Narendra Modi: The roar is now a low growl

Dependent on allies, the Prime Minister appears to be observing a little restraint.

Published : Jul 08, 2024 18:47 IST - 7 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally for in Balasore, Odisha on May 29.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at a rally for in Balasore, Odisha on May 29. | Photo Credit: PTI

One of the reasons for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s rise to power was his oratory. The aggression, decisiveness, and muscular nationalism in his speeches resonated with supporters. His detractors found the same words divisive, offensive, and riddled with dog whistles.

After the June 4 verdict brought a scowl to his normally impassive visage, his oratory is now on test. Modi finds himself in uncharted territory. He ruled with a clear mandate for a decade, a period when he did not have to consult any ally or even party seniors and veterans and enjoyed absolute power, which in turn was reflected in his confident tone. Even as Gujarat Chief Minister, he enjoyed more freedom than any other Chief Minister from the BJP. With the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government now at the mercy of others, the Prime Minister must watch his tongue for the first time, and he appears to be observing a little caution and restraint, which goes much against his grain. The transition from “Modi government” to “NDA government’’ has not been easy, and when the Prime Minister found his voice in Parliament, it came nearly a month after the verdict.

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Never has Modi had to put up with the kind of heckling and slogan-shouting as he did in the Lok Sabha when he replied to the Motion of Thanks on the President’s Address. During the over-two-hour speech, most of his ministerial colleagues appeared listless, coming to life only when Modi called Rahul Gandhi “infantile” and when he tried his hand at humour by tweaking a scene from the film Sholay. Modi did not refer to himself even once in the third person, as was his won’t before June 4. When he finished, he appeared to celebrate only that he had held on despite the opposition’s attempt to unnerve him. His Rajya Sabha reply too went along the same lines, until the opposition walked out.

Usual punchlines were missing in Modi’s speech in Parliament

The usual punchlines were missing, there were no long pauses waiting for the clapping to stop, and no new acronyms or neologisms. While he appeared more relaxed in the Upper House, his usual flourish had deserted him. Interestingly, he appropriated the Constitution and its main architect, Babasaheb Ambedkar, charging the Congress with disregarding both.

Both his immediate predecessors in Gujarat and Delhi, Keshubhai Patel and Manmohan Singh, did not have a sharp tongue. Singh, in particular, was extremely soft-spoken. Given the adversarial nature of his oratory, Modi has always needed an enemy to sound more effective. But after 22 years in office, he has started to sound monotonous. His opponents have always found his pitch shrill and polarising, but now even his admirers are beginning to wear expressions of ennui. The compulsions of coalition politics have also forced him to choose his words carefully. In trying to be conciliatory, he has to walk a tightrope that will not be music to his hardcore followers.

No doubt Modi is still more popular than any other leader. But the boredom that comes from having heard something on a loop was already visible during the campaign. When the camera moved to the crowds, it was obvious that not everyone was listening. The spontaneous “Modi, Modi” chants were missing. Compare the laboured chants at his dispirited victory speech on result day with the response to his victory speeches in 2014 and 2019.

It is easy to understand why. Modi is no longer the challenger, a role he first took on in late 2013 when his words as an anti-corruption crusader worked magic on crowds. But in 2024, the opposition succeeded in bringing bread-and-butter issues to the forefront, and Modi’s rhetoric sounded flat and out of place, especially in the absence of emotive issues like nationalism. He tried to engage in the rhetoric of the past, but the audience was less responsive.

Fabricated tropes to spice up speech

Early in his chief ministerial innings, it was not uncommon for Modi to cite fictitious surveys to claim that Gujarat’s voters found Rahul Gandhi too unskilled to be employed even as a peon or a driver. As the polemist in him used such fabricated tropes to spice up the speech, crowds in smaller towns like Nadiad would lap up the public ridicule of political rivals. But during this campaign, similar inventions such as the Congress razing down the Ram temple if it came to power or taking away mangalsutras and buffaloes did not have the same traction.

  • With the NDA government at the mercy of allies, the Prime Minister appears to be observing a little restraint, which goes much against his grain.
  • The heckling and slogan-shouting that he faced in the Lok Sabha when he replied to the Motion of Thanks to the President’s Address was unprecedented.
  • Modi’s usual punchlines were missing, no long pauses were waiting for the clapping to stop, and no new acronyms or neologisms.

When Modi, as Chief Minister, preyed on the Gandhi-Nehru family, the crowds loved his diatribes. Then after the Godhra incident and the Gujarat riots, he found enemies in “pseudo-secularists”, the media, NGOs, and Pakistan, among others. His speeches became more polarising and earned him admirers and detractors in equal measure. What started as “Arre Miyan Musharraf” would soon become only “Arre Miyan”. “When Muslims in Indonesia don’t mind having Ganesh on their currency notes, why do Muslims in India get disappointed when Abu Salem is arrested and attack Ganesh processions in Vadodara?” he would ask, leaving the crowds in a frenzy. He turned every attack on him into an attack on Gujarat and reminded the media that 70 per cent of their revenues came from advertisements placed by Gujaratis.

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He would allege that India’s population for 5,000 years until Independence was only 30 crore but rose to 100 crore during the Congress regime. “When so many children are produced, they grow up to work in cycle-repair shops or become pick-pockets,” he would say in his usual dog whistle. Statements like these would endear him to the crowds in Gujarat. Added to these was his penchant for coining acronyms and neologisms, expansive hand gestures, and a mocking tone, all of which added up into a verbal assault. Soon, such was the force of his oratory that even BJP seniors avoided sharing the stage with him in Gujarat.

There is no doubt that his presence in the 2014 and 2019 Lok Sabha elections helped the BJP score the kind of victories that had begun to appear like a thing of the past. But it was not the same in 2024. The 400 paar” boast did enthuse the crowds when they heard it the first time, but it soon boomeranged when the opposition said the BJP would take away reservation after changing the Constitution, and Modi was forced to make defensive speeches.

On nationalism and corruption, Modi’s speeches have always had an edge. But when people he had accused of corruption were seen on the stage with him just days later, even his most ardent supporters gave a knowing wink when he held forth on corruption.

Modi’s oratory will be under minute scrutiny in the forthcoming Assembly elections, especially in Maharashtra. It was here that his anti-corruption rhetoric was the biggest flop when he embraced the same Ajit Pawar whom he had accused of corruption just weeks earlier.

Modi is not used to making speeches when he is not the issue or when he is short on confidence. His oratory sounded effective when people responded to a man in charge, someone they thought could deliver. Now, not just his words but his body language, too, has changed. It will be interesting to see what comes next.

Milind Ghatwai is an independent journalist with more than three decades of experience and is based in Bhopal.

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