chief minister of Gujarat in early October 2001, Narendra Modi had walked into The Times of India’s office on the Ashram Road in Ahmedabad. Modi expressed displeasure over a report in the paper reflecting the feelings of the bureaucracy about having a CM with no previous administrative experience whatsoever. Now, of course, even Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar is saying that the Gujarat riots in February 2002 (four months after Modi became the CM) went out of hand because Modi didn’t have much administrative experience then.
Haren Pandya, who bumped into Shankersinh Vaghela at the Ahmedabad airport. The old BJP rebel told Haren not to feel too happy about Keshubhai’s departure and to guard his constituency, Ellisbridge, from Modi. Those words were to prove prophetic. Modi had come to despise Haren because his police used to keep tabs on his movements during the days when he was a political untouchable in the Gujarat BJP.
Top officials in Gandhinagar keep up to three cellphones and never use the secretariat's intercom.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee left it to L K Advani to decide on the successor, as Advani was the MP from Gandhinagar.The names of A K Patel, Vajubhai Vala, Kashiram Rana, and Suresh Mehta were talked about as Keshubhai’s replacement. Modi was busy firing the ambitions of each one of them, assuring that he had no leadership aspirations himself. “I am just Chanakya who is seeing a Chandragupta in you,” he told one. “I am a man of the party, not suited for power politics,” he told the other. The BJP treasurer, Surendra Patel, was the first to be offered the job by Advani but he politely declined. Modi then shot down one candidate after another and managed to convince Advani, through the powerful RSS observer Madan Das Devi, that only he could steady the BJP’s rocking boat. Once Advani was convinced, Modi went around pretending he was in a ‘dharm sankat’ because Advani was insisting on making him the CM. He told some, almost apologetically, "Advaniji has a vision for Gujarat which he thinks only i am capable of executing." Compare that to his brazen political ambition today and you find that the mask is gone.
VANDE MATRAM..If it offends someone so let it be............................
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