Whether or not you like Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s views, as a speaker he is unmatched in Indian politics. At Ayodhya, his speech was technically pitch-perfect – the fluency, the alliteration, the cadences and the Sanskrit. His supporters and those who are moved by the building of a Ram temple would have applauded. Sadly, the speech was a colossal missed opportunity and repeatedly hit the wrong note. Wherever you stand on the Ayodhya issue and the tearing down of the mosque, this was a moment for a meditative, spiritual reflection on the site and its significance. The PM mouthed all the right words, but there was little that was meditative and spiritual in the speech. The lips said one thing, but the voice, the tone and the physical bearing said something else.
Modi has worked hard to train his voice over the years. At Ayodhya, it felt raucous. It was clear that he was addressing not the audience in front of him which was just metres away; rather, he was speaking to 1.3 billion Indians and the diaspora in distant lands. For nearly forty minutes it was all too loud and shouty, as if he wanted to bridge the physical distance to the larger, absent audience through sheer vocal power. Even when I have disagreed with Modi (most of the time), I have listened to him with attention. On August 5, his performance was tiring and grating. The tone, too, was wrong. The more fluent Modi got, the more he sounded scripted. As it went along, he seemed more triumphalist than reflective, more grandiloquent than eloquent, more wordy than profound. The speech seemed to strain to be remembered as a classic, whereas it should have stayed in the moment. Above all, it was bombastic when it should have displayed humility, at a place millions regard as hallowed ground.
The prime minister’s bearing too seemed ill-suited to the occasion. He prostrated himself during the rituals, but the body language during the speech was commanding and magisterial. It needed a rounding of the shoulders and a slight stoop, to acknowledge that he was the messenger not the message. It was a time for soft faraway eyes not the usual flashing Modi eyes. Put differently, it wanted more Atal Bihari Vajpayee, in his later years – poetry in motion, not a stentorian lecture. Why did it go wrong? Because it was conceived and curated all wrong. The PM laid the first brick. He did the pooja. He spoke. This was a time for others to do and for others to speak as well, even if they are not national personalities and riveting speakers – some of the sants, the priests and religious thinkers, perhaps some ordinary and dignified locals. Modi should have courteously held back. Unfortunately, politics and he were centre-stage.
The PM evoked the many Ramayanas, from every corner of the land. All we heard in the speeches though was Hindi. Hundreds of millions in India don’t speak Hindi well and would have had great difficulty understanding Modi’s complex sentences. There was nothing for them except the sight of the prime minister spinning words at the dais for 40 minutes. Was there no one from the four tirtha sthals of India who could have authentically addressed us? Finally, holding the temple’s founding on the anniversary of the scrapping of Article 370 coloured the event. The prime minister might have resisted linking the event to a new nationalism, but he didn’t. Not surprisingly, as it unfolded, the occasion became another political performance. Modi, Yogi Adityanath and Mohan Bhagwat turned it into flag waving. Millions of Hindus are deeply attached to Ayodhya, and the PM could have made it into a moment of transcendence and piety. Instead, however elevated the words, they chose the mundane and the predictable. To this Indian, it felt flat and cynical.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.