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.
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.
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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?
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.