Every citizen of India — or at least those who believe in the notion of a collective citizenship — has definite ideas of what a Prime Minister should say in his Independence Day speech from Red Fort. The expectations have also changed over the decades and also depend considerably on the individual delivering the message from the ramparts.
Jawaharlal Nehru was Prime Minister in an India where the role of the Government was still evolving. His speech, or at least its message, was also disseminated to a relatively small slice of the population owing to the uneven levels of communication — how many Indians sat glued to the radio? As such, his speeches on Independence Day were largely reflective and invariably touched upon the awesome challenges before India. They lacked specifics. This, broadly speaking, was a tradition that Indira Gandhi maintained — although she took greater care to fine-tune the political thrust. Using the August 15 speech to unveil concrete programmes was a tradition that really took off from Rajiv Gandhi and, despite the unevenness of individual communication skills, has persisted.
Despite my own preference for the reflective approach that underlines the approach to governance, it is understandable that Prime Ministers find it difficult to depart from the temptation to be specific and unveil yojanas. The audience has come to expect it. Dwelling too much on contextual themes runs the real risk of being dubbed a gasbag.
Having begun the interesting practice of crowdsourcing ideas, Prime Minister Narendra Modi must have been aware of the issues that both interested and agitated India. I am sure that reflections of his first year in office wasn’t on the top of the list for an India that is in a tearing hurry to get to the promised achchhe din. Yet, despite this possible feedback from the ground, I do wish that Modi had devoted some time in his speech speaking on his experiences after 14 months in office — his surprises, his frustrations and even some of his self-doubts. Apart from adding a human touch to a political message, it would have set out a context to his larger development plans.
Yes, Modi did present a potted balance sheet of what Team India — a simple but effective way of describing the collective endeavour — has managed to achieve in just 12 months. At the risk of offending those who believe that the entire stretch from May 26, 2014 has been a wasted period because Modi didn’t appoint a ‘luvvie’ to head FTII, didn’t pardon Yakub Memon and didn’t put pornography in the Public Distribution System, I would say that results of the toilets for schools programme and the financial inclusion scheme have been quite encouraging. On the other hand, the impact of the Swachchh Bharat initiative has been uneven — the consciousness of the virtues of a muck-free India hasn’t been equalled by any purposefulness on the part of civic authorities.
But apart from his 2014 Independence Day announcements, Modi was absolutely right to stress the larger achievements of his Government in fighting crony capitalism and resisting pressure from unnamed (but hardly unidentified) vested interests. However — and this may well be nitpicking — I think he should have been even more forceful in flaunting his Government’s can-do credentials. It is the combination of detachment and purposefulness (including delivery) that distinguishes the Modi Government from the earlier UPA dispensation. The Prime Minister must find ways of effectively communicating this difference in orientation. This is probably the only way of confronting a media-inspired negativism.
The popular expectations from a Modi-led Government are different from the yardstick with which a Congress-led Government is judged. The relationship of the Congress with its loyal voter base is almost entirely transactional; the BJP supporters’ relationship with a Government it helped to elect is disproportionately emotional. In remaining an inspirational figure among his supporters, Modi has to constantly emphasise his credentials as an agent of change rather than a symbol of continuity.
One way of doing this is through mock and often-contrived ideological battles where the entire weight of the entrenched Establishment comes down heavily on those seen as interlopers. It is, for the moment, an unequal battle. Far more important and effective is for Modi to take up monumental challenges such as the promise to implement universal access to electricity in 1,000 days. Even if he achieves 80 per cent of the target, the spin off effects from this achievement could lead to a revolutionary transformation. Actually, securing electricity connections to households is easier that managing the debt-ridden, inefficient State Electricity Boards and the populist politicians that believe electricity is a luxury that doesn’t have to be paid for.
Slowly and often tentatively, Modi is drawing up the development architecture of an India that is hungry for growth. He is framing his agenda in terms of seemingly stand-alone yojanas. But there are obvious inter-connections. He should not hesitate from spelling out his larger message, keeping in mind the obvious fact that there is a social layer that will hate him regardless of whether it is Modi’s India or Team India.