Speeches by Indian Prime Ministers from the ramparts of Red Fort on Independence Day used to be a bland affair, and the occasions were saved only by the colourful assemblies, and the pomp and gaiety. But from 2014 on, with Narendra Modi taking centre-stage, the addresses gained vigorous attention, largely due to his oratorial skills and the political punches he delivered. Modi ensured, however, that in the midst of rhetoric, concrete takeaways were delivered. The mandatory glorification of the Indian nation was thus spiced and made adequately palatable.
Nobody seriously tracked the addresses of previous Prime Ministers. Today, analysts count the number of times Modi uses a word, in order to understand the emphasis points. For instance, we are told that the incumbent Prime Minister, while addressing the nation on this August 15, mentioned the ‘farmer’ word 14 times; ‘village’, 22 times; ‘agriculture’, on 11 occasions; and, cleanliness, 11 times. Taken together, ‘village-agriculture-farmer’ featured 47 times in his roughly 80-minute speech. It’s not a coincidence that these three words are likely to make or break the electoral fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. These are also the issues that opposition parties have latched on to, in order to criticise the Government’s supposed failures. The agrarian distress, partly perceptional and partly real, poses a serious challenge to the Modi regime. If rural India turns against the Government, nothing can save the latter.
Modi’s rivals can, based on such an analysis, point out with triumph that the Prime Minister scarcely mentioned the two most pressing issues, of unemployment and black money — the first was referred to, four times and the latter, just thrice. But this does not necessarily mean that Modi is oblivious to these subjects or is reluctant to raise matters that do not reflect too well on his regime’s performance. Various senior party leaders and serving Ministers have acknowledged the challenges, but they have also related the efforts taken (and being taken) to combat them. Had the Prime Minister been too elaborative on these matters, it would have been construed as a defensive posture — and the Prime Minister is anything but defensive by temperament. Perhaps this is also why he did not speak of the incidents of lynching that have rocked the country.
The 2018 address was Modi’s last as Prime Minister for the first term, and came barely nine months ahead of the general election. It would have been a waste of effort — and a surprise — if he had not injected a dose of electoral colour to it. And so, he took time to recount the successes of his regime, compare them favourably to the performance of the preceding rulers from the Congress, and also showcase a bright path ahead if the country renewed its mandate for the BJP-led NDA. But he was also careful to emphasise, without saying in so many words, that regardless of the electoral outcome, his Government’s initiatives were poised to change India for the better. The announcement that the country would send an Indian in space on its own space vehicle by 2022, must have taken Indian Space Research organisation (ISRO) by surprise, but the agency is not unprepared. With the Prime Minister’s push, funds are likely to flow more easily for the venture.
The two other important announcements were: The roll-out of the ambitious universal health coverage scheme (five lakh rupees’ health coverage for each individual, covering 10 crore families) on September 25 this year; and permanent commission for women officers in short service commission of the Armed Forces. If the health coverage initiative is well-handled, it has the potential to swing votes in large numbers, especially from the poor and the rural regions, in the BJP’s favour. One needs to recall how the effective implementation of the Ujwala scheme to provide cooking gas connections to crores of poor families in rural India, helped the party gain a massive win in Uttar Pradesh last year. On the other hand, if the roll-out is not properly handled and there comes the usual bureaucratic harassment, then the dismay among the beneficiaries could hit the BJP hard in the coming electoral battle.
Modi’s Independence Day speech was a clear attempt by the Prime Minister to position himself as the best candidate to take ahead the agenda of reform, and a bulwark against the return of discretionary politics which favoured cronies and favourites and extended to business and non-government organisations. When he said he was “impatient” and “restless”, it was to drive home the point of a leader who took no vacations and who realised that time was running out for a country that had wasted decades through sloppy governance. All that now remains to be seen is whether the people endorse his sentiments or they find it lacking in credibility.