The Prime Minister of India has delivered his fifth Independence Day speech on a hot and humid early Wednesday morning; he repeatedly wiped his brow, sipped water. The Doordarshan cameras panned to his audience, which fanned itself the best it could and looked very uncomfortable indeed, with the exception of the children in tricolour rows who waved enthusiastically, and Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, who clapped several times with great fervour.
The prime minister is made of stern stuff and didn’t wilt under weather pressure. For 80-odd minutes, he spoke and spoke in that strong, assured manner he has made his own. As his speeches go, it was good. However, his first speech from the Red Fort is still his best: It was eloquent, inclusive and presented a vision of tomorrow that gave hope. Today, or rather yesterday, in a more difficult and divided situation — think Maratha unrest in the west, fears over the National Register of Citizens in the east, devastating floods in Kerala to the south and Kashmir in continuous conflict in the north, think rape in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, and lynchings in Rajasthan, to name just a few of the current challenges — he was more politic — understandably with the general elections around the corner. For instance, in speaking of the unspeakable crime of rape, he singled out Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan where assembly polls are due, for decisive action in such cases.
He attacked the previous government and by way of contrast, presented a report card before leaving us with a passionate and rousing poetic call for a better tomorrow — “we have to create a new India”. The prime minister has such a way with words that while you listen to him, watch him wag his finger and spread out his arms, you are sucked into the bubble he has created and feel good about yourself, good about India.
Then television has breaking news on a new flood situation, a horrific crime, an agitation or the wickedness of our western neighbour — and bang, the bubble bursts and suddenly “you’ve lost that lovin’ feeling” (The Righteous Brothers).
Back to the PM’s speech. Perhaps it was the heat, but he began like a man in hurry reading out from a prepared text before hitting his stride midway. He generalised a great deal at this stage, talking expansively about how the “world” now saw India and how “the times they were a changin” (Bob Dylan), really swiftly under his stewardship of the last four years as the “sleeping elephant” awoke.
Interestingly, he didn’t refer to “1.25 crore” Indians — on Wednesday, they were his “beloved brother and sisters” or “fellow citizens”. That’s a first. There were fewer alliterative slogans too: “Reform, Perform, Transform” being a memorable exception. And we heard him speak of “sabka saath, sabka vikas” after a long time.
The latter half of his speech was more evocative for the viewer as the PM spoke specifically on a new health insurance policy and other significant achievements as well as a promise of the basic necessities “for all”. Ironically, News 9 on Wednesday telecast heart-rending visuals of flooded homes and streets in Davangere, Karnataka and “no end to rain pain in Kerala” while headlining PM’s list of achievements in infrastructure, power, agriculture, etc.
The PM also vowed to follow Atal Bihari Vajpayee into the valley of Kashmir without “goli or gali”. Hadn’t he promised the same a few years ago from the same venue?
Kashmir is a good example of how you felt listening to the speech. All week, news channels have reported on the violence there involving militants and the security personnel: Bullets were fired, and on Wednesday, Times Now’s “#PunishedforPatriotism” showed us “locals” beating up a man who raised the Indian flag there. The prime minister promises “insaniyat, jamhooriyat, Kashmiriyat”. Confused.
Interestingly, the PM brought himself into the speech only towards the end of it when he proclaimed his impatience to get on with the job. Now, that definitely sounded like a bugle call to the hustings.