Any one in India who heard the live telecast of Barack Obama's speech at the national convention of the Democrats in the US on Friday would have noted how his primary attributes - poise, eloquence, ideological clarity - were lacking in Indian politicians, particularly of the Congress.
It may not be an overstatement, therefore, to link the Congress' present political discomfiture to the inability of its topmost leaders - the prime minister and the party president - to communicate more effectively with ordinary people. To be fair, there haven't been too many powerful orators in Indian politics in the post-Independence period. Jawaharlal Nehru and Atal Bihari Vajpayee were the two notable exceptions.
Besides, the Congress is not the only party which lacks skilful speakers. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is slightly better placed at present in the sense that Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj, among the younger generation, are known for their articulateness. But they are usually more effective in confined spaces, as in parliament - when the BJP allows it to function - than at mass rallies.
Where the Congress is concerned, neither Manmohan Singh nor Sonia Gandhi is an effective public speaker, while it is too early to pass any judgment on the heir-apparent, Rahul Gandhi. As the prime minister's lacklustre Independence Day address this year showed, he is not very different from Sonia Gandhi who has sometimes been described - perhaps uncharitably - as a "reader" since neither Hindi nor English is her mother tongue.
But command over the language, or even the absence of a resonant voice, may not matter too much if the speaker is able to convey a sense of conviction about the party's objectives. Unfortunately, the Congress appears to have misplaced its ideological compass. Yet, it was certainly about where he wanted to take the country which made Nehru's speeches a riveting spectacle.
The occasions when his oratory appeared to scale ever greater heights were when he addressed the nation, via the radio, on Independence Day, routinely ending his speech with a stirring call to the audience to say Jai Hind with him three times. Since the Congress doesn't have national conventions of the kind which are held by the Democrats and the Republicans in America, the speech on Aug 15 from the ramparts of the Red Fort provides an opportunity for the prime minister to provide the listeners with an outline of his plans.
Never was such an effort needed more than at present when the Congress is reeling under manifold problems - a stagnating economy, allegations of corruption, outbreaks of violence, threats of internal insurgency and externally-sponsored (and also home-grown) terrorism. But neither Manmohan Singh nor Sonia Gandhi has been able to provide any indication of what the government and the party intend to do. It has always been the usual platitudes with little concrete action.
What is more, the reason for the inaction has been ascribed to a difference between them about the economic direction, with the prime minister favouring pro-market policies and the Congress president a welfare-oriented approach. But there are areas outside the economy where the two leaders could have been more forthright, such as about the confrontation between the Bodos, who are the sons-of-the-soil in Assam, and the Bangladeshi infiltrators, or between the Marathi sons-of-the-soil backed by the Shiv Sena and the Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), and the Biharis, who have been called "infiltrators" by MNS leader Raj Thackeray.
Manmohan Singh's and Sonia Gandhi's silence on the neglect of historical factors and on sub-nationalism, as also on the bans on books and cartoons, is evidently due to a disinclination to be unambiguous lest such a stance should alienate a prospective vote bank. It is the same expediency which is behind the playing of the caste card, as in the case of reviving the caste census after eight decades, and opting for a constitution amendment to introduce quotas for Dalits in the matter of promotions.
When such cynical calculations guide a party, it is understandable why neither Manmohan Singh nor Sonia Gandhi nor Rahul Gandhi is willing to spell out his or her stand on any subject which is remotely controversial. As a result, the Congress has virtually abandoned its role as a major national party which provides guidelines as Nehru did as a champion of secularism or on the economy as when he described the dams and industries as the temples of modern India.
Although the BJP is currently hedging its bets on its ideology by keeping silent on the Ram temple issue, at least there is no doubt about its pro-Hindu outlook because of its thesis of Hindutva or cultural nationalism, with its slogan of one nation, one people, one culture. Similarly, regional outfits like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), the Samajwadi Party, the Janata Dal-United (JD-U) and others in the Hindi belt are uninhibited about their casteism. As a result, there is no ambiguity about their views.
The Congress, on its part, probably has a guilty conscience about playing the caste card or the communal card, as when it opened the Babri Masjid gates, because of its non-sectarian tradition. Hence, it apparently regards silence as the better part of ideological valour.