Vol – XLVIII No. 18, May 04, 2013 | Nonica Datta

Narendra Modi‘s oratory captivates his audience. A demagogue’s agenda is facilitated via language, which becomes a site of power and violence in the political public sphere. This article looks at Modi’s emotionally-charged speeches which are emblematic of his larger political language.
Nonica Datta ([email protected]) teaches history at Miranda House, University of Delhi. Her latest publication is Violence, Martyrdom and Partition: A Daughter’s Testimony (OUP, 2009)
Narendra Modi has been speaking a lot these days. His willingness to speak is striking, especially as he acquires centre-stage in BJP. In modern politics, Modi’s language has multiple meanings that shape his relationship with the public. The metaphors that he uses are often the same in all his speeches. But the sameness in his language has a structure to it which needs unpacking.
I try to listen carefully to what Narendra Modi has been saying? Recently, I listened to Modi’s speeches at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) crucial two-day National Council meeting in New Delhi and at other influential public forums. And I found that his speech at the BJP’s National Council meeting, in particular, conveys his vocabulary and rhetoric and unfolds his political language, its intentions and the implicit agenda. It connects with his other speeches, a miscellany of ideas and declarations, presenting a cycle of repetitive speech.
The Theatre and the Language
Like on that day and many other days, Modi began his speech with a patriotic trope, “Bharat Mata ki Jai”. A captive audience chanted in unison. Moving his hands, lowering his voice, and then raising it to the right effect, Modi was all set to perform. He spoke in Hindi, sometimes using English words. His voice had a nasal tinge. It was both low and high pitched, soft and harsh. The Gujarati accent was unmistakably evident. His speech was not just words. It was also his tone, gestures, movements of his hands, eyes and body. His pauses were short to suit his words. There were gaps in between.
Tellingly, Modi’s speech is emblematic of his larger political language. If you sort through his rhetoric, you will find nothing new. Modi’s language evokes his big project – dreaming of a new India. A critique of the Congress’ flawed idea of India is central to his language. So, point by point, he always targets the dynastic Congress. It is a party that has “sacrificed the interests of the nation” for the “interests of the one family”, he says. “To take the country forward is not in the nature of the Congress, it is in not in their blood”, he adds. “When we got freedom from the British we got swarajya, when we free ourselves from the Congress we will get surajya”, he goes on. Unlikely words to be combined: swarajya (self-rule) and surajya (good governance), but here they are combined to make eternal continuities and affinities between British and Congress rule.
Modi says that we got swarajya, self-rule, once the British left. And we will gain surajya, good governance, once we get rid of the Congress. He likens the Congress to a termite. He urges his karyakartas (party workers) to work “with a determination to help the people uproot the Congress”. How? He says, “The sweat of BJP karyakartas is the best medicine to do so”.
Modi celebrates the role of his karyakartas, and their purusharth (hard work): “BJP’s win in Gujarat is not a victory of one person but the victory of lakhs of karyakartas, a victory of BJP’s ideology, the faith of the people in the party’s political culture, the guidance of senior leaders and the victory of the people”. Like a cricket commentary, the news of BJP’s success has spread far and wide, he says.
The karyakartas are critical subjects in Modi’s language. He expresses his continuing debt to them. They are the committed workers of his political project. They are his political collective. The karyakartas, as a mobilising force, are urged to take on the task of translating his ideology into action.
Modi says, “Whenever we have got a chance to serve, we have given something to the nation”. Though not totally linear, his speech focuses on development in Gujarat. The Gujarat that Modi invokes is a Gujarat of “asha” (hope). If there’s hope, there’s trust (vishvas), he emphasises. That’s not enough. He asks his “people” to nurture an aspiration (armaan). Using a popular idiom, Modi asks them to think big, and to move forward. The notion of aspiration and good governance shapes his vision of India. But his idiom is local.
Modi’s language tries to forge a connection with “people”, and he sees himself as a “facilitator”, a “catalytic agent” to help them imagine a new and clean India. Almost enacting a commercial Hindi film dialogue, he says, “BJP is with a mission, [pause] Congress is for commission”.
