Sixty nine years ago Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru became Prime Minister of India and delivered the speech of his life.
Great political speeches have two characteristics at least: they rise to the demands of the occasion or the subject they address; and they have high recall, leaving us with one or two memorable phrases as a handle.
I count among these Lincoln’s Gettysburg address – probably the finest of all- which gave us “the last full measure of devotion” and “government of the people by people…”; Dr Martin Luther King’s “I have a Dream” and the content of our character; John F Kennedy’s “Ask not what your country can do for you”; Mark Anthony’s appeal to “Friends, Romans and Countrymen” to lend him their ears as he paid tribute to the fallen Caesar; Franklin Delanor Roosevelt’s first inaugural with “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself”; and
Theodore Roosevelt’s speech at the University of Paris on his return from his African Safari in April 1910 which had this – and it is worth quoting in full: “it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” Beautiful! Isn’t it ?
I would also add to these the coda to Nelson Mandela’s three-hour speech at the Rivonia trials in 1964: “During my lifetime” he said “I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people. I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” And Kwame Nkrumah’s independence speech with “the independence of Ghana is meaningless…” His OAU address was even better but the independence speech has a higher recall.
The modern master of speech-making, however, is Winston Churchill whose famous radio addresses to the British Commonwealth were crucial in motivating an entire people to stick with the noble enterprise of defeating the Nazis even when the going was tough. After taking over from Neville Chamberlain he gave a rousing speech in the House and to his ministers with the now famous “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.”
After Dunkirk he was even more defiant promising this: “we shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, 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 fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.”
His most emotional must be the one given after Battle of Britain with perhaps the most famous recall : “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few”.
Following the fall of France, Churchill delivered a somber and perhaps one of his finest speeches. With an eye to posterity and a sense of foreboding and the gathering of the storms he said “Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
Sixty-nine years ago, Jawaharlal Pandit Nehru who like Churchill was educated at Harrow School similarly rose to the occasion at the historic independence of India – the first outside the white Commonwealth – with a speech he titled “Tryst with Destiny” which still gives me goose pimples whenever I listen to it. The famous line from the speech, “At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom” provided the inspiration for Salman Rudshie’s “Midnight Children” and has swirled around my brain for years.
On the occasion of India’s 69th Independence today it is worth rereading Nehru’s words which can be found here at http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1947nehru1.html
At the appropriate time I shall return with my assessment of India’s tryst with destiny but for now Happy Independence Day India!
August 15, 2016