NEW DELHI: Prime Ministers give several speeches in a year but that one special speech which the nation pays special attention to is the one given from the Red Fort on Independence Day.
This year India celebrates its 70th year of independence from colonial rule. The seventieth year in a marriage is called a Platinum anniversary. Quite naturally the pressure on Prime Minister Modi must be quite great to make this speech, a speech that outshines his earlier ones.
It is toward this end that Mr. Modi invited citizens who have been interacting through Man ki baat and MyGov platforms to give him suggestions on what they would like to hear in the Independence Day speech. It is a democratic way of choosing topics for a crucial speech.
I am certainly looking forward to listening to the Prime Minister’s speech. I have had the good fortune to listen to the Independence Day speeches given by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru since the fifties. I joined government service when the country was newly independent and looked for guidance from the Prime Minister for almost everything. He was like a patriarchal figure to a young India that needed a lot of handholding. Prime Minister Nehru met with thousands of common people individually. Security was hardly an issue. Prime Ministers had not yet been assassinated. Terrorism had not yet taken root in the country.
Prime Minister Nehru’s speech were inspiring, to say the least. He spoke about his vision for India as it took its baby steps. He provided the healing touch it needed, recovering from the trauma of partition, from cyclic droughts and famines, still trying to find a place in the comity of nations.
My task those years on Independence Day was to shepherd photographers and journalists into the media enclosure atop the Red Fort. The sight from there is breathtaking and no photographer ever tired of clicking umpteen number of pictures of Chandni Chowk and the Prime Minister on Independence Day. Remember those days there were no digital cameras and film was expensive.
I was not posted in Delhi when Lal Bahadur Shastri addressed the nation from the Red Fort. But I heard the broadcast on radio. His voice quivered and did not have the same command over diction and delivery that Nehru did. But Shastri made up with the conviction in his words. He sounded gentle and convincing. And India needed that, recovering from the wounds of the India-China war. The nation had just faced a conflict in Kutch and there was trouble brewing in Jammu and Kashmir.
By the time Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, I returned to Delhi and became Public Relations Officer of the Indian Army. Since I had done the job of handling the media at the Red Fort earlier, I was again entrusted with this responsibility. Back to the Red Fort, a new batch of photographers who displayed the same awe and excitement on being up there listening to the Prime Minister. This time, from the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister.
Indira Gandhi was very particular about what she was going to speak about in her 15th August speech. In particular she consulted her Information advisor H.Y. Sharada Prasad. They were eventful years when India faced problems like influx of millions of refugees from East Pakistan. She was a wartime Prime Minister. Indira Gandhi did not want a blot of a failed military operation on her watch. She had seen what it did to her father. She led the nation to a victory in 1971 against Pakistan. Many gave her the title of Durga, the warrior goddess. That soon reflected in her demeanour and speeches. She seemed unvanquishable
But then came the Allahabad High Court judgment which declared that her election to Parliament was invalid and a national emergency was declared on 25th June 1975. In the early hours of August 15th of the same year, even as Indira Gandhi was giving final touches to her Independence Day speech came the news that Sheikh Mujibur Rahman had been assassinated in Dhaka and a coup had taken place in the country that Indira had helped create.
Indira Gandhi’s face that day at Red Fort looked like it had been carved in stone.
Indira Gandhi lost power in 1977 and a new kind of government came into power. The Lohiaites under Prime Minister Morarji Desai promised to overturn all the ills of the Emergency and make socialism the cornerstone of Indian democracy. His speech was about collective responsibility but Morarjibhai was hardly an orator, much less a people’s person.
Charan Singh was Prime Minister of India from July 1979 to January 1980. The uncharitable joke those days was that all he wanted was to address the nation from the Red Fort. It didn’t matter that he would never be able to deliver what he promised. He lasted in office for a mere 24 days, which was followed by him being a caretaker Prime Minister. . Just enough time to deliver the famed address to the nation from the Red Fort. The farmer leader was the only Prime Minister of India who never faced the Lok Sabha.
