Self made in India

The clear message was that our big problems are not market failure or state failure, but social failure.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: August 16, 2014 1:01 pm
Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi) Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s democratic sensibility seems closest to Charles De Gaulle . (Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech was a commanding oratorical performance. It embodied a peculiar kind of democratic sensibility, but not one that we are used to, and can therefore easily miss. Historical comparisons are fraught, but Modi’s democratic sensibility, seems closest of all people, to De Gaulle. De Gaulle was described by one biographer, Jonathan Fenby, as a republican monarch. This phrase was not meant to suggest an oxymoron or hypocrisy. It was meant to rather capture something distinctive about the nature of De Gaulle’s democratic engagement: his unique ability to both wield authority and yet personify the people. Modi’s engagement has a similar quality. It is deeply democratic in the sense that it rested on the conviction that authority does not come from any source other than people. Modi’s was the first Independence Day speech that did not lean upon the authority or pedigree of anything else, but the people. It does not invoke a pantheon, a pedigree or even a party. Modi carries the imprimatur of authority because it was animated by a confident sense that he embodied the nation whose first servant he had declared himself to be. It has the confidence only self made men can have. It is democratic in the sense of being direct: its extempore quality refusing a script as itself being an intolerable form of mediation between the people and its leaders. It called for democratic consensus, a marching in lock step where the people are together. And in times recently marked by a paralytic rancour, this message resonates.

“We were together during freedom struggle and we won, it is the need of the hour to fight poverty in a similar way,” said PM Modi. (Source: Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi) “We were together during freedom struggle and we won, it is the need of the hour to fight poverty in a similar way,” said PM Modi. (Source: Express photo by Neeraj Priyadarshi)

The strength of this form of democratic sensibility is that it allows unpalatable truths to be told with a rare conviction. In almost any other leader so far, talk of toilets or cleanliness, either carried the faint odour of a paternalistic elitism, or a grim reminder that we all want clean so long as someone else is doing it for us: cleanliness was something you escaped into, not a general condition for the country you desired. Privileged politicians exposed their elitism on their issue; less privileged ones wanted to escape the whole matter. If nothing else, Modi’s singular achievement has been politically and administratively mainstreaming this issue. It has been to tell an unpalatable truth with rare political directness, conviction and lack of embarrassment: you cannot be a great country if you cannot take care of your filth and your shit. The practical goals set in this area, the synergies being enlisted between the political, the state and the corporate sector, were the most convincing part of the speech. If this is followed through, it is actually big bang reform in a deep sense.

The oratory was at its finest on these social issues. The clear message was that our big problems are not market failure or state failure. They are rather social failure. And that is just right. The admonition to parents who restrict their daughters but seemingly give unbridled license to sons was in this spirit, as was the constant reminder that India falls embarrassingly short of a healthy modernity. But only someone who effortlessly personifies the people can make that a central message.

“Earlier, we were considered a country of snake charmers, but our IT professionals changed the country’s image,” said PM Modi. (Source: Express photo by Renuka Puri) “Earlier, we were considered a country of snake charmers, but our IT professionals changed the country’s image,” said PM Modi. (Source: Express photo by Renuka Puri)

The speech was remarkable for its lack of defensiveness and negativity. Our relations with neighbours are being created on a new foundation: the joint fight against poverty. It is the same theme: rancour keeps us poor. It might be easy to dismiss the speech as being short on major policy announcements. Financial inclusion is a work in progress; as is broad banding. Free insurance, was an inevitable reminder of a democratic commitment to the poor. The only moment he seemed genuinely at sea was in describing what might replace the Planning Commission. The “sansad adarsh gram” scheme sounds like a cross between a centrally sponsored scheme and MPLAD in disguise: institutionally dubious. On the economy, the sense of aspiration was palpable. “No defect” manufacturing is a much better aspiration than the self justifying homilies to jugaad we are used to. But Independence Day Speeches are not meant for policy wonks, and the Prime Minister rightly kept away from that.

A republican monarchy can enlist energies in a unique way. But it also has its drawbacks. The first is that when you imagine the people marching in lock step, how do you account for disagreement? Is the invocation of consensus and unity an ideological mystification? Is criticism, something to which he referred, understood as genuine, or simply to be dismissed as obstructionist rancour? Citizens will rightly point to Modi that the gap between his dream and its institutional incarnation is wide. He clearly has understood how communalism can wreck the country that we need to rise above the “us versus them” binaries. How does a communalism free India translate in the killing fields of UP or the hallowed chambers of Parliament, where the Prime Minister’s colleagues have certainly added fuel to fire? Strong affirmative action for Dalits is required. But how does a new caste paradigm emerge, when the BJP government three days ago endorsed reservations for the Jat community? The idea of “no effect” manufacturing that has no deleterious impact on the environment is terrific. But how do we explain the fact that the Ministry of Environment seems to be gutting what meagre environmental protections we have?

