The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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At next event, please don’t play it again, Singh
- If you hear brain drain once more, blame it on the gravity of the issue and not the speechwriter

Some of our brightest students have gone abroad and have done well in advanced fields of research…. Many of them have been returning home, for varying periods of time…. This reverse brain drain must be encouraged. Our visa regime, our employment regulations and rules, especially in universities and in government institutions, and related issues must respond to this new phenomenon

The Prime Minister at the platinum jubilee of the National Academy of Sciences, Mumbai, on October 6, 2006.

Many bright young Indian scientists working abroad in advanced fields of research wish to come home for varying periods of time. We must fully exploit the potential of this reverse brain drain. Our visa system, our employment procedures and remuneration systems, especially in our universities and in government institutions, must change and respond….

The Prime Minister at the Indian Science Congress, Chidambaram, on January 3, 2007.

Nice to know that India’s brainiest Prime Minister cares so much about brain drain, reverse or otherwise.

But when Manmohan Singh resurrects so many phrases and words from his own address delivered three months ago, it is time for his speechwriter to sit up and wrack his brains.

True to his original vocation, the economist-turned-politician has been economical with words, but not with a vice politicians — or their speechwriters — find hard to kick: repetition.

“Reverse brain drain” is now as much a stock-in-trade as “an idea whose time has come” used to be in the nineties when he revamped the economy.

If the topic is communal amity, no prizes for guessing what the Prime Minister will say: “Communal harmony is the sine qua non of a pluralistic society such as ours” — or a slightly tailored version of it.

On agriculture, the staple is “second Green Revolution”. If it’s Dalits and minorities, “inclusive growth” must be included.

Not many politicians lose sleep over what to utter when the microphone crackles to life. But when Singh repeats himself — almost word to word — it does come as a surprise, considering his punctilious nature and eye for detail.

A considerable amount of toil goes into the making of a Prime Minister’s speech. For events that are unlikely to stir controversy – like the Science Congress – Singh more or less leaves the topic to his speechwriter, who need not be the same person always and can change from subject to subject.

However, for red letter-day speeches like that on the Independence Day, the Prime Minister keeps a much closer watch that begins almost two weeks before the event. After each perusal, it is not uncommon for him to suggest changes.

Nuts-and-bolts changes – words, phrases and language – are not always made, except in subjects like economics, foreign policy and education, which are close to Singh’s heart.

The problem – if indeed Indian politicians consider repetition to be so – arises when there is a paucity of policy initiatives that can be announced. It then falls upon the hapless speechwriter to improvise – and sometimes dip into the reservoir of earlier such adventures.

“The leader is expected to show his or her overall thinking as a guide to the functioning of the organisation concerned. So in such speeches, unlike in public rallies, details and specifics are as important as the vision statement,” a politician pointed out.

But Sanjaya Baru, the Prime Minister’s media adviser who writes some of his speeches, said the stress on issues like brain drain is intentional. “There is a major crisis in science education in India. There has been a steep decline in the number of students enrolling for courses in pure sciences. The Prime Minister is very concerned about it. That is why he feels the issue should be repeated over and over again at all appropriate forums.”

At first flush, most speechwriters agonise over each and every word. But as time goes by and realisation dawns that most listeners, inured to the drivel being dished out by politicians, switch themselves off once they see a khadi-clad speaker striding towards the podium, the speechwriters too get wiser.

To be fair to Singh, he isn’t the first politician guilty of trite repetition, nor would he be the last.

P.V. Narasimha Rao had made literary history of sorts with the sentence “the law will take its own course” after the hawala scandal. L.K. Advani cannot open his mouth without “cultural nationalism”, “Bharatiyata” and the various Sanskritised S’s (suraj, swaraj, swachata and the like) tripping over one another as they rush out in a torrent.

The Atal Bihari Vajpayee lore has it that he scans every detail in a speech, including the subtleties of the English language, because he is “such a great poet”. Yet he wasn’t above meandering.

“(What) the anti-India forces in Pakistan could not achieve through open military aggression, they will never achieve through cross-border terrorism,” he had said in his address to the nation as Prime Minister on December 31, 2001.

On August 15, 2002, he said: “Our neighbour claims to oppose terrorism at the international level, but adopts double standards in the context of our region. After facing defeats in wars, it has resorted to cross-border terrorism for grabbing Kashmir.”

When his country faced a far bigger threat six decades earlier, Winston Churchill had made a series of great speeches in the House of Commons within weeks of one another.

On May 13, 1940, he told his nation: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears and sweat.”

On June 4, he expressed the resolve: “We shall go on to the end… we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets… we shall never surrender.”

These phrases, like many from his “their finest hour” speech two weeks later, have today become cliches -- not through repetition by Churchill but by the English-speaking world.

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