After watching Barack Obama make his victory speech, many of us asked: when was the last time we heard an inspirational public speech by an Indian? No doubt there have been, and still are, some great speakers in the regional languages, but I really can’t remember the last time I heard a great pan-Indian speech. Jawaharlal Nehru’s ‘Tryst with destiny’ masterpiece at the stroke of the midnight hour? But that was in 1947 when most of us weren’t born. In my lifetime, a part of which has been spent following Indian politicians around and covering their speeches, there have been far too many who inspire nothing beyond deadening boredom. The few good public speakers are Atal Behari Vajpayee, Laloo Prasad Yadav and Narendra Modi. Love them or hate them, if you will, but these guys can get you to pay attention to what they have to say.
But none of them can match an Obama when it comes to delivering those big seemingly epoch-quantifying speeches, which press all the subliminal buttons that make us feel good, hopeful, or just plain proud for a brief moment to be citizens of a particular nation. Great speeches are about both content and delivery. The ‘Tryst with destiny’ speech, for instance, is fine writing married to great content delivery on a historically significant day. Obama’s victory speech is actually full of fluff and non-committal generalities. But it hits the right notes, is full of positive emotions, no negatives and is delivered beautifully, with the correct voice modulation, the right pauses and the appropriate emotional pitch. He says the right things, while appearing sincere and sensitive.
The secret of Obama’s oratory skills is apparently the tele-prompter. All American politicians know the technique well, but Obama is quite the master. Critics of the US president say he is just a great reader of the prepared text and that he has benefited from having terrific speechwriters. Still, in an age when so much of pleasure and emotion is simulated, it’s par for the course for a politician to learn a technique to reach out to many people and speak to them effectively. Let us not make light of the fact that Indian news channels would rarely telecast the entire speech of an Indian politician on prime-time; the English language channels ran and reran Obama’s speech in its entirety because it held our attention and was a riveting performance.
The day we heard the Obama speech live, around noon IST, I spent the evening at a school production of Shakespeare’s plays. Students of class eight were enacting famous scenes from the masterpieces—there were the witches from Macbeth looking into the future, Juliet on a balcony speaking to Romeo, the Merchant of Venice asking for his pound of flesh. And there was Mark Antony speaking at the death of Julius Caesar. That little amateur performance had me reflecting on what might well be one of the first great political speeches—as it found depiction in a Shakespearean classic. “Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears. I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him....” In the play, Antony is able to deliver a speech that changes the mood of the citizens of the Roman republic, from anger at Caesar’s tyranny to regret over his death. Remember the lines, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones; So let it be with Caesar....”
I do not expect Indian politicians to start delivering speeches like a Marlon Brando’s or a Richard Burton’s Mark Antony. But wouldn’t it be a great improvement in the quality of public discourse if the new generation of young politicians (of whom we keep hearing about) could employ some decent speechwriters, master reading off the teleprompter and perhaps also deign to sit through a few lessons in theatre to learn the techniques of timing and delivery? All good Indian public speakers understand the importance of creating theatre; Vajpayee would look up from the prepared text and deliver his punchlines; Laloo never has a prepared text and is an instinctive performer, while Modi turns the drama up or down depending on the audience. There are surely others, but many effective speakers also appeal to a particular sectarian cause, ideology, or chauvinism. The inclusive national vision delivered with passion and clarity eludes us still.
Even assuming that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has something meaningful to say, the message is lost in the deadpan delivery. Sonia Gandhi no longer only reads from the sheets of paper in front of her; she emotes somewhat, but is still a stiff speaker. Does Rahul Gandhi have something to say to us? He is still the right age to pick up some skills and is said to be on a constant learning curve.
This relates to Saba Naqvi’s column on Obama (The Archon Speaks). Obama is an outstanding speaker, very telegenic and all the rest, but does it really matter? Did Obama’s speech really touch us or inspire us, beyond giving us the impression that he was articulate, in charge of a taxing job, and an excellent family man. A bit of grandstanding when the occasion presents itself is understandable, but why should Indian politicians even contemplate delivering speeches like Brando’s or Burton’s Mark Anthony?
I was amazed to see Saba Naqvi claim there is no inspirational pan-Indian orator like Barack Obama (The Archon Speaks, Nov 19). Has she never heard of Shashi Tharoor? His speech on Indian nationalism at iim Calcutta is the best defence of Indian pluralism one can find anywhere.
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.
Among the head of Indian goverment besides nehru and vajpayee you forgot to me to mentiom two other great orators who were prime ministers
Chandrashekhar and VP Singh.
Please fo not discount them.
Outlook's seriously running out of topics to cover; yes, Obama is an outstanding public speaker, very telegenic and all the rest, but how does it really matter? And did Obama's speech really touch us or inspire us, beyond giving us the impression that he was articulate, in charge of a taxing job, was a loving husband and father and all the rest. Absolutely nothing wrong with it, but that was it. Try recalling the other content of his speech to check for any lasting impressions.
A bit of grandstanding when the occasion presents itself is understandable, but why should Indian politicians even contemplate about delivering speeches like a Marlon Brando’s or a Richard Burton’s Mark Antony? Why this needless fascination for decent speechwriters and mastering reading off the teleprompter? If the inclusive national vision delivered with passion and clarity eludes us still, it's not because of a shortage of prose or writers, but because of a shortage of leaders who believe in 'inclusive national vision'. The speeches will take care of themselves when the time comes.
The comparision of the Philadelphia vote with the Iraq vote makes no sense at all!
To me the most interesting factoid of the US election is this-in 59 precincts in Philadelphia, Obama managed to win 100% of the votes cast!!!
The only other person who managed to win 100% of the vote anywhere in the world is Saddam Hussein. If these things continue, US elections will soon become a burlesque.
Forget about Obama's political speech. Just listen to his "Diwali Greeting" speech. Has anybody heard any Indian leader give such speech on Diwali?
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