The Philosopher Prince and His Speechwriters
Having ghost written speeches for a cross-section of “leaders” in Indian business and government, I can attest that it’s a mug’s game. The brief, if you get really lucky, is a one-liner. Normal service for a speechwriter is something like this: ‘Hola LatAm! India-Nicaragua Partnership’. Two-sodding-thousand words on India’s friendship and bilateral relations. What could the two countries be trading? The country’s glorious Flor de Caña rum for Tiruppur hosiery?
If the subject of “partnership” was a cricket playing nation there was the possibility of stretching a metaphor related to the sport for about 500 words But Nicaragua wasn’t even good at football for me to write about bartering sporting expertise for IT “capacity building”. Boxing co-operation was a possibility, 100 words taken care of. Could there be a parallel, howsoever lame, between the Spanish conquest and the British colonization of India? At times like these, life as a coal miner in Korba seemed preferable. Not surprisingly, a substantial part of my income from such endevours found its way to the coffers of ITC, and Delhi State Industrial Development Corporation’s (DSIDC) liquor outlets.
When I read that Rahul Gandhi was to address members of CII at their annual jamboree, my initial thoughts were with his poor speechwriter(s). It’s a speechwriter’s nightmare when she has to keep second guessing her master. When in doubt the speechwriter resorts to weasel words. More on that in a bit. However, Rahul’s speechwriters have a tougher job. Does he have an unequivocal, clearly articulated position on anything? The evidence at our disposal suggests not. We don’t know for instance his views on Kashmir or AFSPA because it’s not a “part time job” and presumably, he’s not been able to devote fulltime attention to the issue. He talked about Hindu terror being the biggest national security threat not to the people of India who he represents in a democracy but to US diplomats.
He is at once the saviour of Orissa’s tribal fighting the good fight against multinational “plunderers”, and a firm advocate of greater foreign investments in organized retail among other sectors. Anecdotal accounts suggest that members of his coterie (many of them share the same social assumptions as Rahul) are as clueless about his worldview as rest of India.
Rahul might have addressed hundreds of election rallies and made the rare speech in Parliament, but this CII address was different. This was the first time the crown prince had chosen to publically speak to the industry. Going by his past performances, and the odd comment on matters economy, I expected his speech writers would have speed read Michael Porter (Rahul spent some time both in Harvard where Porter taught, and worked at his consultancy Monitor’s London office, and Rahul’s Youth Congress revival plan has unmistakable elements of Porter’s ‘Five Forces’ analysis), Amartya Sen (Rahul’s mentor at Cambridge, the high priest of “inclusive growth”), Thomas Friedman, the Flat Worlder (a good friend of friend Nilekani), along with Nehru and Gandhi. I was curious about the brief Rahul would have given his speechwriter. His pet themes have, in no specific order of priority, have been inclusive growth, India and Bharat, migration, youth empowerment and organizational restructuring of his Party.
However, Rahul’s opening gambit left many speechless. “India is energy not a country.” India as being a state-of-mind or way-of-life we have heard, but energy? I’d like some of the stuff Team Rahul was smoking. To buttress the point on India-the-energy entered Girish the painter. People like Girish and Kalavati are cast in most of Rahul’s speeches. Almost every address begins with a true life account. Indian magazine journalists would do well to pay attention to the elaborately vivid scene setting, and attention to the smallest detail of a Rahul Gandhi opening anecdote.
In an opener that would have made Edward Bulwer-Lytton proud Rahul said: “It was a dark night some years ago when my team and I got on the Gorakhpur Lokmanya Tilak Express and travelled across India’s heartland.” Did any member of Team Rahul attend an American journalism school? Allow me a small digression here. Some years ago, I happened to work under a bunch of editors who were in thrall of the kind writing style taught at J-school campuses in the US. Reporters were forced to write in a folksy, personalized manner getting as much visual detail as possible. The anecdote suddenly became more important than the story itself. Soon enough all reporters’ copies—irrespective of the subject they were writing on—started off something like this: “On a typically sweltering Delhi afternoon, 45-year-old Ajay Gupta, the CEO, loosened his red tie, rolled up the sleeves of his powder blue shirt and walked onto the shop floor. Despite the overpowering smell of factory grease, you could not miss the scent of Davidoff Cool Water he was wearing…” One diligent colleague, in search of microscopic detail, tried counting the number of polka dots on an executive’s tie he was interviewing. Sanity in this cauldron commanded a hefty premium. Others who were street smart conjured up colour and anecdotes that were loosely based on facts but not limited by them. Rahul Gandhi or his speechwriters would have fit snugly in that newsroom.
Back to his CII address, Rahul said little that he hadn’t already read out in other speeches in the past. His manner of speaking was as reassuring as the Australian Phil Hughes’ stints at the batting crease in the recent concluded Test series. Every time Rahul deviated from his true-life stories, he gave the impression of being a walking wicket.
Regardless, the mainstream media, and the industry stalwarts in attendance heaped praise. The Economic Times, the lead goose in the flight formation of boosterists said: “Vice President Rahul Talks like a CEO.” Telecom Tsar Sunil Mittal, who on the evidence of Rahul’s speech is on first name terms with him gushed that the only reaction he could muster was awe, “It was the most inspiring speech I have heard from a political leader,” he added. In 2009, Mittal wished Narendra Modi should be the country’s next PM. But there’s no point picking on Mittal. That’s the nature of the beast. Dhirubhai Ambani, a man of indisputably greater vision had said back in 1985 that he was willing to salaam anyone without ego coming in the way. “You have to sell your ideas to the government. Selling the idea is the most important thing, and for that I’d meet anybody in the government.” Mittal too has plenty of ideas to sell at the moment.
However, what was so inspirational, or even CEO-like in Rahul’s address? If anything, it was remarkably anti-politician and played down the importance of organizational leadership. He said, if you expect Manmohan Singh to solve your problems, keep expecting. In Rahul’s word the buck stops with the village pradhan not the pradhan mantri.
Using jargons found in management literature is not the same as CEO speak. The weasel words that kept recurring were structure, design, empowerment, voice and partnership. He seemed do deliberately play down the significance of leadership—something both he and his government have failed to offer. “What India is thirsting for now is a visionary partnership. A partnership that incentivizes you to provide economic gains for the poor and the millions of aspiring middle class. It is only once this partnership is forged that we will generate the momentum to transform this country.” If the CEOs who cheered Rahul had made a presentation on these lines to potential investors and financiers they wouldn’t be able to raise a penny.
Rahul’s speechwriters made him look like an ill-prepared management consultant. He wants to “unlock value’ (out of what we don’t know). He wants to create “open political architecture” that is accessible to every Indian. Would that open up politics as a career option for the hoi polloi or make politicians more accessible? We don’t know. What precisely do phrases such as empowerment, structural change and giving people a voice mean? Maybe someday, his speechwriters will care to educate us. Even when he wasn’t reading from a piece of paper, and was posed two pointed questions on centre-state relationship, and the country’s water crisis he responded with some zoological insights. For the most part he had the manner of a call centre executive who has the same stock answer for every poser. Only in the tele-caller’s case you bang the phone on her. Rahul is called a visionary.
Disclaimer: Views expressed here are personal and do not represent that of the author’s employer in anyway