The president’s Republic Day-eve speech was political in the best sense of the term.
On the eve of Republic Day, the president addresses the nation. The speech is as familiar a ritual as the military displays, the bravery awards, the floating tableaux and the confetti. But on rare occasions like last Saturday, the speech lifts above the predictable. President Pranab Mukherjee put away the readymade phrases and the worn metaphors, and engaged directly with the people. His address was a political one, in the best sense of the term. It acknowledged ongoing events, and the current sense of turmoil, and placed them in big-picture perspective.
The president spoke of the democratic compact, and the legitimacy of people’s anger against public corruption. He also spoke of the other reason for public disillusionment — the tendency to promise more than what is possible. “Populist anarchy cannot be a substitute for governance,” he stressed, because it only leads to further frustration and rage at a system then seen as withholding. While a rhetoric-reality gap marks most democracies because of the nature of competitive politics, it is also evident that, for various reasons, India has seen a widening abyss between what citizens expect and what politics and government have managed to deliver. President Mukherjee warned governments that this increased the magnitude of their responsibilities, and that, given the racing aspirations they have to fulfil, social and economic progress would have to match that breakneck pace.
While speaking of democracy’s marvellous ability to renew itself, the president spoke of the way ends are met in politics, through discussion and negotiation, how those norms could not be relegated or sacrificed, and the need to ensure that “healthy differences of opinion” do not lead to “an unhealthy strife” within the polity. He spoke of the plunging quality of debate. As the president talked to the people, it was tempting to read between the lines, guess at which party or mobilisation was being alluded to — and there could be several interpretations. But above all, President Mukherjee managed to convey the truth about these times, without attacking or holding up one or the other political force, while involving them all, along with the citizens of this nation.