A close look at the political speeches: Boring they might be, but speeches are necessary during this season of the Constituent Assembly elections. Demand for highprofile orators is increasing.
By Dinesh Wagle
Wagle Street Journal
[Nepali version of this story will appear in tomorrow’s Koseli of Kantipur daily. A shorter version of the story will appear in tomorrow’s Kathmandu Post.]
Gagan Thapa addresses a campaign rally in Kirtipur last Saturday (22 March). Pic by Bikas Karki
“Comrade chairman,” comrade guest said as he stepped up to the microphone. “Comrade members of the UML’s standing and central committees who are on the dais and all the law-abiding people present at this mass meeting. I would like to greet you with the revolutionary lal salaam (red salute) on behalf of the UML.”
Lal salaam! It was UML general secretary Madhav Kumar Nepal addressing an electoral program in New Baneshwor last Sunday. Nepal wanted to clarify something before indirectly chiding the Maoists and mentioning a few points from his party’s election manifesto in the 25-minute-long speech. “Friends,” he said, “as the campaign moves forward, leaders and actors might lose their voices.”
(The actors are the entertainers who provide amusement to the participants of mass meetings. Folk singer Bhagwan Bhandari had sung a song and requested the audience to cast their votes for the sun emblem, the election symbol of the UML, before Nepal went on.)
“So we should take great care of our throats,” said a smiling but hoarse Nepal. “Don’t give us cold water. Hot water…”
Instead of completing the sentence, Nepal changed the subject, “No power on earth can stop this election.” His declaration made the headlines. It wasn’t difficult to understand the incomplete “hot water” sentence, but it’s a reflection of how sloppy Nepali speechmakers are. They lack clarity, use passive sentences and give such long and repetitive orations that listeners get bored.
“Many leaders except a few youth are not updated,” said satirist Manoj Gajurel, who parodies political leaders. “The leaders enunciate theories and talk through their hats. The young generation who participated in the people’s movement don’t understand what they are saying.” He added that political programs were using music and other entertainment to attract audiences as nobody wanted to come just to listen to the speeches.
Madhav Nepal address a mass meeting in New Baneshwor Sunday (23 March)
Boring they might be, but speeches are necessary during this season of the Constituent Assembly elections. “High profile” speakers like Madhav Nepal are speaking at an average of five programs a day. Busy speakers have become like those Nepali film actors who reach the shooting spot of the next film as soon as they are done with the first. During all the rush, they hardly find time to study the character that they are going to perform in the movie. The impact could be seen in the poor portrayal of the character. Same happens in public speaking. The more the speeches, the clumsier they become. Regardless of how good or bad the speeches are, they take their toll on the speaker’s throat.
“I can’t speak,” whispered Mahesh Acharya, the Nepali Congress candidate in Morang-6, during a telephonic interview Monday. “I have lost my voice,” he added in a barely audible voice from the clinic where he was being treated.
Nepal, a candidate in Rhautahat-6 and Kathmandu-2, didn’t speak at a program in Kirtipur last week because of a soar throat. He must have drunk a lot of hot water to prepare himself for the New Baneshwor gathering.
Hot water certainly helps to deliver a speech but it remains to be seen if the speeches help them to get more votes. Amidst that uncertainty demand for fine orators is increasing as the campaign intensifies. “I was in Biratnagar a while ago,” said Nepali Congress youth leader Gagan Thapa on phone. “Now I am in Kathmandu and about to go to Chitwan.” Thapa, who is in NC’s closed list of the candidates for proportional elections, is skilled in delivering speeches that, according to reporters who have covered his programs, ‘rouse up the masses’, ‘make people stand up’, and ‘encourage the listeners’.
“I give importance to three things,” Thapa said about his speeches. “There should be some message and substance so that listeners learn something.” Emphasizing that he never “underestimates the listeners”, Thapa said that he wanted to communicate with them as if he were talking to them directly. “The third point is the context. I used to talk about the movement during the people’s movement, now I ask for votes for my party.”