"We should be able to export more than we import and be a manufacturing hub,” PM Narendra Modi said. (Source: Express photo by Renuka Puri) “We should be able to export more than we import and be a manufacturing hub,” PM Narendra Modi said. (Source: Express photo by Renuka Puri)

Modi’s unprecedented democratic strength has an energy, vigour and elements of a vision. But the capillaries of institutional power that will nourish this vision are still absent. He has grasped that a measure of discipline in government is one aspect of this institutional regeneration. His commitment to renewing government in the opening lines was admirable. But this disciplinarian aspect is at most, only a small aspect of what is required. Indeed, the emphasis on discipline can sometimes render problems invisible. One historian, Hall, wrote of De Gaulle, “ His cabinet meetings, by all accounts, were not discussions, but rather series of ministerial reports, the various discussants being treated like school children being graded by their disciplinarian teacher.” This proved to be a weakness as well. Democracy is about getting the right balance between consensus and difference; it is not about producing a regimented unity.

When you incarnate the people in you, it gives tremendous power and confidence. But it can also sometimes render invisible the mediating institutions that have an effect on them. The words uttered on August 15, are a welcome departure. But their effects will be secured by institutions built in their image. De Gaulle, thought that what would make France new was simply the fact that he was new. Modi should not make the same mistake.

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  1. V
    Aug 17, 2014 at 2:27 am
    Comparison to DeGaulle should warm the les of Modi acolytes. He has proved he is unique and he is rare. He never made false promises, no empty programs. All his suggestions are doable. He has initiated many of them himself. Punctuality. Cleanliness and attention to details and above all selfless service to the aam admi. There is no doubt that every Indian who heard his speech of 15th august will feel vindicated that the nation voted right in electing Modi as their PM. He will deliver and he will be with us for the long haul.sabka saath, sabka vikas
  2. A
    Aug 15, 2014 at 11:44 am
    well said - lets be hopeful and positive
  3. J
    Jonathan Fenby
    Aug 16, 2014 at 1:43 pm
    Pleased to have been quoted. De Gaulle said he did not seek to become a dictator because all dictators end up badly. But his visceral allegiance to the French state could lead him over the boundaries of strict democracy. He would have said that the ends justified the means.His realism was evident when he walked out of the premiership in 1946 rather than trying to rally people against the political parties, which would not have worked and might have created civil war with the Communists, and then when he again left power in 1969 after losing a referendum that was tantamount to political suicide, by which time it was high time for him to leave. He probably should have stepped down from the French presidency in 1965 but hung on because he considered himself indispensable - herein lies the danger of these republican monarchs with a strong sense of mission.Jonathan Fenby
  4. Y
    Y U Ask
    Aug 16, 2014 at 5:56 am
    Well said!
  5. P
    Aug 17, 2014 at 5:17 pm
    Great artical
  6. A
    Aug 16, 2014 at 6:50 pm
    Happy to read Mr.Mehtais columns are a sheer joy to read for its very English prose apart from its content. Modi is a leader with his eye on the horizon and ability to tell us what we want, which is the hallmark of a great leader. He has demonstrated in his earlier stint in Guajarat that within the existing system itself how well he can make the government machinery perform and achieve the desired goals. There is no room for doubt similar excercises will be done in Center too. But, as stated by him without the willingness of people to move forward nothing can be achieved. If one wishes to see, then one can discern, he is laying a strong foundation and making the necessary changes at gr root level in administration, to suit the pace of the progress, he has in mind. Rajgopalachari, an arch democrat, still used to write often asking Jawahar to even become the benevolent dictator to quicken the pace of the progress. China's recent leap has been to a large extent because of their system and enlightened leaders. Even without that kind of system, to a large extent, a Head Master type approach will bring in the result quoickly. So there is nothing wrong in that approach. Democracy wiill still survive.
  7. R
    Aug 16, 2014 at 4:42 pm
    Awesome! Scholarly analytical skills are evident in each of your articles. Keep them coming! As far as Modi, the directions are right and the intentions are there. At least as of now, he is our only hope. Lets hope for the best.
  8. S
    Aug 19, 2014 at 6:09 am
    AT LAST FINALLY a sane piece from the desi media....keep it going up now!
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