Over two-thirds of a century has elapsed since then, yet memories of that magic day when, at the stroke of the midnight hour, India awoke to life and freedom remain fresh in my mind. Times were difficult because the ecstasy of Independence was accompanied by the agony of Partition. Massive communal massacres and the largest mass migration in peacetime in history had followed. In paralysed north India, there was no rail or road transport. Luckily, my family was only 10 miles (16 kilometres) away from Delhi. So my brother, three friends and I walked the distance. Having imposed ourselves on gracious hosts, we managed to join thousands of others around Parliament House in good time to listen to Jawaharlal Nehru’s “tryst with destiny” speech, unquestionably one of the finest of the 20th century. Arrangements to relay it to us were perfect.
Unfortunately, before embarking on the padyatra to the nation’s capital, I got involved in a row with the girl next door. Constantly questioned by a very young brother about the extraordinary excitement, she had said:
“Aaj Panditji ki tajposhi hai (today is Panditji’s coronation)”. Furiously, I told her that we are “going to be a great democracy and you are talking about royal rituals”. Over the years, I have often wondered whether the seemingly ignorant girl was really prophetic. Incidentally, 1947 was the only year when the tricolour was hoisted at the Red Fort on August 16, because the forenoon of August 15 was taken up by the swearing-in of Louis Mounbatten as independent India’s first governor general and of the Nehru cabinet.
Since then, I have heard the Red Fort speeches of the 13 prime ministers so far and am waiting to listen to that of the 14th, Narendra Modi. Up to now, there has hardly been an Independence Day speech so memorable as to need a mention here, though some landmark events have affected the tone and tenor of Red Fort orations. On August 15, 1948, for instance, Nehru spoke mostly about the first Kashmir war, which Pakistan had started the previous October. Two years later, in 1950, his Red Fort speech celebrated the commencement of the Constitution and the inauguration of the Republic of India. His last I-Day speech was gloomy because of our shattering defeat in the border war with China in 1962. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s second and last Red Fort speech preceded the 1965 war with Pakistan that added greatly to his stature. Initially, Indira Gandhi’s speeches at the Red Fort were as lacklustre as those in Parliament. But later, she learnt to use the speechwriter’s rhetoric more effectively. I must add, however, that two of the most sombre I-Day functions I have witnessed were also in her time. The first was on August 15, 1975, barely two months after the imposition of the infamous Emergency.
Indira was shaken by the news of the massacre of Bangladesh’s founder, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and all those members of his family who were with him. The second terribly depressing occasion was when she spoke from the Red Fort shortly after Operation Blue Star, when Punjab was burning.
There is no use reviewing all prime ministers’ August 15 speeches. It should suffice to make just two points. First, that P.V. Narasimha Rao was very persuasive in his presentations at a seminar but a poor speaker in public. Second, and far more sadly, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, one of the finest orators this country has ever known, seemed to have lost this gift by the time he became prime minister.
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All this said, the important subject needing discussion is the much-hyped issue of the coalition era in this country. Whatever might have happened in the states since 1967, when regional parties or coalitions started forming governments, at the Centre, the Congress remained firmly in power for three decades after Independence. It was ousted only in 1977, when, in the post-Emergency poll, Indira suffered a humiliating defeat. The Janata government that pretended to be a single entity was, in fact, a coalition of four dissonant partners. No wonder it collapsed under the weight of its contradictions and the constant clash of ambitions among its three most important leaders. In 1980, Indira Gandhi was back in power. She and, after her assassination, her elder son, Rajiv Gandhi, ruled the country for the entire decade.
At first, Rajiv, with his “Mr Clean” image, could do no wrong. After the eruption of the Bofors scandal, he could do nothing right. His erstwhile colleague and later nemesis, V.P. Singh, replaced him. But because the National Front he led was a notional front, his government collapsed within 11 months. Former Young Turk Chandra Shekhar, whom Rajiv had propped up as PM, lasted precisely 120 days. In the midst of the 1991 elections, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. P.V. Narasimha Rao, who was all set to retire, then ran a minority Congress government for a full five years. After the Congress defeat in 1996, and the 13-day BJP government, a so-called United Front, totally dependent on the Congress for its survival, came to power. The Congress pulled the plug on its two successive prime ministers, H.D. Deve Gowda and I.K. Gujral. After the 1998 election, the BJP formed a motley coalition. It fell for want of a single vote in the Lok Sabha, a month after celebrating its first anniversary. The Congress and its allies could not form an alternative coalition. So in 1999, the BJP-led government, headed again by Vajpayee, returned to power and completed its full term.
It follows, therefore, that the coalition era in India really began in 1999 and lasted until 2014, when the decade-long diarchy of Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh, leading the United Progressive Alliance, suffered a defeat far more humiliating than that of Indira in 1977. Once again, for the first time since 1984, we have a single-party government, headed by Narendra Modi. The BJP has a working majority on its own. Together with its allies, its majority is big. It is too early to say what its future will be, but what happened in the last two and half months has given us cause for concern. Modi’s entire election campaign was concentrated on development and good governance. He also held forth on every subject under the sun. But now his eloquence is focused only on foreign policy. On the burning domestic issues of the day, he is silent. More dangerously, his silence on the agenda that the Hindutva hotheads want to set is thundering. One minister in Goa had said that Modi would make India a “Hindu state”. Another pronounced that this was already the case, whatever that might mean.
And now the chief of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, has declared that everyone who lives in India — a land in which all religions known to man exist — is a “Hindu”. Those who want this country to be a Hindu Pakistan should see what the Muslim Taliban have done to that Islamic country.
It is greatly to be hoped that the prime minister will make his stand clear in his oration from the ramparts of the Red Fort.
The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator