Right from his first Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been struggling to present himself as a visionary, a statesman, a dreamer, and someone striving to rise above the partisan and the momentary. This year’s speech was no exception. His speeches follow an implicit template: Touching upon ideas and dipping into the mundane, floating big plans and getting lost in small matters, highlighting problems but exhorting citizens to do things on their own. This template allows the faithful to detect elements of the extraordinary, leaving behind the ordinary or the controversial as only memory.
But the aspiring statesman got easily overshadowed by three other personas. The PM began as a debater defending an argument. Claiming that his second government has done in 70 days what could not happen in 70 years, he listed out the accomplishments of the past couple of months, three in particular: A passing reference to the changes made in existing anti-terror law; a proud claim of abolishing triple talaq; and a defence of changes made in J&K. Of course, he did not bother to reconcile democracy with the intimidating changes in the terror law; he did not find it necessary to explain the need to criminalise triple talaq; he was not interested in assuaging the fears over central interventions in federal features when talking about what was done in J&K.
But in defending these actions, another personality of the PM (and his government) came to the fore: The ruthless executive. As the PM proudly pointed out, his government does not avoid problems, nor entertains them. He went on to say that the government will set aside whatever obstacles come in the way. It is these qualities of the PM — debating skills and a show of strength and ruthlessness — that have endeared him to many Indians. But he also probably gets carried away by these characteristics to the extent of sidelining the more ambitious project of writing himself into history as a visionary.
Therefore, a third persona kept making its appearance in the speech: Modi himself. Five minutes into the speech, the PM slipped from the more vague “hum” (we) to the more personal “mein” (I), saying “mujhe awsar diya” (people have given me the opportunity). This was not a one-off mention in the first person singular. Phrases such as “mein”, “mujhe”, “mera” kept popping up — along with the inevitable reference to his selflessness (“mera apna kuchh nahin”). It is not easy to dismiss this recourse to the first person as a slip; rather, it reminded of his natural connect with the 130 crore Indians. In the course of the speech, the PM made a reference to the union between him and the people by saying that the election was fought not the party, nor the leader, but 130 crore Indians. Conflating the individual with the larger category of “people”, showing off ruthlessness and defending policies of the government, took the PM to what he excels in — polemics. Modi the polemicist could not avoid the temptation of mentioning “parivarwad” somewhat out of context, and taking a snipe at previous governments over not making Article 370 permanent, while seeking to delegitimise opposition to his J&K policies as politics for votes (chunavi rajniti).
The PM and his PR machine would like us to remember his speech for the ideas, vision and dreams. These touched a wide range of topics, some particularly close to the middle classes such as tourism or the five trillion dollar economy. And included many non-controversial subjects, such as plastic waste, infrastructure etc. Like the Swachh Bharat Mission in his first I-Day speech in 2014, the PM would want to be remembered for the mission on water now. He also spoke of poverty, but instead of elaborating a road map for poverty eradication, he hedged the issue by saying that the poor had the courage and capacity to fight for their own wellbeing.
Four ideas from the speech need to be engaged with more seriously for their problematic nature. First, and not entirely new, is the penchant for linking everything to “one nation” — GST, common electricity grid and simultaneous elections. While India has been moving towards many policies and initiatives that are common (or similar) across states, the PM’s emphasis on uniformity as the underlying value is problematic, suggests a clear preference for the non-federal approach.
Two, the PM’s somewhat long exposition on population was deeply problematic. It is one thing to argue that the idea of demographic dividend is debatable but the way the PM lauded the “small sections” who have adopted the small family norm could easily put the poor in the dock and humiliate them. Already, ill-conceived ideas of penalising government servants if they give birth to a third child or disqualifying such families from being representatives in local bodies have gained ground. The PM’s exhortation from the pulpit would further encourage non-democratic measures for pushing “population control” as a service to nation.
Third, the PM spoke about giving a fillip to the rural economy by supporting local initiatives. This sentiment would be attractive to many, but in economic terms, it is unclear how the government would reconcile its search for growth and foreign investment with the protectionist idea of localisation of consumer practices. In the political context, it would be interesting to watch how this idea would be received by the aspirational middle class the PM is so enamoured of. In any case, it could be seen as a tactical response to complications that globalisation is bringing. But is this not an abdication of governmental responsibility to ensure a fair balance between global capital and local entrepreneurship?
Finally, repackaging his earlier idea of maximum governance-minimum government, the PM spoke about “ease of living”. This goes much beyond the industry-driven idea of ease of doing business and it would certainly get him headlines in international circles. He theorised that government should be there to help but it should not cramp the citizens. This sounds interesting but with increasing bureaucratic interventions in individual lives, with non-regulated intrusions into citizens’ privacy, with controversial attempts of allowing surveillance and with government’s track record of using all regulatory mechanisms for allegedly partisan action, the idea of a friendly but non-interfering government is bound to remain only a chimera.
So, even if we discount the debater, the polemicist and the self-consciously self-centred leader, the PM’s ideas remain short on promise, high on word play and potent with controversial takes on what we mean by democracy, nation and governance.
This article first appeared in the print edition on August 16, 2019, under the title ‘One speech, many PMs’. The writer taught political science at Savitribai Phule Pune University, Pune, and is chief editor of ‘Studies in Indian Politics’.