The weight of words, spoken and unspoken, writes Karan Thapar
Odd, isn’t it, that at a time of crisis, both PM Modi and Rahul Gandhi were unable to find the right words?Updated: Jun 27, 2020, 20:33 IST
I might only have been 19 at the time and just casually browsing in the bath, but parts of an article on the art of communication which I chanced upon in a dog-eared copy of the Tatler have stayed with me ever since. It wasn’t profound, but it was memorable. Four decades later, I can still recall the tips the piece offered: Think carefully about what you want to say, consider wisely what’s best left unspoken and, remember, how you do either will determine the impact you make. As a teenager, I brushed this advice aside. As an adult, I realise how wise it is.
Last week, the Indian political system — and I use that term in the widest possible sense — fluffed on all three counts. Both the government and the Opposition emerged with yolk dripping off their faces.
Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi’s gaffe was, of course, the most embarrassing. He spoke on television, so there’s no denying what he said: “Na koi wahan hamari seema mein ghus aaya hai aur nahi koi ghusa hua hai”. Translated into simple English, that means “neither has anyone intruded into our border nor is anyone intruding”. Unfortunately, the first half was wrong because it wasn’t true and the PM suffered for it, despite the clarification the next day.
I’m prepared to accept the PM’s intention was to calm anxiety and anger but, as the Tatler could have advised him, he needed to think more carefully about what he wanted to say. Getting it wrong can never be right. No doubt, millions of his fans and supporters will unhesitatingly accept the veracity of his statement but the problem is so have the Chinese. Except they used it to “prove” they were in the right and India in the wrong. First, the editor of the Global Times tweeted: “PM Modi said that China didn’t intrude into Indian territory… Indian society must dare to face up to this basic fact. It’s Indian troops that provoked the deadly clash”. Two days later, the paper said of Modi, “...he understands his country cannot have further conflict with China so he is also making an effort to cool tensions”.
A very different sort of error was made by the external affairs ministry spokesperson when he was asked for his response to China’s claim that Galwan is and has always been China’s. Anurag Srivastava responded by stating the Galwan situation is “historically clear”, Chinese claims are “exaggerated and untenable” and do not accord with China’s past position. But at no point did he categorically say Galwan is India’s.
Three simple words that would have clinched it were omitted. Instead, we got a heap of textual analysis. Once again, the Tatler could have warned him how you present your case will determine the impact it makes. Alas, Srivastava did not impress his countrymen. I doubt if he made the Chinese squirm.
The third lapse in communication came from someone from whom, frankly, we don’t expect any better. In a comment on the PM’s Galwan statement, Rahul Gandhi tweeted: “Narendra Modi is actually Surender Modi”. It made me cringe. This was schoolboyish rather than statesman-like. At 14, I would have been proud of similarly playing with words, but by 18, I hope I would have known better. Gandhi has just turned 50. If he had read the Tatler article, he might have been aware of the need to consider wisely what’s best left unspoken.
Odd, isn’t it, that at a time of crisis not just the PM and the man who considers himself the leader of the Opposition but also the foreign ministry’s official spokesperson should have been unable to find the right words when, perhaps, they most needed them? It makes you realise the mot juste is not easily achieved. Even those with a flair for words can fail. Modi was too confident of his communication skills; Gandhi too clever by half; Srivastava simply didn’t know what to say.