Prime Minister Modi’s Speech on the 69th Independence Day had to take head on the question of credibility. The Prime Minister is still immensely popular, head and shoulders above any rival. But the credibility question has arisen against the backdrop of two facts: his own promises, and a sense of a little drift in government. An Independence Day Speech is not a Report Card on Government; it is as, the Prime Minister put it, “a dawn of new dreams, and new resolve.” Nevertheless even dreams and resolve need to be credible.
His first speech from Red Fort was a speech of hope. Behind it was freshness of a new mandate. It also struck a bold stroke, weaving new dreams. The Prime Minister demonstrated his capacity to use the forum as a creative bully pulpit. He boldly sketched out an unusual agenda for India, to shift the emphasis away from only state and market failure to social failure. He articulated unpalatable truths about India’s abysmal record on sanitation and gender violence. No one was under any illusion that these changes would take a long time. But he charted a new course.
The Prime Minister struck his characteristic high minded notes. Development will be the elixir that dissolves caste and communalism. And as always this was direct communication, between a leader and the masses, trying to enlist the energies of the people. In the first year, this theme was a promise, a gesture of hope. But as the term progresses, it will not be enough to make this gesture of statement; a lot will depend on the general atmosphere of politics in the country.
He began, rightly, by emphasising that the ultimate yardstick of a government is how well it tackles poverty. But the most appropriate characterisation of the speech would be this. This was not a speech that was commanding in its logic, or even inspirationally exciting by Modi’s own standards. But how well he did will depend upon how much charity of interpretation you bring to bear on the speech. It will give enough to supporters to defend him on; enough for critics to be skeptical. But the need of the hour was something that raised the game beyond the current impasse, something that addressed the sense of drift. It is hard to argue the speech did that.
He staked his ground implementation. His pet theme was that this government has overcome defeatism. And he had achievements to report: the expanding reach of Jan Dhana, the not inconsiderable achievement of toilet building targets in schools, and the rationalisation of provident fund accounts. This theme still resonates electorally. He also continued the theme of inclusion: from farmers to unorganised labour, clearly staking out the position that this government was not pro capital.
But many of the notes he struck can be read in two ways. This is in part because there is no framework that internally coheres. His most interesting idea, that the government can actually incentivise job creation, rather than subsidise capital as it always has, is potentially interesting. But it could also be a nightmare distortion of both credit and labour markets. He wants fertiliser reform. But it seems to coexist with same old model of reviving public sector urea factories. He wants the Ministry of Agriculture to be a Ministry of Farmers as well. He was emphatic on his government’s spotless record on corruption; even more emphatic in defending Black Money legislation. But it avoided the issue of charges against BJP government. But even more worrying is that we don’t know whether the state has got the bright line between accountability and an overweening state correct.
He wants Dalits and Women to be included as entrepreneurs through credit targeting by banks. As a shift in tone, from government employment, this is a great change in direction. He was wise not to rush into an announcement of One Rank One Pension, but whether this was a delaying fudge or real boldness, only time will tell. He touted auctions as a success; thought artfully gave his government rather than the Supreme Court more credit for it.
You could give him credit for this; or you could be sceptical that this short term achievement disguises the real problems ahead. The problems in the power sector are not only about building more things: they are about structures of pricing and governance. The suspicion that in this government there is a lot of activity, but no framework, will linger.
The speech was long and it is unfair to expect coverage of everything. But for an Independence Day speech, the lack of extended reflection on foreign policy was striking, perhaps a tactical move to ward off criticism of excessive attention, and avoid getting stuck on Pakistan. “Minimum Government Maximum Governance” was strikingly absent; as was even a whiff of acknowledgment of the institutional crisis that is hobbling the nation. The only administrative reform was abolishing interviews for lower positions.
The speech was very much a defensive exercise, played quite a bit on the back foot; he has gone from being a bully pulpit to being a counsel for the defence. There were the exciting phrases, “Start Up India” and “Stand Up India”. But whether you read “Stand Up India” as a call to begin a new journey, or will it feel like the punishment teachers used to meet out by saying “Stand Up, remains an open question. People will judge it based on their existing political positions. The speech’s success was it keeps the flame of overcoming defeatism alive; its limitation was that the direction of our movement is still not entirely clear. The alchemy of power is that it turns boldness into defensiveness rather quickly.