Stereotypes and Repetitions
Modi speaks of the need to develop India on the model of jan bhagidari, that is through people’s participation. His commitment to “development in Gujarat” is conveyed via his different programmes. He says that when he became the chief minister in 2001, the state had a revenue deficit of Rs 6,700 crore, while today the state has a surplus of Rs. 400 crore. He says that both ends have been met: power companies are making profits and people are getting electricity.
The trope of darkness replaced by light is an essential component of Modi’s emotionally-charged narrative, a trope which ensures deliverance from the Congress rule and a march towards development. Raat itni lambi hogi, andhera itna kada hoga (the night would be so long, darkness would be so harsh). Remembering two of his heroes, Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and Vivekananda, Modi says, “Even if darkness is all around, what prevents us from lighting the lamp? Come, let us set forth from here and light the lamp with the lotus, spreading the brightness of development”.
Modi applauds Vajpayee government’s nuclear tests. But he unsettles his own language by invoking Lal Bahadur Shastri, the somewhat forgotten political leader of the 1960s.
Modi’s language shapes a new political public sphere of power and domination to manufacture consent among his karyakartas. His rhetoric against the Congress, his model of a “grand state and nation”, his confidence in the “mass base” of his karyakartas, his stubborn faith in development and progress are the recurring themes in his vocabulary. Listening to him one notices that though his script is almost stereotypically repetitive, his repertoire carries a new gesture each time he speaks. His language is interspersed with humour and sarcasm; but no ironies. With the approaching 2014 general elections, his speech at his premier political organisation is full of contradictions, ambiguities, inconsistencies, silences.
Modi’s language, this may be noticed in almost all his recent speeches, camouflages much than reveals. Incorporating his karyakartas in his “nation”, he is mainly thinking of a masculinised India. Who are excluded: Muslims, women, Dalits, Adivasis and other marginalised sections. Isn’t Modi addressing a primarily urban, elite, technocratic Hindu nation? And of course, the karyakartas he talks of have been perpetrators of his political agenda of violence. When Modi says, “We have given something to the nation”, what does he exactly mean? What about the Gujarat genocide of 2002? Is this his project of erasure at work?
Compelling Speech
Modi’s manipulative communication conveniently hides his larger agenda. This has parallels with demagogues in world history. Like in other histories of fascism, in other parts of the world, the Fascist project is realised via securing people’s vote and their active political participation. Fascism develops through the popular and catalytic language of a leader in the political public sphere, which manoeuvres consensus of the ordinary people. Germans’ support for Hitler during the Third Reich testifies to the enormous and widespread appeal of the fascist language among people.
Historically, dictatorships have been committed to the project of development, progress and growth. Stalin was most appreciated for the level of economic development that was achieved under his rule. Stalin’s Russia was a model of a great industrial nation. But his act of mass killings makes him a mass murderer. Russians are still struggling to cope with that moment of their violent past, and the contradiction of whether Stalin was a “villain” or a “hero”.
A demagogues’ agenda is facilitated via language, which becomes a site of power and violence in the political public sphere. The crimes of Fascism and Stalinism were founded on language. Fascism, Roland Barthes says, does not prevent speech, it compels speech. Demagogues combine the language of development with that of exclusive nationalism and patriotism. They often talk of the poor and poverty. They have many things to hide. They silence alternatives, plurality, and difference.
Modi graphically talks of inflation and the poor man reeling under price rise. “Chulha nahin jalta” — “the hearth is not lit”. He only appears to address social conflicts. His idea of development is elitist and hollow. The metaphor of light that he invokes signifies a lamp of development that foments a consumerist ideology and culture. The unmistakably spiritual tone of his language, borrowed from Vivekananda, is a way to legitimise his prejudicial idea of development and a global India mixed with patriotism, which he defines via blood, sacrifice, sweat. Does Modi’s idea of development address inequities in society? It does not appear to. To resurrect Shastri is Modi’s way of moderating his political rhetoric through the symbol of the kisan (peasant), which is framed to work towards his popular image as a mass leader.
Modi’s silences are dangerously telling. So are his utterances. His language has many shades of grey. Might it not be better to see and declare that Modi’s language has been instrumental in sanctioning the practice of violence and development? As Hannah Arendt writes, “The practice of violence, like all action, changes the world, but the most probable change is to a more violent world”.