The ambiguities and the nuances in President Ram Nath Kovind’s address to the first joint session of the 17th Lok Sabha on Thursday (June 20) are interesting. There is the usual reiteration of what Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government in its second term in office wants to do. There is the predictable and justifiable note of boastfulness after the unmistakable and assertive election victory of May 23. The Modi government said that it won the second term because people were impressed by its performance in the first term. And the government was arrogant enough to say that nation-building had started in 2014 when the BJP and Mr Modi got a simple majority in the Lok Sabha after 30 years. And this task of building a “strong, prosperous and all-inclusive India” is meant to be taken forward with the motto or slogan of “Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas” and “Sab ka vishwas”. The term, “Sab ka vishwas” has been added after the election victory. It is not necessary to quibble as the secularists are wont to do on whether
Mr Modi and his government are sincere in protecting the rights and interests of Muslims and other minorities and promote their welfare. We must take the government at its word and point an accusing finger only when it fails to do what it said it would. Of course, Mr Modi refuses to mention the religious minorities by name, which has been his policy right from his days as Gujarat chief minister.
It is interesting that the government chose to insert in the President’s speech a quotation from the social reformer of Kerala, Narayana Guru, about brotherhood and absence of religious bigotry. The line from Narayana Guru says, “Jaati Bhedam, Mata-Dwesham Aadum Illadey Sarvrum / Sodar-Tvain Vaadunn Matrukashtan Mannit”. Interestingly, there is no translation of the quotation from Malayalam, but it has been paraphrased as: “That is, an ideal place is one where people live like brothers free from the discrimination of caste and religion.” This is followed by Rabindranath Tagore’s words, “Chitto Jetha Bhay-Shunno, Uchcho Jetha Shir”, which is preceded by the assertion “This New India, will move towards that ideal state envisioned by Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore, where the mind of the people is without fear and the head is held high with self-esteem. In Gurudev’s words…”
Mr Modi and his government, as stated in the President’s speech, seem to believe that they are starting the work of building a new India from ground zero. But soon in the speech we get a passing reference to the past: “Today, our country is enriched with the experiences of a 72-year journey since independence. The nation is moving ahead only by learning from these experiences.” The general tone of Mr Modi has been that he is undoing the past, inaccurately described as Nehruvian, and he is building afresh. But at the same time, the Prime Minister seems to feel the burden of logical contradiction in such a position. For a person who believes in the thought power of India of the ancient times, he cannot pretend that nothing had happened in modern India, which he does not seem to realise dates back to more than a century before Jawaharlal Nehru became Prime Minister in August 1947.
It is amusing to watch the zeal of the Prime Minister to go forward into a technological utopia of the future and yet somehow cling to the legacy of ancient India, as he and others in his ideological family perceive it. He seems to believe that the fact that there is an International Yoga Day is a reflection of the fact that the world looks to India’s thought leadership — which is nothing but naïve and simplistic.
Whatever may be the intellectual haziness of Mr Modi’s vision of New India as adumbrated in President Kovind’s speech, there are other pressing challenges facing the country, especially on the economic and social front. Mr Modi helplessly falls back on the policy platitudes of the past five years like the welfare schemes he had launched and the ameliorative measures he has taken on the agricultural front. The plethora of schemes that have been launched and that are going to be launched seem to beg the question about the people being freed from the intrusive presence of the State in their day-to-day life. What he actually intends to do is to make the State faceless with the help of technology and push the bureaucrats and the experts who are to be inducted laterally into back office zombies, and turn the state into a BPO.
At the same time, with the loud and vulgar nationalism that the BJP wants to spread in society – and the chanting of Vande Mataram, Bharat Mata Ki Jai and Jai Shri Ram by the foot-soldiers to intimidate ordinary citizens -- the promise of removing the State as Big Brother looks a schizophrenic assertion.
The President’s speech shows that Mr Modi still thinks in the modular form of schemes for everything, and he is not willing to leave anything to the people. The Prime Minister is torn between the ideal of a minimalist state and the ideological imperative of a maximalist state, and it appears that he is likely to favour a maximalist state. The fact that there is nothing more than unbundling of schemes as a strategy of governance shows that the Modi government in its second term will be doing more of what it had done in the first term between 2014 and 2019. What will pose problems to this blinkered way forward would be the wayward market economy, which refuses to play ball with politicians and policy shamans.
Unwittingly, the Modi government through the President’s speech has revealed itself to be at a loss of new ideas about making a new India. Promising happiness and security and ease of living to 1.3 billion people is less of an idealist’s vision and more of a necessarily unimaginative bureaucrat’s scheme. There is need for schemes to address administrative challenges, but it cannot be transformed into a vision with poetry in it. The Modi government is full of prosaic schemes, the best it has to offer.
The writer is a Delhi-based commentator and analyst