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Modi vs Gandhi: communication experts compare body language, style

As the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate and Congress' vice president woo voters with speech after speech, here’s a review of their communication styles.

india Updated: Nov 18, 2013 11:10 IST
Poulomi Banerjee
Poulomi Banerjee
Hindustan Times
Uttar Pradesh,Narendra Modi,Election Commission

As the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) prime ministerial candidate and Congress' vice president woo voters with speech after speech, here’s a review of their communication styles.

At a political speech in Bahraich, Uttar Pradesh last week, Narendra Modi, who usually creates news with risky phrases such as “shehzada” (his sarcastic endearment for Rahul Gandhi) and “khooni panja” (for which the Election Commission has sent him a notice) created a somewhat different buzz by turning up in a neon green kurta and pastel pink nehru jacket, referencing what some on social media thought to be a pastry chef.

READ: Cong knocks EC door over Modi 'khooni panja' barb

Talk about bringing colour to Indian politics. While the political camps pore over rivals’ speeches looking for historical inaccuracies and discrepancies in political manifestos, a parallel analysis is unfolding across homes and public spaces alike. Was the cake-like ensemble “an effort to project a younger image”, wonders Amitava Mitra of Percept H advertising agency. Gita Bamezai, Professor of Communication Research at IIMC, says it may be “an effort to seem more inclusive in his views and defy the predictable”. On Twitter some dismissed the onslaught of bright hues as “simply a case of a bad-dress day”.

Clothes have been used to send political messages from Gandhi’s khadi loin-cloth to the US Presidential Elections in the 1960, where John F Kennedy’s dapper look won him enough brownie-points over rival Richard Nixon, for a paper to comment that “Nixon had been sabotaged by his make-up artiste”, recalls Bamezai. Now, with 24x7 television, speeches are seen over and over again, making non-verbal signs more noticeable. “We live in a world that is becoming increasingly visual. Speeches may not be read or heard in full, but the images are seen. Our politicians are under constant scrutiny, and thus the right communication, verbal and non-verbal becomes important,” says Bamezai.

So you have this frenzy of opinion when Rahul Gandhi is seen on television in a stubble instead of clean-shaven, the explanations ranging from it being “an attempt to look mature” to “a frequent change in look that he became habituated to as a security precaution while studying abroad.”

Clothes can be used to make a direct political attack, like Congress’ Digvijaya Singh, who in a tweet, while comparing Sardar Patel with Modi, said: “Patel wore khadi, Modi poses in designer clothes and branded glasses”, which can be seen as attacking the BJP’s “elite” “India Shining” campaign of the past.

In a situation like the upcoming 2014 parliamentary elections where “two new national leaders, the Congress vice president, Rahul Gandhi and BJP PM candidate Narendra Modi, are taking centrestage much ahead of the elections” there is increased interest in everything they say and do, explains Ranjan Bargotra, president, Crayons Advertising.

But, warns social scientist Shiv Visvanathan, while “a grammar of symbols is important, grammars have to be complemented by everyday speech and practice.” He adds however, “one has to be careful in over reading the symbolic domain in politics.”

In the recent US elections, President Barack Obama was seen touching the right chord by projecting himself as a stable family man with solid middle-class American sensibilities. The little kiss for his wife, a holding of hands with his daughter, added to that image. “But in India, one has to be careful of different sensibilities, gestures have to be universal and understood by all,” says Nitin Mantri CEO of Avian Media, a communication consultancy that has many political clients.

Body Language
Narendra Modi:
Modi’s body language is aspirational, aggressive. He seeks territorial control. His mannerisms blend the old bully, the new manager and aspiring Prime Minister. He often laughs but his chuckles sound like a threat. His is a proactive body reaching out to the masses, seeking the conviviality of conspirational gossip. His face is tired but he portrays the tiredness of responsibility. When the body is tired he plays the sevak, when aggressive he is the political supremo. He seems in control, not quite Bismarck, but close to power. He has the restlessness of the upwardly mobile.

Rahul Gandhi: Rahul’s speech movements are jerky, a bit absent minded. Face to face, he appears relaxed, but speaking publicly he seems like someone carrying out duties. While he always maintains a distant air, his body might betray his true instincts. -- Shiv Visvanathan

Narendra Modi: Modi’s body language projects an overt personality which bespeaks of his confidence and authority. Modi’s posture and his use of hands in an emphatic manner give an impression that he is in command. He refers to things that are being talked about which makes his syllogisms very convincing. At the Goa session where he was anointed by the Party president Rajnath Sing, he occupied the last seats in the pandal and looked sedate but still in command, in spite of the cold shouldering he received from his party-men.

Rahul Gandhi: Fidgety behaviour before the mike and shifting weight from one leg to the other can show that he is unsure, low on confidence and indicates vulnerability. -- Gita Bamezai

Narendra Modi: He has interestingly used his dominant persona and confidence through effective verbal as well as non-verbal language to catch the attention of the crowds. He has created some of his trademark gestures like the V-sign, his hand on his forehead (the thinking man), the clenched fist etc –all signs of being assertive, strong willed and determined. In terms of facial expressions, Modi displays a very serious demeanour most of the time.

