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Of speeches great & ridiculous

What makes some speeches great, some eminently forgettable and some held up for ridicule? Dr Dasgupta analyses.

india Updated: Jan 05, 2005 20:04 IST

Why is there a difference between the speeches made in Arabic by Arab Leaders compared to the speeches made by Western Leaders? Is the bombast because of weaknesses in their political strengths or is it due to the inherent nature of Arabic language? What makes some speeches great, some speeches eminently forgettable and some held up for ridicule?

Some priceless pearls of wisdom crossed my inbox recently, purporting to be speeches of Saddam Hussein. Some examples are worth sharing

- There arose great confusion: Echoes reverberated, guns pounded, aircraft buzzed, and remotely controlled bombs exploded. A thundering voice towered above and overtopped all of these sounds, a voice announcing that "God is Great".

- A new Iraq has been born since January 16-17, 1991, as a result of the Mother-of-All-Battles, in which Iraqi blood had been generously spilled and Iraqi suffering and patience have started.

- Iraq has been born with his gun, instead of the sword, spear, and the arrow, to be armed so the ravens may not attack the fruits of its date palm trees and the eye of his children.

- One of the lessons of recent and distant history is that all empires and bearers of the coffin of evil, whenever they mobilised their evil against the Arab nation or the Muslim world, were themselves buried in their own coffin along with their sick dreams, arrogance and greed...

These are translations from Arabic, and I cannot vouch face for the accuracy or style. On searching a bit more on the net, some more pearls from other Arabic leaders came out:

Mu`ammar al-Qadhafi, Libya
"Now, America is stepping all over the world with its shoes. It is not afraid or ashamed and has no conscience. It scares everyone, and they fire missiles while they are drunk, and it sets the price of bread in the world. It orders the World Bank and the IMF to set the price of bread in Jordan. It tells them to raise it by 300 per cent, and that happens".

Nasser Abdul Gamal
"An army is costly and has nothing to do but coups. As for me, if a neighbouring state wants to invade Libya, I'll scatter flowers on its way. Let it come to help me face Libya's problems".

King Hussein, Jordan
"We shall defend our freedom and independence to the last drops of our blood. This is the staunch feeling of every Egyptian. The whole Arab nation will stand by us in our common fight against aggression and domination. Free peoples, too, people who are really free will stand by us and support us against the forces of tyranny".

"The masses proved capable of distinguishing the windbags and word merchants from those who face death on the battlefield. The masses realised the decisive importance of military action and the full need for political action. They realise that, although, the objective was clear and unambiguous, the movement pursuing it needed complete freedom of action to cope with a highly mobile enemy, a world preoccupied by the Middle East conflict and an international force comprising both friends and enemies".

Chairman Yassir Arafat, Palestine
"Regarding the political consideration, since the June 1967 aggression we have believed that our actions and efforts should be directed at liberating the land and the sanctities from Israeli occupation. Therefore, we have concentrated all our efforts over the past twenty-one years of occupation on that goal".

Prince Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz, Saudi Arabia
"And that -- we will never go back. We will never leave the peace process, and we will never go back to violence and confrontation. No return to confrontation and violence".

"I am quite confident that I'm talking in the name of all Palestinians when I assure you that we are all committed to the security of every child, woman and man in Israel".

"I came to this Assembly, 21 years ago as a fighter for freedom, liberation and independence, carrying with me the torments of my struggling people. Today, however, I come to you with a heart filled with love and peace, now that the olive branch has been raised over the peace of the brave".

"Human rights, as we Muslims understand the concept, is an inalienable gift of the creator, no one has the right to deny it to anyone. It is certainly not a certificate of good behaviour to be granted by some who claim a false moral ascendancy over others. These rights exist at the roots of all human cultures and must not be viewed in isolation of their origins. It is futile to impose on an individual, or on a particular society so-called rights alien to it or to its beliefs, or values contrary to a society's fundamental ideals".

Why do some speeches pass into history, while most pass straight through into obscurity? Significant national and international events such as war usually give rise to speeches with strong words and images which are more powerful than during peacetime speeches. Even so, comparing to our neighbourhood, the speeches given in the Middle East are in a different category altogether.