Indira Gandhi returned to power. She was succeeded by her son Rajiv Gandhi. By this time, I had become Principal Information Officer to the government of India. I saw the inner workings of the Prime Minister’s Office and the inputs that went into the Prime Minister’s address to the nation on 15th August. It was no longer my job to shepherd the press, I had a chair of my own! Initially Rajiv betrayed shyness in his speeches. But his confidence grew with landmark legislations and peace accords that he signed. The Punjab Accord, Assam Accord and Mizo Accord were feathers in his cap. Rajiv spoke about a technological revolution. He spoke about computers and drew a lot of derision from politicians who were moribund in the politics of the 70’s. Even the bureaucracy was skeptical of Rajiv’s hurry in changing the way things were done.
But the Bofors scandal broke the back of the Congress government and the confidence of the young Prime Minister. The Congress Party lost the elections in 1989
V.P. Singh, who was Rajiv’s finance minister, succeeded Rajiv Gandhi. Singh was the new Mr. Clean who promised to erase corruption. But like Morarji Desai, V.P Singh’s speeches were lacklustre. Faced by an agitation led by Deputy Prime Minister Devi Lal, he announced the decision to implement the Mandal Committee report in his Independence Day address. The Mandal agitation did to V.P. Singh what the Bofors did to Rajiv. It broke their spirit. And that was evident in his public interactions.
V.P. Singh’s successor Chandrashekar who was also a Lohiaite did not last long enough to address the nation from the Red Fort. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated and following a sympathy wave for the Congress, the next Prime Minister to address the nation from Red Fort was Narasimha Rao.
I interacted very closely with Narasimha Rao when he was Prime Minister. The staff in the Prime Minister’s Office had prepared many point papers on what should go into his Independence Day speech. But he remarked, “These papers are like chalk”.
Narasimha Rao ignored the drafts and focused instead on topics such as liberalization of the economy and food for work programme. A polyglot, the Andhra born Rao spoke Hindi fluently. He was no orator but he steered the country through tough times and ushered in economic reforms, while battling the Congress party’s internal politics. Rao was succeeded by a short spell of a Vajpayee government, which fell before the Independence Day speech.
Deve Gowda the next Prime Minister of India had famously said that he could never be elected as PM because he couldn’t speak Hindi. And once he did become PM on June 1st 1996, Gowda promised to learn Hindi so that his Independence Day speech would be delivered in Hindi, though no such hard and fast rule existed. The story goes that Gowda’s speech was written in Kannada script and delivered in Hindi. Nobody quite cared what Gowda had to say. He didn’t quite make it to the next Independence Day. Inder Kumar Gujral became Prime Minister on 21st April 1997 for a period of eleven months. Gujral too was not an impressive orator.
An NDA government was sworn in on 19th March 1998, this time with Atal Behari Vajpayee as Prime Minister who would complete his full five-year term. The long pauses in Vajpayee’s speeches were legendary but his connect with his audience was also exemplary. Vajpayee was a Prime Minister who quite like Narasimha Rao thought out of the box. His bus ride to Lahore and his peace moves in Kashmir were examples of courage of conviction. Vajpayee was also a wartime Prime Minister, having led the country to victory in the Kargil war. But there was no chest thumping that was visible. Vajpayee looked and felt betrayed by Pakistan. He had led India to believe that Pakistan had changed. It hadn’t.
He was followed by Dr Manmohan Singh on 22nd May 2004. Dr Singh had a tough act to follow. How was one to better a much-loved poet Prime Minister? Singh had an answer: by being one of the longest serving Prime Ministers in the country. Two successive terms as Prime Minister of the largest democracy in the world, Singh did not enjoy giving speeches. He read from prepared texts, and the speeches were formal in nature. Singh addressed the nation nine times from the Red Fort. No mean achievement from a man who did not see himself as a politician.
In 2014, Narendra Modi who has rewritten the rules of Independence Day speeches succeeded him. From the ramparts of the Red Fort, he spoke about cleanliness and the need to build toilets in the country. It shocked many of us who had fallen into a comfort zone of what to expect in PM speeches. This will be Modi’s third address from the Red Fort. By now he will have to tell us what he thinks are his government’s achievements in the past two years and what he intends to do in the next three years, in response to suggestions he has received through the social media.
Mr. I. Ramamohan Rao is a former Principal Information Officer of the Government of India. He can be reached on his e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org