In his first expansive mass interaction since coming to power at the Centre, Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday reached out to millions of young students and future voters on Teachers’ Day, in an interaction laced with personal anecdotes, social messages and political undertones.
The nearly two-hour-long exchange, comprising his speech followed by questions from students present at the Manekshaw Centre as well as from those watching the live telecast across the country, saw the Prime Minister touch upon a range of issues, from climate change, to girls’ education, sanitation, importance of technology, skill development, power conservation and the need for students to develop reading habits, besides talking about his own personal experiences.
If he had used the Independence Day platform to reach out to parents, Modi took this opportunity to cater to a fresh constituency — students, talking to them in an easy-to-relate language, while keeping his speech short so as to devote more time to the interactive part of the afternoon.
Terming himself a “hard taskmaster”, in response to a question, Modi said he believed in making people work hard, while working harder himself. On being asked about his transition from “Gandhinagar to Delhi”, the Prime Minister said not much had changed. “I do not think there is much change. Yes, I have to work as hard, perhaps rise earlier. Also have to be more conscious with words… Having experienced the tenure of a Chief Minister in Gujarat, I see no difference in my working style,” he said. On a philosophical note, he added he was still unable to understand who he really was.
The political messages during his interaction, though subtle, were equally powerful. When asked by a student how he could become the future Prime Minister of the country, Modi advised him to start preparing for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections, while adding this meant there was “no threat” to him till then.
“Politics is not a profession, it should be treated as a service…The people of India are my family,” he said in response to another question. Claiming he had never fought an election in school even to be the class monitor, Modi said he had never thought he would occupy this position one day.
In another personal message, he told students that education, teachers and his values, along with his experiences, had been his greatest teachers. His statement that he was naughty and mischievous as a student, illustrated through an anecdote about how his friends and he would go to weddings and quietly staple people’s clothes together, elicited laughter from the young audience, keeping them engaged.
While keeping the mood light through personal references, Modi also chose to touch upon some serious issues and convey his vision for development and social welfare in the country. Reiterating his focus on ensuring toilets for girls in all schools in the country, Modi said the lack of toilets in schools was a major reason for girls dropping out. He also highlighted the need to ensure girls get education facilities close to their homes. He said his government had initiated many measures to ensure girls do not drop out of school and claimed the results would be visible soon.
Fresh from his Japan visit, Modi said there was a focus on scientific temperament, discipline, cleanliness and respect for all among children there.
Skill development, a pet theme for this government, also came up during the interaction with a student asking Modi about the importance of imparting skills in schools, a question that was met with a positive response with the Prime Minister underlining the importance of giving each child an opportunity to develop skills.
Claiming it was not the climate that had changed but we as people who had changed causing harm to the environment, Modi encouraged students to do “small things” in the service of the country, like conserving power and the environment.
The interaction was carefully planned, ensuring there was representation from different parts of the country, as students from Leh, Imphal and even Port Blair asked questions.
In his speech, Modi also highlighted the importance of technology — another area of focus for this government — and said it was a “crime” to deprive students of technology. He said his focus was on his ‘Digital India’ mission so modern technology could reach children and in different languages.
The speech also saw Modi wonder why students were no longer aspiring to become teachers, as he said the country needed good teachers. He added that India should be able to export top quality teachers to the rest of the world. The PM also praised the media for highlighting Teachers’ Day in its coverage.
The interaction, being planned for a while, has been mired in controversy with several states and opposition parties attacking the government claiming attending the live telecast of this exercise had been made mandatory.
The address was beamed live in over 18 lakh government and private schools across the country, with 1,000 students present at the venue.