President General Musharraf, at the height of the 2002 stand-off, was comparatively understated: "I would like to say that all these allegations with aggressive overtones show highly irresponsible behaviour on the part of the Indian leadership. This increases the heat of war and creates war hysteria. This is unacceptable to us..."

Compare that with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee’s statement during the same time: "But as our neighbour knows, the entire world is fighting against terrorism with American troops now in Afghanistan, and we want to ask the world: How can, and how long can, we tolerate terrorist activities in our country?"

We have had good speakers in our neck of the woods. Jawaharlal Nehru’s speech is still one of the most well known in the country: "Long years ago, we made a tryst with destiny, and now the time comes when we shall redeem our pledge, not wholly or in full measure, but very substantially. At the stroke of midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom".
Churchill’s speeches are considered to be gems: "Fight them on the beaches", John F Kennedy’s speech: "And so, my fellow Americans. . .ask not what your country can do for you. . .ask what you can do for your country. My fellow citizens of the world. . .ask not what America will do for you, but what together we can do for the Freedom of Man". Who can forget Abe Lincoln’s Gettysberg Address: "Four score...".

In my opinion, speeches which are to be read again and again, which pass into common lexicon, which are oft-quoted and form the basis of cultures are simple. They contain powerful images, which are expressed in simple words and concepts.

Upon reflection, great speeches are considered great when they are backed up with conviction and in certain cases, with action. If the speaker is promising blood, guts and tears in his speech, and follows it up with supine behaviour, it rapidly descends into farce.

Saddam Hussein’s bombastic speech about the mother-of-all-battles has now entered into the annals of sneering laughter-laden jokes. I would not go as far as to generalise, but this seems to be a particularly localized issue, with most Arab leaders tending to be extremely exuberant in their speech.

From a potentially dispassionate perspective, one wonders as to the impact of these speeches on the general populace. Do they start discounting the speech as all sound and no fury? Do they consider their words to actually mean what they say? Or do they accept that those speeches are linguistic masterpieces and have as much reference to what will actually happen as a duck has to a crab? Do words feed a populace? Or do they actually believe in them?

How does the general populace deal with the disappointment when the Promised Land does not appear? Reminds me of the Rajasthani folk story about the show-off who would eat roti’s at home and then stick a grain or two of basmati rice in his moustache when he goes out of the house to show that he is rich enough to afford to eat basmati rice. One smiles when one reads about this, but when this household situation is translated to the national level, the long term results are rather more distressing. There is nothing more debilitating to a country than to have a reputation of being bombastic and all talk with no action.

In most cases of normal international relations, it does not matter, but speeches by national leaders have a small but significant impact on the perception of the country. Speeches need to be carefully thought out and calibrated. Over a period of time, these speeches form the small bricks which build the edifice of the nation’s reputation and image to the outside world. For a long time, India was considered to be self-righteous and a motor-mouth, all based on its propensity to moralise and lecture everybody about anything at the drop of a Gandhi topi, all this without economic or military weight behind it.

Just read the recently declassified papers on the Nixon Administration to learn how the US president and his colleagues used to think about India.

People who are old enough will see how the image of India has changed, our leader’s speeches have changed subtly, they have become more nuanced, and the increase in the economic and military power has supported the gravitas of the words. Wild threats and flowery language is out. This is not to say that all our Indian leaders’ utterances are masterpieces of the speech writer’s arts.
Some of the speeches can make people’s hair stand on end.

The senior leader’s speeches are quite good; it’s the state and other group leader’s (including religious groups) speeches, which admittedly are for domestic consumption, some of which far cross the boundaries of good taste, politeness and gentlemanly behaviour. Ah! Well, nobody ever said that Indian politics was gentlemanly. At the same time, these speeches will not be remembered in a good way, they may well be remembered for their vitriol, their bad taste, their bombast and general uselessness. Foot-in-mouth indeed.

All this to be taken with a grain of salt!

(Dr Bhaskar Dasgupta, currently working on a doctorate at Kings College in International Relations and Terrorism, also holds a Doctorate in Finance and Artificial Intelligence from Manchester Business School. He works in the City of London in various capacities in the Banking Sector. He also lectures at several British Universities.)

First Published: May 31, 2003 12:19 IST