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Politicians and public figures are often referred to either as “great communicators” or not.
And, I have often wondered what constitutes a “great communicator.”
Many world-historical figures spring to mind, and I pause to consider what some, who were great communicators, communicated.
Who greater than Mark Antony?
And yet, what he communicated contributed to bringing down the Roman republic.
In modern times, there was not a pare to Adolf Hitler.
Recall how he could mesmerise thousands into loyalty and compliance.
That “great dictator” (Charles Chaplin’s unforgettable movie of him) was the greatest of communicators in the sense the epithet is nowadays used.
Think what his powers of communication did to the world.
In contrast, Mahatma Gandhi was nothing of a speaker; and when asked what was his message to the world, he said, “My life is my message.”
I doubt Hitler who “communicated” so forcefully would or could have said that.
The greatness of his communication was his simple but unshakable adherence to peace and non-violence – values that he communicated not through strident perorations but silent satyagraha.
Jawaharlal Nehru, likewise, was no great communicator.
Prosaically, much of the time he spoke to his people in a non-flamboyant rational tone, seeking not to sweep the masses off their sense but to persuade them with the weight of argument and example.
When at an election rally in 1957 in Madhya Pradesh someone in the audience said to him that his candidate was corrupt, he simply said, “Don’t vote for him.”
Was that not the greatest instance of “great communication”?
In his book On Heroes and Hero Worship, Thomas Carlyle included Oliver Cromwell as one of his heroes.
And Cromwell was the poorest of speakers.
So why was he a hero to Carlyle?
Because of the indubitable sincerity of his persona, and his noble adherence to democratic politics.
Communicators like Brutus, Gandhi, Nehru, Cromwell did not flail their arms and sway their heads in a frenzy, nor invite their audiences to say “yes, yes” to their slogans.
They did not say one thing one day and the rank opposite the next.
Their rock-like steadiness of principle was their message, and they desired the last man to understand for himself what was being said and why.
You may recall that the cow was the dearest of the dear and the holiest of the holy for Bapu.
So, during constitution-making, it was put to him that a provision be made for banning cow slaughter, he is reported to have said, “Over my dead body.”
Why? Because, he said, that would be tantamount to thrusting his subjective will on the people of India. It was his view that such things must happen with the understanding and acceptance of the people at large.
What a message that, especially for our times.
In our culture generally, a great teacher is thought to be one who is never at a loss for words, who never needs to look up a book in order to answer any question.
A teacher who says he will study and return with a reliable answer is thought to be a nincompoop.
This overwhelming oral itch disfigures all our transactions, rendering us for the most part anti-intellectual and prone to succumb to great oratory.
Such is the stuff that contributes to building the cult of heroes; the reason why Ambedkar had warned us that whereas a bhakti cult is understandable in religious matters, a bhakti approach to politics is a sure recipe for destroying democracy and installing a dictatorship.
“Great communicators” of the current parlance seek to rob us of our cognitive faculties; but communicators who contribute to lasting ethical and intellectual values seek to do the opposite, namely to use our own powers of analysis and cogitation to sift the chaff of things from the truth.
If there is one thing the world of today most needs is a return to honest and truthful communication of realities, however badly these may reflect on the powers-that-be.
And, if the world is descending into evil, it is precisely because we have come to valorise the spectacle of oratory, however canny and misleading, over the simple credibilities of human interaction, most of all in the political sphere of collective life.