Prime Minister Narendra Modi, delivering his sixth Independence Day address from the ramparts of Delhi’s historic Red Fort on Thursday morning, spoke in trance-like positivity, meandering from one issue to another in the 90-minute exercise, and towards the end reminding himself and the audience of school children and VIPs that he should not speak too long on a rainy day and keep the schoolchildren waiting. He talked about the abrogation of Articles 370 and regarding Jammu and Kashmir in passing, without too much triumphalism, harping on the “One Nation, One…” theme, saying how the abrogation of the said articles had fulfilled the ideal of “One Nation and One Constitution”, and quickly mentioned in the same breath how the Goods and Service Tax had achieved “One Nation, One Tax” and hinted at the prospect and the need for “One Nation, One Election”, and how the last one is to be achieved through discussion. He also allowed himself the indulgence of saying that he and his government — he was more than ever at ease of referring to himself, saying, “I declare today from the Red Fort” — did not procrastinate or nurse problems, and they dealt with difficult issues head on. He did not linger on the issue.
He then went on to talk about the touch-me-not, prickly issue of population explosion 44 years after the issue had gathered enormous infamy during the Emergency, and was one of the issues that had wiped out the presence of the Congress government of Indira Gandhi in the 1977 election. He said that it was time to honour those who thought carefully about whether they can provide the basic needs of the children that they would want to bring into the world. He emphasised fewer people would mean that the progress of the country would be more beneficial to people. And he left it at that.
He also gave a glimpse of his political vision of a free market economy, where he said that the government should not be intruding into the lives of the people, that people should have the freedom to pursue their dreams, but he was guarded enough to say that there should be no absence of the government when the people needed it. It was a tightrope walk of an idea which he was careful not to dwell upon for too long.
To mark the 75th anniversary of Independence in 2022, he wanted every Indian family to visit at least five places of historic interest as a way of learning about the country’s heritage, and to face up to the foreigners who visit these places more than Indians themselves.
He talked of the `100 lakh crores of investment in infrastructure that is being planned and how it would help in reaching the goal of the $5 trillion economy, of how states and cities should become hubs of exports. And he threw in the surprise appeal to the farmers in the country that they should give up using chemical fertilisers as a way of making India an example in the world. He dropped the trope of India becoming the “Vishwa Guru”, or mentor of the world, and talked of India as a leading country in the world.
Mr Modi conveyed his greetings to Afghanistan, that will be celebrating its Independence Day a few days later, and skipped any reference to Pakistan.
The Prime Minister’s speech skillfully and willfully skirted the situation on the ground — the standoff in the Kashmir Valley, the flood situation in many of the states, the economy’s blues that just cannot be wished away.
Mr Modi has mastered the art of ‘inspirational’ speeches, speaking in terms of goals and dreams and targets, when he is not in the election campaign mode of unrelenting belligerence and negativity. He has tailored his Independence Day speech to the inspirational mode.
The critics of Mr Modi would be at a loss to nail the Prime Minister’s speech for traces of ideological — read Hindutva, pathological nationalism — toxicity. He cited Mahatma Gandhi, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Babasaheb Ambedkar, when his critics expect him to quote from Vinayak Damodar Savarkar and M.S. Golwalkar. He talks of the nation and nationalism within the context of the freedom movement and the development of the country. He does not allow his ideological opponents to accuse him of Hindutva, at least in explicit terms.
The Prime Minister may be successfully outwitting his opponents through his own kind of dream-filled feel good speeches, but he exposes himself as a man who is not willing to face up to the hard questions that face his government and the country in real time. He did not have any assurance to give the people of Kashmir which would have gone some way in helping the administration in New Delhi and Srinagar to deal with the situation on the ground. He did not have anything to say about the worrying economic slowdown, which is staring people in the face.
He claimed in abstract terms that the government has managed to keep inflation low while maintaining the growth rate, which is not saying much because low inflation with low growth, which is the reality, is the economic challenge that is facing the country.
In contrast to his claim that his government does not hesitate from facing difficulties and it does not duck them, he has ducked the real challenge of addressing the issue of economic slowdown hurting the people, and the sense of fear and desperation of the people of the Kashmir Valley, at the moment. For a political leader who has won successive national elections in 2014 and 2019 in an emphatic manner, Mr Modi does not show the courage of speaking about problems in an honest and transparent manner. The people will not be too satisfied with the political TED talks that Mr Modi is fond of delivering. They want a leader who will discuss with them the burning problems of the day and who will provide a touch of reassurance.