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Words should stand the test of time


Rudrangshu Mukherjee on his attempt to view modern India’s history through speeches.

It’s difficult to think of a phrase uttered by a public figure in the last 20 years of public life that’s become memorable.

Photos: The Hindu Photo Library and R.V. Moorthy

Flair with words: Nehru was a great extempore speaker.

Starting as a lecturer at the Department of History in the University of Calcutta, Rudrangshu Mukherjee moved into journalism 12 years later. Still, he has continued to more than dabble in history; penning books at regular intervals. In Delhi recently, he spoke about his latest venture, Great Speeches of Modern India, which he has edited.

How different is this book from your earlier works?

Not very. I began as a historian of 1857; I have three books on it. And another book on 1857 coming up. But, I work on Gandhi… so I’m basically a kind of specialist on modern India. In that sense, it’s not a different kind of book.

Can you bring out your view of history in a collection of speeches?

Every single speech has an introduction which sets its context, significance, when it was said and interesting anecdotes, if any. There’s also a long interpretative essay on the evolution of the art of making speeches in modern India. It’s an unusual attempt to see modern Indian history through speeches. You have speeches from major Congress leaders and Muslim politicians to show the Muslim breakaway from the Congress. There’s Jinnah’s great speech to the Constituent Assembly of Pakistan, which in a sense is a great betrayal of Pakistan itself because it’s a very significant secular statement that Jinnah is making at the inauguration of a State born out of religious separatism. Then there is the story of India’s cultural awakening, which is part of Indian nationalism also. So, you have people like Nivedita, Vivekananda and Tagore who are talking about India’s cultural identity. There’s a story of India’s economy as well — Nehru on the five-year plan, JRD against the five-year plan, then Manmohan Singh inaugurating the era of economic reforms. It’s a very layered book. It doesn’t have one theme, but various different themes converge to make modern Indian history.

Is this book timed for the 60th anniversary of India’s Independence?

It came out in a lunchtime chat between friends. We were talking about speeches and one of us thought it would be a good idea to do a book of speeches for the 60th year. The choice of speeches is necessarily subjective. I’ve used my personal interpretation of what is important in modern Indian history. So, it’s a personal book. I’ve chosen the speeches and I’m sure that if another historian was to choose, the emphasis would be different. I’ve also tried not to over-emphasise politics, which is the natural tendency because we identify speeches with politicians or political actors. There are speeches here which have nothing to do with politics: Vikram Seth, Salman Rushdie, Satyajit Ray…

What is the book’s USP?

That nobody ever tried to look at modern Indian history through speeches.

You dwell on ghost-writers in your introduction…

In the period that Nehru lived and before that, most speeches were either given extempore or written out by the person making the speech. There are very important speeches, which were completely extempore: Vivekananda’s Chicago address, Gandhi’s speech at the Second Round Table Conference, Nehru’s speech at Gandhi’s death. They just stood up and spoke. These were also great speech writers. “Tryst with Destiny” is the greatest example. Then you find a shift happening sometime in the 1960s when you have ghosts coming in and you don’t know who the ghosts are. P.V. Narasimha Rao was a major exception. He was a very cerebral man; you can make out from his speeches that there was a mind at work there. He wrote his own speeches. But that’s not the case for the other politicians, including Indira Gandhi, and even, perhaps, the present Prime Minister. Maybe, the Prime Minister gives the general guideline, but the actual putting together of the speech is done by somebody else. This is a global trend. We have this word “spin-doctors” coming into play and most of these spin-doctors are concerned about how to make public statements; whether they are one-liners, catchy bytes or speeches. The trend probably began with JFK. Sometime in the early 1960s this became a global trend. It is impossible to think of somebody else writing Churchill or Roosevelt’s speeches.

What started this trend?

A: It’s not as if these politicians are un-intelligent people. They obviously don’t feel confident enough to handle the language in the succinct way a speech-writer can.

Do you find something missing in a speech written by a ghost-writer?

Two things are lost: One is spontaneity. And, none of the ghost-writers have Nehru’s flair with words and phrases. It’s difficult to think of a phrase uttered by a public figure in the last 20 years of public life that’s become memorable, which has stuck in our minds, which we cannot forget like “tryst with destiny”. Nowadays, they don’t have that literary flavour. They may offer catchy bytes, which sound good on television but do not have a long shelf life. I think there’s a difference between phrases that are catchy and phrases that are memorable.

Neither Sonia Gandhi nor L. K. Advani is regarded as a good communicator. How do they feature in this collection?

Advani’s speech was selected primarily to show how one speech, already selected for obvious reasons, has resonances and reverberations 50 years later. I don’t think Jinnah in his wildest dreams expected that his speech would be taken up by a Hindu political leader coming from India. This irony is brought out by the inclusion of that speech.

On hindsight, any major omissions.

Several; not because they didn’t come to mind but because some of the best speeches made by leaders like Hiren Mukherjee were at election meetings and not recorded. And, his recorded Parliamentary speeches did not fulfil my expectations. Vajpayee loses out because there are no authorised translations of his Hindi speeches. Another thing about Vajpayee is that you can never convey in print the devastating use he makes of silence.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee.

What is the one thing that you kept in mind while putting this anthology together?

