Congress leader Rahul Gandhi meets a supporter during the 'Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra', in Ujjain Image Credit: ANI

No matter how many thousands of kilometres Rahul Gandhi travels across India, his frequent gaffes are never going to let him overcome his image problems.

Rahul Gandhi speaks extempore, and his thoughts often get lost in translation. It seems that he thinks in English but when he translates phrases into Hindi in his mind, he ends up saying something other than what he means.

Concluding his Bharat Jodo Nyay Yatra in Mumbai, Rahul Gandhi made several gaffes. The one that went viral was so bad you wondered if it was doctored. It wasn’t.

Quoting an unemployed young man who couldn’t get a job in the army, Gandhi said, “I (the youth) wanted to go to Ladakh, in the freezing cold, shiver in the cold …. Shiver before the enemies of the country … and take their bullets if I get the opportunity.”

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That is an English translation of what Gandhi said. It is obvious he meant to say the young man wants to go fight the enemy despite shivering cold weather. The gaffe can produce only one response: laughter.

Such gaffes are so common they no longer surprise. They often go unnoticed because you expect them. It is when Rahul Gandhi makes a full speech without awkward phrasing that it gets attention.

Oratory moves votes

In the same speech Rahul Gandhi said he was fighting the “Shakti” or force of the BJP, using Shakti here in a negative sense, but he prefaced his remarks by saying Shakti had an important role in Hindu mythology, where it usually refers to the deity Durga.

This remark was picked up by Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself, who castigated Rahul Gandhi for it.

Supporters of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party are no longer able to defend these gaffes by saying ‘the BJP has made this image of him’ or ‘have you looked at Modi’s gaffes?’

Modi’s gaffes are few and far between, and he has the political capital to afford them.

Read more by Shivam Vij

Rahul Gandhi’s image would be a lot better if he just walks and does photo-ops. He cannot deliver a single speech where his turn of phrase, at least in Hindi, is not jarring. He always makes you wonder: what is he trying to say?

Rahul Gandhi’s poor oratory in contrast to Narendra Modi’s clear and emphatic speeches is one of the reasons why swing voters have moved away from the Congress to the BJP.

Just read it out loud

There is one solution. If Rahul Gandhi starts using a “presidential teleprompter”, he will be cured of gaffes. All he has to do is to find a good speech writer and stick to the script. This will also take care of Rahul Gandhi’s aversion to doing homework. He just has to read.

A presidential teleprompter places two or more translucent screens in front of the speaker. The text is reflected from the floor. The audience can’t see the text, and can see you through the small screens.

The advantage of multiple screens and see-through glass is that the speaker can move his head from left to right, speaking and looking through the glass, as if looking at the audience. The speaker doesn’t come across as a boring news reader, and doesn’t have to look at his or her notes either.

The best of world leaders use teleprompters. Barack Obama used them, as does Joe Biden. The only major world leader who is averse to using them is Donald Trump, who puts a premium on authenticity and performance. He has gone to the extent of arguing that teleprompters should be banned in political speeches. Donald Trump can afford to speak extempore, his theatrics work for him.

In India, Narendra Modi was perhaps the first politician to start using a presidential teleprompter in political rallies. He did so only after becoming prime minister in 2014. Some of his ministerial colleagues now use them, mostly in official functions.

Much ado about authenticity

Modi’s critics, especially supporters of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress party, criticise Modi for using teleprompters. Their objection is similar to the one that Trump has: authenticity. The idea is that the leader doesn’t mean what he is saying, and cannot answer a straight question, all he does is read out a speech.

If only it was that easy. Top leaders have to deliver so many speeches it is difficult to remember the talking points, memorise the keywords to use, not forget the details. Especially if you have to do real work like running a party or a country, you just don’t have the time to prepare for speeches.

It is ironic that some Indian liberals feel the same way about teleprompters as Donald Trump. It is telling that liberal politics in India objects to such basic things as speechwriters and speech aids — it shows why liberal politics is failing at the craft of politics.

PM Narendra Modi has started using live AI translation tools for his speeches, and Rahul Gandhi is yet to understand he needs the teleprompter more than Modi.