Rahul Gandhi: His non-verbal communication seems to reflect an openness to connect with the masses. His facial expressions change from smiling to serious very comfortably. There is a simplicity in Rahul Gandhi’s tone and physical appearance that is reminiscent of his father and comes across as genuinely warm and friendly when he interacts with his audiences -- Nitin Mantri

Narendra Modi:
Modi’s early speeches, especially after 2002, were, those of a nukkad politician, a Bajrang Dal bully. Modi’s speeches now are purposive. They seek targets. The audiences have to be wooed. Modi plays the octaves. He enjoys a story, loves a joke especially when it is on someone else. He can be conspiratorial with the audience. For Modi gentleness is an act of betrayal.

Rahul Gandhi: Rahul does not modulate his voice. As a storyteller he is terrible. He can evoke gentleness. His speech is repetitive. -- Shiv Visvanathan

Narendra Modi: The stage-set for Modi’s speeches displays a drama which projects him as someone who is able to draw the arc-lights on himself naturally and effortlessly. His stage at Patna was grand and provided the right background for his assertive statements. The use of I is important but us is more important. Modi uses lot of us.

Rahul Gandhi: An attempt by a leader to permeate his or her personal emotions into the election speech may create dissonance rather than support since the public tends to be harsh in judging such speakers. This use of pathos, as a rhetorical element to move the audience, can fail to inspire the audience if they fail to perceive a common thread with their own lives. Rahul Gandhi has used lot of personal anecdotes to work on gaining closeness/proximity to the audience but without substantial effect. He seems rather uncomfortable which comes through his awkwardness. His assertion is compromised by his unease with the language and limitation to the prepared text. -- Gita Bamezai

Narendra Modi: Modi has leveraged excellent oratory skills, and rustic humour to engage with his audiences. His tone is powerful and grabs the attention. Good oratory seems to come naturally to him and his skill as an orator often covers the generic content of his speech.

Rahul Gandhi: In terms of tonality, in recent times, Rahul Gandhi has started talking tough and is seen as more aggressive. His confidence in recent speeches and taking on the BJP is a clear sign that he is showing an aggressive side that we have missed in the past. Of course, some of that is a response to the speeches of Modi as well. But this aggression doesn’t seem to be natural for him, which is why often there is a gap between his tonality and expression. Much like his father, Rahul has over the years continued to talk about lineage and family political success stories in all his public appearances and speeches. -- Nitin Mantri

Narendra Modi:
Sartorially, Modi presents variety, a sense of fashion. His clothes are more colourful, signalling confidence, comfort in a variety of domains. Davos, Delhi or a village in Gujarat, he has the right costume. His tribal headdress, especially the ones in red are immaculate. He conveys authority and style. One also has a sense that he is trying to reconstitute himself desperately.

Rahul Gandhi: For a younger man, his whites convey asceticism and sacrifice. His sartorial style lacks the colour and grace of an Indira (Gandhi) or a Jawaharlal (Nehru). As someone said, he does not wear clothes, he wears his genealogy and by emphasizing it repeatedly, is wearing it out. Rahul’s clothes indicate an indifference. Often they have a slept in look. -- Shiv Visvanathan

Narendra Modi: If compared with Vajpayee, the last BJP Prime Minister, who lacked a particular sartorial style, Modi, in comparison, has developed a signature attire. His trademark half-sleeve kurta sets him apart and has helped him get noticed and has helped in giving him a distinctive personality.

Rahul Gandhi: If comparisons can be made between Rahul’s political baptism with Rajiv Gandhi’s entry into politics, the latter’s inexperience and sophistication was ignored since he found mass sympathy from the voters. His sports shoes, gave the kurta pajama a new designer overtone. Rahul has not introduced anything new in the way he looks except a slight assertion in his speech but unaccompanied by a confident posture. His kurta-pajama look hardly lends any extra edge and does not make a clear-cut statement. It may however, be a deliberate effort to indicate his un-mindfulness of dress as a choice to indicate his alignment with the ordinary people. -- Gita Bamezai

Narendra Modi: For Modi the trimmed beard and trademark half-sleeve kurta are becoming the rage – will the ‘Modi Kurta’ become as popular as the Nehru jacket remains to be seen, but there is a conscious effort to create a look that connects with everyone. The outfit in itself a mix of modernity and the traditional to create that connect. Besides kurta and pajamas, Modi looks comfortable in Western outfits as well. He has carried off his attires well and looks very comfortably even during his visits abroad and interactions with various global CEOs, who have engaged with him in Gujarat for business and investment dialogues.

