The last year’s speech from Red Fort was a speech of hope. Behind it was freshness of a new mandate. It also struck a bold stroke, weaving new dreams. The Prime Minister demonstrated his capacity to use the forum as a creative bully pulpit. He boldly sketched out an unusual agenda for India. No one was under any illusion that these changes would take a long time.
The context, however, had changed by the time he arrived at Red Fort this year.
There is no national crisis, but the enthusiasm has partly faded. A narrative has built up about how the Prime Minister is losing the plot; it is business as usual; and India is again unable to tackle the core governance challenges it confronts.
Young people who cannot yet see the jobs they had been promised . Corporate India which is not satisfied at the rate of reforms. Farmers who have seen a tough year.
Traces of disillusionment have set in among key constituencies which supported Modi during the polls – army veterans angry about one rank one pension (OROP).
The primary challenge for Modi then was to tackle this perception; to convey that India was on track and the government was at work, on top of issues.
He spoke of the success under Jan Dhan Yojana and construction of toilets for girls in schools. To his credit, the Prime Minister reiterated the need for unity and attacked casteism and communalism – this assumes special salience because of the activities of foot-soldiers of the Hindutva parivar, which caused insecurity among minorities.
Modi did speak about corruption – the issue which has rocked Parliament over the past month. He said the problem was widespread, but claimed there had been no allegation against his government over the past 15 months.
The 5 key points were:
- 8,500 villages that are still without power to be provided electricity in the next 1,000 days; house and basic services like electricity for all by 2022.
- The government will club 44 labour laws into four codes to simplify them for the people.
- Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana – the Prime Minister’s agriculture and irrigation Scheme — launched with an outlay of Rs. 50,000 crore.
- Ministry of Agriculture will be renamed as the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare.
- “Start-Up India” initiative launched to encourage entrepreneurship among the youth.
The speech was long and it is unfair to expect coverage of everything. But for an Independence Day speech, the lack of extended reflection on foreign policy was striking, perhaps a tactical move to ward off criticism of excessive attention, and avoid getting stuck on Pakistan. “Minimum Government Maximum Governance” was strikingly absent
The speech was very much a defensive exercise, played quite a bit on the back foot; he has gone from being a bully pulpit to being a counsel for the defence. There were the exciting phrases, “Start Up India” and “Stand Up India”. But whether you read “Stand Up India” as a call to begin a new journey, or will it feel like the punishment teachers used to meet out by saying “Stand Up, remains an open question. People will judge it based on their existing political positions.
Modi came across as positive, inspirational and energetic last year. This time around, one could not but feel there were traces of bitterness that had crept in. As the challenge of governing India seeps in, Modi will lead India into its 70th year as a free country with his hands full.