Whether a speech retains its power in print. A lot of speeches are powerful when heard but when you read them somehow they do not have the substance or solidity that you associate with the printed word. It must read well. Things that are said well do not always read well.

What constitutes a good speech?

Something that stands the test of time; something that is just not dependent on the oratorical skills of the speech maker. The nearer I’ve come to contemporary times, the more risks I’ve taken. In fact, by selecting a speech like the one Gopal Gandhi made this year, I’m actually sticking my neck out and saying here is a speech that will withstand the test of time.

In an age of ghost-writers, why are there no memorable ones from political classes today?

Less and less of Indian politics is to do with issues and ideas. Indian politics today revolves around very petty things. I’m afraid, on petty things you cannot make great speeches; you can only make petty statements.

Exclusive extracts from the recently published The Great Speeches ;of Modern India.

The Great Speeches of Modern India; Rudrangshu Mukherjee, Random House, Rs.350.

Speeches are meant to be spoken — and heard. For this reason, a speech is fundamentally different from other forms of written text, for it is not simply dependent on the words alone — though they are the vital components of a good speech — but on certain other skills to do with voice and even gesture. A good orator brings to a speech something more persuasive and moving than the power of the written word and these qualities often prove to be ephemeral, losing something of themselves in printed form. But there are certain speeches that retain their emotive charge. Think of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address and those words — ‘government of the people, by the people and for the people’ — which have become the most quoted definition of democracy. Or think of Winston Churchill’s memorable speeches during the Second World War. At the time they were made, Churchill’s speeches roused the British people and sustained their morale during their darkest hour. Even today, they make stirring reading and so many of the phrases and sentences that he used have become part of the English language. This anthology brings together some of the speeches made in India from the end of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st which retain their power as written texts.


The first section of the book recounts India’s struggle for independence. The great turning point in this struggle was the establishment of the Indian National Congress, the political party that was at the forefront of the Indian national movement. The anthology, thus, opens with the inaugural speech of the INC. The journey towards freedom was marked by many such milestone speeches. One of the most memorable of these was the declaration made by Bal Gangadhar Tilak on behalf of all subject people: ‘Swaraj is my birthright.’ Tilak spoke as an old man to the youth of India at a time when the Swadeshi movement was failing and Extremists and Moderates in the Congress party had split. Tilak articulated the desire of all subjugated people and his words, imbued with rare power, transcended all factions.


Having overcome the trauma of Gandhi’s murder, India, the fledgling nation, turned towards building a modern polity, economy and society. The Constituent Assembly, the forum where many fine speeches were made, provided the framework of parliamentary democracy. The chairman of the drafting committee, B.R. Ambedkar, captured in his closing speech of the first assembly both the profound solemnity of the occasion and the responsibilities that had devolved on the leaders of the new republic. No leader was more aware of these responsibilities than Nehru. He embodied in his personality, his policies, the qualities of his leadership and above all in his speeches the hopes and aspirations of independent India. As the first Prime Minister, he was responsible for making democracy in India robust and viable, and for endowing the nation with a set of modern institutions.

The Fifties were Nehru’s golden years, and it can be said without any undue exaggeration that his voice became the voice of Inda. He spoke for the nation and to the nation. Nehru was no demagogue but he had the ability to inspire, to capture the imagination of the nation. He had the rare gift of choosing the right words for an occasion. Only he could fuse together tradition and modernity by describing the Bhakra Nangal dam and other similar projects as the temples of the new India.

The passing away of Nehru closed a chapter in the annals of India’s contemporary history. The style of the speeches, too, changed. Nehru and his contemporaries — and almost certainly the generation preceding him — had all written their own speeches. This cannot be said for the politicians of the post-Nehru era. Most, if not all, the major political figures from Indira Gandhi onwards had their own team whose members worked on the speeches and wrote them. Indian political leaders were part of a global trend.


John F. Kennedy was perhaps the first leading political figure to work with speechwriters. His first speechwriter was Theodore Sorensen who instructed the young president to follow Lincoln’s Gettysburg address as a model. Speech writing for Kennedy became a major operation with men like John Kenneth Galbraith, Adlai Stevenson, Arthur Schlesinger and others being solicited for drafts and suggestions. The age of the speechwriter had arrived. The age of the spin-doctors was not far away.


There is obviously a shadow between the power of oratory and the power of a text when it is read by subsequent generations. A distinction needs to be made between great speakers and great speeches. Great speakers do not always make great speeches. The yardstick for judging the latter is whether the words retain their power with the passing of time. Nehru was not a great orator in the traditional sense of the term, his voice was not loud and words did not come in a torrent as they do with great orators, he did not pause for effect but he made many memorable speeches and coined phrases that have become part of the nation’s vocabulary.

We do not know if Vivekananda was a great orator but reading his Chicago address after more than one hundred years is still a stirring experience. Orators like Hiren Mukerji Shyamaprosad Mookerjea, or to take another example, Tulsi Goswami (known in his time as the Demosthenes of Bengal) moved people by their rhetoric but not all their speeches when read today convey the same power. There is a disjunction somewhere between the power of speech when heard and the power of words when read. In this collection, for obvious reasons, the emphasis has been on the latter.

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