Modi’s First I-Day Speech

Mail Today, August 16

There were two small things about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on Independence Day that struck me as the most significant aspects of the exercise. One of them was something that was missing: the bullet-proof enclosure—the shield behind which Prime Ministers have standing for so many years. This has always seemed a national embarrassment to me. We mention phrases like “the world’s largest democracy” at the drop of a hat—even before the hat has hit the ground, yet we had unquestioningly accepted the notion that our Prime Minister cannot deliver his most important annual speech without protecting himself against possible snipers. What have we then achieved, really?

The other came towards the end of his speech, and I don’t know how much attention people paid to that. Post-speech, on one TV programme, a journalist was complaining that Modi should not have worn a saffron pagdi (frankly, I thought it was red), and a BJP leader was responding that the pagdi also had swathe of green. Yes, they may have missed the other important thing.

The country—and especially the media—has been waiting for some sort of vision document from the NDA government from the day it came to power. The majority of the media—and even some economists who had earlier vociferously supported Modi—expressed disappointment over the Budget, calling it “more of the same” rather than a grand manifesto. But if studied closely, it did indicate a clear change in intent and direction. It’s just that the government did not want to make a hue and cry about it, which is entirely in line with the tone Modi has set—do your work efficiently, and eschew the dramatics.

The Budget put more money in the hands of the taxpayer (not much more, but given the state of the economy the NDA has inherited, even that little bit was a brave act, and definitely a statement of ideology). It attempted to encourage entrepreneurship; in an interview, Jaitley said what I believe to be the most important economic statement he has made: “We want to move from an entitlement economy to an opportunities economy.” He set high disinvestment targets, but mentioned it only in passing in his speech. He explained later that speaking more about it would have caused disruptive debate that the government could currently do without.

The BJP in government is very different from the BJP in campaign mode. The ministers are quiet, the bureaucrats are leaking much less, and there is an all-out public approach towards conciliation, and increased respect for India’s federal structure. Under Modi, the BJP is determined to project itself as the new natural party of governance, and shed its bogeyman image as conclusively as it can. The shift towards the right is by degrees, not through a sudden turn of the wheel. (It still has to rein in its unguided-missile fringe elements, and that certainly will be an interesting process to watch)

There has never been greater public interest in a Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech in at least three decades than in what Modi was going to say today. There was much speculation, about massive new schemes being announced, about new tough nationalistic rhetoric, and so on. No such thing happened. Indeed, it is our problem, more than Modi’s, that we have come to treat the revealing of new social sector schemes named after some historical luminary as a mandatory part of the Independence Day speech.

Yet, when Modi began his speech by paying respect to every Indian government which has come before this one, it must have surprised a lot of those who media refers to as “observers” and “analysts”. He then referred to the Budget session of Parliament just completed, and said that the NDA did not want to rule on the strength of its majority but on the basis of consensus. The credit for the success of the session, he said, was not only due to the ruling party, but also to the Opposition, and every MP. Several BJP ministers applauded, while Sonia Gandhi sat grimly, her arms crossed. While she has been accusing the BJP of a poisonous strategy of divisiveness, bigotry and fostering riots, Modi had deftly risen above the acrimony and was congratulating everyone in sight, extolling the glories of responsible Parliamentary democracy!

The speech reflected what Modi believed would be a Prime Ministerial message on such an occasion, and certainly he was not wrong. This is not a political speech, he insisted, it was a speech about national strategy. He spoke about turf wars within the bureaucracy, about our inherent self-seeking nature, about our disinterest in the national good. And for spending so much time in his speech on sanitation, cleanliness and toilets, he certainly deserved a rousing ovation (which he did not get; Indian politicians never do, when they bring up these topics before a nation in denial).

He spoke about women’s safety, about re-inventing the Planning Commission, the importance of e-governance, and so on. A mix of standard fare and stale news, except that Modi is a lightning-witted and engaging communicator. But for me, the most important point he made (other than the removal of that bullet-proof shield) is that he would ask every MP to create a “model village” within his constituency. This is a specific goal, its success easily verifiable, and in one stroke, puts pressure on the MP to deliver to his people. This simple scheme can have extraordinary ripple effects, and no extra government expenditure is needed. Every MP anyway has funds allocated for development of his constituency. It’s just that now, part of what he does with those funds has been formally delineated.

This will force every MP sing for his supper, empower the people, generate competition and pride, and is truly one of those simple ideas that makes you wonder why no one thought of it before. India needs these simple ideas that go a long distance much more than enormous ill-thought-through underachieving dole schemes. Modi knows very well what he is doing, and that includes how to be Prime Ministerial.

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