Rahul Gandhi: Mostly dressed in white kurta-pajamas, worn with sneakers and sporting a beard, Rahul appears like his father, longing to change how India is governed. The kurta-pajama, light beard and a soft voice demark him from other politicians and his overall persona makes him very agreeable with Indian and international audiences. The non-verbal cue seems to reflect openness and innocence to connect with the masses. -- Nitin Mantri

...& how does Delhi’s new challenger fare? decoding Kejriwal
Body Language
Shiv Visvanathan:
Kejriwal’s early body language conveyed the perpetual deputy. Earlier he looked desperately for attention. Now he is at ease, as a true leader.

Gita Bamezai: The popular impression of a leader does not fit Kejriwal. This is in a way refreshing but incongruous as well. Like Modi, Kejriwal talks about corruption and high prices but articulates his views in a setting which is aam or ordinary. This provides or lends a distinct newness.

Nitin Mantri: During his public appearances, he comes across as a simple, but stubborn man. His body language is energetic, strong and independent, an angry politician fighting against corruption and a chatty compassionate friend rolled into one.

Shiv Visvanathan:
His speech is measured and normal. He can laugh easily, enjoy a joke, he can wait for a chance to speak. He does not address an audience, he speaks to it.

Gita Bamezai: Kejriwal presents only one-aspect of rhetorical qualities which is his ability to conjure-up statistics for highlighting civic problems. But he is not able to mobilise masses through emotional rousing of the people.

Nitin Mantri: Kejriwal’s speeches focus on taking corruption head on; they are charged with emotion and aggression. Through his public speaking, he has successfully managed to connect chords with the frustrated Indian middle class and its need for better political choice and leadership.

Shiv Visvanathan:
Kejriwal looks like a mouse or clerk that someone dragged into politics. The Aam Admi cap adds little to him but it signals that the Aam Admi Party is different. There are Swadeshi nuances to his costume.

Gita Bamezai: The sartorial aspects of his personality are not distinctive except for the cap. The cap and the election symbol (broom-stick) has been used to build their argument that they gain in credibility what they lose in terms of lack of experience.

Nitin Mantri: He has gone away from the traditional kurta to don a cotton shirt which is not tucked in his trousers. With a trade mark cap, Kejriwal symbolises public resentment against poor governance.

The art of selling a politician
The year was 1984. Rajiv Gandhi, trying to propel his party to victory after the assassination of his mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, employed advertising agency Rediffusion to create a winning election campaign for the Congress. Many in the advertising industry believe this to be the birth of organised political advertising in India. Cut to 2004. A Wall Street Journal feature reports how “campaign advertisments (ads) leading up to parliamentary elections outnumbered all other ad categories on Indian television, save for a few times when ads for ‘All Out’ bug repellent reigned.” For 2014 elections, the Congress has chosen Dentsu, Taproot and JWT to handle its poll campaign.

Agencies can end up being either celebrated or blamed by their clients for the outcome of the polls. “Grey Worldwide was associated with the BJP campaign in 1999 and then again in 2004. I was the agency’s chief operating officer at the time. While we authored the India Shining as a campaign for the Ministry of Finance, the campaign was not meant as a substitute for a political campaign. That someone in the party chose to use that as a plank for the 2004 campaign was unfortunate,” recalls Ashutosh Khanna, a former advertising professional.

Crayons Advertising has worked for the Congress party in the 2008 Delhi polls and the 2009 Lok Sabha elections. It has created campaigns like ‘Yahan Vikas Dikhta Hai” for the party (in Delhi). Says Ranjan Bargotra, the president of the agency, “Whether it is selling a toothpaste or a politician, you are selling a promise. You have to be aware of ground realities and connect with the target audience. There are however, differences. “Political campaigning works on universal target audience. It is the biggest possible kind of mass communication exercise,” he says. Agrees Ram Ray, of Response India ad agency, “The tonality of political messaging is usually populist in nature. While thinly veiled-potshots at rivals are not uncommon, humour is notable by its absence.”

Another difference, according to Amitava Mitra of Percept H is that “while companies concentrate on branding round the year, in political advertising branding happens only ahead of elections.” Most importantly, according to Prathap Suthan, who runs his own agency, Bang In The Middle, “here the agency is dealing with real humans and not a lifeless object. Which means, they will react impulsively, say unnecessary things, become volatile, and put their feet in their mouth at any given time.” As the national creative director of Grey, he had “written the India Shining campaign”.

The degree of risk involved makes working frenzied. “There’s always the trouble of being on the wrong side, and being quoted and misquoted, and all for the wrong reasons,” says Suthan. Yet, most agencies are willing to brave the challenges for the riches. In the run-up to the 2009 polls, industry pundits had estimated that political advertising might cross Rs. 600 crore in ad spends.

Personal political leanings don’t matter for most. “I don’t think you need to believe in the party. If you are a professional, you should be able to sift through the issues and make a compelling case,” says Khanna. -- PB

First Published: Nov 17, 2013 08:58 IST