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Friday, September 18, 2020

A great opportunity missed

A great opportunity, in an unprecedented year, to give a refreshingly candid account of the state of the nation was missed by the PM on August 15.

Written by P Chidambaram | Updated: August 23, 2020 8:50:23 am
prime minister narendra modi, narendra modi independence day speech, pm modi independence day speech announcements, make in india, covid 19 pandemic, p chidambaramPM Modi at Red Fort during the Independence Day function on August 15.(Source: Twitter/@BJP4India)

It was no ordinary August 15. Never before in the last 73 years has an Independence Day been bereft of children, gatherings in city centres, flags, sweets and gaiety.

Never before has India faced a recession of the magnitude that is predicted (4 to 10 per cent); never before has a pandemic enveloped the whole country and forced people to remain in their homes; and never before have all our neighbours flexed their muscles to snub India in one manner or other.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the day before August 15 must have been a day of reflection, a day to take stock why his government had allowed things to come to such a sorry pass, and a day to resolve to make a new beginning. I had fervently hoped that the Prime Minister will make a short, sombre address, acknowledge the mistakes of the past, and promise to govern in consultation with states and Opposition parties.

In Three Tunnels

There was nothing of that sort. On the contrary, as is his wont, the Prime Minister spoke for 90 minutes. He spoke rapidly, there were no pauses, and the pitch was as high as ever. His admirers would say it was a virtuoso performance; I thought it was contrived confidence. However, his admirers would have noticed what I did — not once did the Prime Minister smile at any one, not even for the cameras. I suspect he is under considerable stress, mainly because there is no light yet while the country is in the middle of three tunnels — the sliding economy, the raging pandemic and the humiliating occupation of Indian territory.

The Modi government strongly believes that people’s memories are short. Here is an example. On December 5, 2014, Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad, the Minister for Telecommunication, announced that, “We are laying down optical fibre in all gram (village) panchayats. The PM is very keen on this project. The PM has said, ‘Ravi ensure that it is done by the end of 2016. We have to lay 700,000 kilometres of OFC’.” He also indicated the sub-targets: 50,000 gram panchayats (GPs) by end of the financial year (2014-15), 1 lakh by March 2016 and another 1 lakh by end of 2016.

On August 15, the Prime Minister announced, “in the next 1,000 days, villages across the country will have optical fibre connection available”!

I suspect there is a play on the words ‘panchayat’ and ‘village’. As of March 2020, none of the targets (GPs connected, Fibre to the Home connections, Broadband connections) had been met. According to Digital Quality of Life Index 2020, India ranks 79 out of 85 countries. Transparency and facts are in short supply in this government.

More Claims, Less Truth

In the same non-transparent vein, there were more claims.

– Claim: Our foremost priority is to bring the nation out of the Covid-19 pandemic, which is restricting us from operating freely.

Fact: The government is doing little, not even providing funds to the state governments that are in the forefront of fighting the pandemic with varied strategies and varied degrees of success. India is among the handful of countries where the pandemic is on the upswing. India tops the world in the number of daily new infections (69,000 and rising) and India will cross 50,00,000 cases by the third week of September. The India-produced vaccine is at least a year away. Even if we get the Russian, British or US vaccine, inoculating the entire population is a gargantuan task. Indians are coping with the pandemic and surviving because of demography, their native immunity, 80 per cent asymptomatic cases, DNA (perhaps) and luck.

– Claim: We have to move forward with mantra of ‘Make in India’ as well as ‘Make for the World’.

Fact: The original slogan ‘Make in India’ was announced in 2014 and has been a spectacular failure. The share of manufacturing in GDP has been more or less stagnant at 16.6 per cent since 2015-16 and fell to 15.9 per cent in 2019-20. Merchandise exports crossed the high mark of 2013-14 (USD 315 billion) only once in the last six years, in 2018-19 (USD 330 billion). High import tariffs (including protectionist duties), non-tariff barriers, quantitative restrictions, negative list, etc, have shackled manufacturing.

The China Challenge

– Claim: Be it terrorism or expansionism, India is standing up to both and defeating it. From LoC to LAC, whenever India has been challenged, our soldiers have given a fitting response in a language they understand.

Fact: The tribute to the soldiers was entirely justified. The most recent instance was on June 15-16 in the Galwan Valley when 20 soldiers were martyred. But it is still a mystery if they died because of inadequate preparedness or wrong orders. The statement of the Prime Minister that “nobody intruded into Indian territory and nobody is present in Indian territory” rankles both soldiers and citizens alike. His reluctance to name the aggressor (despite the MEA’s demarches to China) is totally inexplicable. Chinese soldiers still occupy Indian territory in Galwan Valley, Pangong Tso and Depsang. China has practically rejected any more ‘disengagement’ or ‘de-escalation’. The years of personal summit diplomacy practised by the Prime Minister have ended in humiliation. It is time to change gears and entrust the conduct of foreign affairs to trained diplomats of the MEA.

A great opportunity, in an unprecedented year, to give a refreshingly candid account of the state of the nation was missed on August 15, 2020.

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