“CA election is the common responsibility of all parties,” said Thapa adding that he talks good things about his party rather than chiding others. “Speeches shouldn’t create lowest level of enmity. Cadres from other parties who come to listen to me shouldn’t go back angry.”
Action is slightly different than word. Thapa delivered a fierce speech in Kirtipur last Saturday that certainly didn’t make the Maoist feel good. Thapa, soaked in the vermilion as he took part in Holi cum election rally in Biratnagar in the morning, had gone straight to Kirtipur to address the meeting. He started the speech with a sentence something like this according to a reporter who was present in the meeting: “Those who swim in the pool of blood play with the color of vermilion and see how good it feels…”
“That’s because of the context,” Thapa defended his speech in an interview. “That’s [Maoist chairman] Prachanda’s constituency. Also the mass was tired by the long and boring speeches by those who spoke before me. If I hadn’t attracted the mass’s attention like that, I couldn’t have communicated with them.”
Leftist politician Pari Thapa agreed that one should use ‘appropriate gesture and words to attract the public’. The leader of Communist Party of Nepal (Unified), who said he prepares notes to avoid repetition added that ‘one hour is normally enough to cover main points’ in electoral speeches. “I make slight changes depending on the place,” said the parliamentarian in a phone interview from Siraha where he had reached this week from addressing meetings in Ramechhap. “I talk mostly about new Nepal and State restructuring.”
Speech is all about speaking for sure. It helps speaker sell ideas. Throughout history, charismatic world leaders have used the power of speech to communicate difficult truths, galvanize citizens to fight for independence and to unite nations to defeat foreign enemies, states a website that sells a 13-part documentary series entitled Greatest Speeches of the 20th Century: Voices in Time. There’s one thing in common with all those great speeches delivered by the likes of Winston Churchill Barack Obama (about race): all were carefully written. With the exception of Narayan Man Bijukchhe, leader of the Nepal Workers and Peasants Party, Nepali leaders never write their speeches.
“No special preparation,” said Shankar Pokharel of the UML who is considered a fine orator. “I plan the speech in my mind, not in a diary.” Adding that his involvement in preparing party’s manifesto and other documents helps him keep track of major issues Pokharel said he decides about the nature of the speech after gauging the audience. “If there are intellectuals I talk about policies, theories and present arguments,” said Pokharel who is in the closed list of the UML candidates for proportional election. “You have to cite examples to general public, give emotional speech to young audience, tell same thing from different angles to the old.”
Such is the level of distrust for the political speeches that putting ‘leaders’ and ‘speeches’ together hardly makes an optimistic sentence. Leaders only give speeches, goes the popular saying, never work. Biggest challenge of the speeches is to win the trust of the audience. “Speeches lost credibility because the speakers didn’t fulfill the promises made in them,” said Gagan Thapa. “If the audiences feel that I speak truth it will be easier for me to connect with them.”
The audience might clap during a speech, but that does not necessarily mean that they are going to vote for the speaker’s party. “I don’t think a committed person will change his opinion after listening to a speech,” said Pokharel. “But good arguments can influence the neutral masses.”
Even if speeches may not inspire the general public, Pokharel said that they were necessary to motivate the cadres and publicize the party’s agenda. “They work harder when they are inspired,” he said. “That helps increase the number of votes for the party. Party supporters will be excited if the party’s agenda is effective, while opponents become defensive.”
Speeches serve different purposes, and their nature varies depending on the speaker. Manmohan Bhattarai, who is considered to be one of the finest orators in the Nepali Congress, says speechmaking is an art that must be creative.
“I also used to give radical speeches at one point,” he said. “I used to enjoy attacking my antagonists. Today, I focus on sharing the knowledge that I have gained by reading books with uninformed listeners.” That knowledge, he said, also includes arguments that the Nepali Congress is the better choice in the elections.