Every year, August 15 provides India’s prime minister a national platform as well as a political excuse to showcase himself and the performance can never be totally independent of his or her political strength and popular acceptability. However, of late Independence Day addresses by prime ministers have somewhat been a drab ritual. Manmohan Singh’s reticence and limited public speaking skills were not helped by an inclination towards bureaucratic caution and the need to genuflect to his political employers. That he merely read out a text drafted by a bureaucrat somewhat detracted from the message. Instead of rousing and inspiring the people, the speeches made from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort turned out to be long rendition of schemes and projects.
Prime minister Narendra Modi’s maiden Independence Day speech was unlike any delivered by previous prime ministers. It had many firsts—he spoke without the bulletproof glass and without a written text. The disappearance of the bulletproof glass and the teleprompter was more than symbolic. It opened a heart-to-heart conversation with the people of India and those outside the nation concerned with India without talking down to them. Modi did make major announcements, such as scrapping of the planning commission, extension of banking to the last man, a clarion call for foreign investment to make things in India and pitch for digital revolution. But what distinguished his speech was a heartfelt call to every Indian to contribute to India’s progress and share in it irrespective of caste, creed, ideological and geographical boundaries. His promise that despite its massive majority his government would take major decisions by engaging the opposition appeared sincere in the backdrop of the smooth passage of the two historic bills related to judicial appointments by Parliament in the budget session. His stress on consensus and inclusion also contained the reverse plea to the opposition parties: restore the sanctity of institutions of parliamentary democracy for the nation’s greater good. It remains to be seen if his gesture will be reciprocated. But he said what was needed to be said. For too long has Parliament been log jammed by politics of confrontation and disruption and the people are losing faith in the hallowed institution of democratic governance.
There was no ambiguity in Modi’s words as he outlined the immediate tasks his government plans to address. He wants to fast-track economic growth and empower the poorer and weaker sections of society through a calibrated policy of economic and social inclusion. On national economy his goals are clear—jobs for young people; making India a manufacturing power; making it easier for foreign capital and investors to do business in India; encouraging youth to become not just job seekers but “job creators”, to go entrepreneurial and set up “zero defect” small and medium units. He also asked India Inc to move on and make itself more competitive instead of depending on government concessions. This will naturally require major institutional reforms and doing away with the Nehruvian approach to economic thinking. The announcement of the National Development Reforms Commission to replace the Planning Commission within hours of his speech demonstrated that Modi has worked things out.
Modi gave a clear signal that he has done his homework to implement the social sector agenda outlined in the BJP election manifesto. Toilets in all schools by the next Independence Day, model villages to be adopted by legislators, a bank account bundled with `1 lakh insurance for every poor household and a campaign against female foeticide were some of the programmes Modi projected. While giving some inkling of what his government planned to do, Modi’s invocation envisaged nation-building as a joint task of the government and the citizen. Rediscovering and reasserting this proposition was the most striking note of his address. No government can look after a billion people from cradle to grave and collective energies must be tapped to fight social evils such as crimes against women, children and the disadvantaged. Modi has made a beginning by delivering the right words with eloquence. If the citizens wish him to deliver the results they must join in taking the nation forward.