An anthology of the greatest political speeches of Independent India would make for a scrawny volume. Indian politicians aren’t strong on oratory, in large part because they’re uncultured, and have contempt for the Indian electorate.
Nehru was elegant, of course, though his speeches in English were not understood by a majority of Indians. Vajpayee was a master-speaker, his Hindi (and his sarcasm) being of the rarest poise. Annadurai electrified the Tamil people in a language that has, perhaps, only Bengali as its equal in its political prosody and spoken rhythms.
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. And then there’s Shashi Tharoor — an old friend — who stands apart as an Indian politician who can actually debate. (In truth, he’s not a politician at all, which is his strength and — it could be said — also his weakness.)
Which brings me back to my anthology. Why confine it to elected politicians? In my view, no compendium of Indian political speeches would be complete now without an entry for Kanhaiya Kumar, the young PhD student from JNU who has arrested India’s imagination and ensured that the word “sedition” is part of the vocabulary of every citizen.
Like others with access to a computer, I have heard repeatedly the two speeches that Kanhaiya made most recently. The first catapulted him to fame, incurring as it did the wrath of an obtuse Home Minister; of a dopey — but pernicious — Police Commissioner of Delhi; and of a tinpot-nationalist news anchor who disregarded the truth in a peerless display of hysteria. Together, they sucked young Kanhaiya into a vortex of political and judicial thuggery that would have made Gandhi and Ambedkar weep.
If Kanhaiya’s first speech was impressive, his second, after his release on bail, was pure protest-poetry. One doesn’t have to share his politics to find pleasure in his language. I certainly don’t want “freedom from capitalism” — in fact, I want much more of it; and yet I found his revolutionary fervour endearing. Here is a young man with a serious rhetorical gift, and a mastery over the Hindi language that is a joy in this ugly age of “Hinglish”. His cadences and tempo are made all the more sweet by his Bihari lilt and his self-deprecating purabiya manner. This is Hindi as it should be declaimed—Hindi as a political rasmalai.
One needs to hear the speech, not read it, to appreciate fully the theatre of Kanhaiya’s delivery; his sawaal-jawaab —call-and-response — with the avid and idealistic crowd; the pregnant pauses, so essential in feats of rhetoric; the cutting humour of the occasion; and the verbal up-yours he delivered to those who would jail him for his views. All the while, another young man waved the Indian flag behind him. This was not sedition. This was the heaven of college life.
After this speech, the case for the prosecution is stone cold dead. The judge who released him said that Kanhaiya suffered from an anti-national virus, an “infection”. That virus, in truth, lives in those who would lock him up — those who have, by their own bigotry, sent this young Indian spirit soaring.