Running through Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first Independence Day speech in his second term, were themes that have come to be identified with his political personality. One, he sought to portray himself as a changemaker. While it attached easily to him in 2014, when he projected himself as an outsider and a challenger of the certitudes and corruptions that Congress regimes had presided over in national politics, his continuing courtship of the image of change agent, despite a five-year incumbency, is remarkable. On August 15, he spoke for making big leaps and against incrementalism, and drew stark oppositions to make his case: 70 years vs five years, even 70 years vs 10 weeks of his second term so far. In the PM’s picture, the past is a place of darkness, while the last five years were an effort to fulfill the people’s necessities, and the next five will be dedicated to meeting their aspirations. Two, he exhorted the people to own the change and participate in it — be it Swachh Bharat then, or the Jal Jeevan Mission now, he spoke of an abhiyan (campaign) that engages jan samanya (ordinary people), does not remain sarkari (government-driven). And three, even as the PM seemed to throw the ball to a diverse people, he also, paradoxically, underlined a sharply unitary message: One-nation-one-tax (GST), one nation-one-election (simultaneous polls), one-nation-one-constitution (in J&K).
The PM also announced significant policy and institutional shifts. A chief of defence staff, a long standing proposal to ensure better coordination and more efficient decision-making in the defence forces, will finally be appointed. The PM promised to go beyond “ease of doing business”, which, incidentally, has had debatable success so far, to “ease of living”, which would presumably reorient the relationship between government and citizens across a range of arenas and sectors. This also raises questions, given that, for all the promises of “minimum government and maximum government”, the Modi regime is yet to make government less intrusive in matters ranging from tax policy to data privacy. The PM announced a new campaign against single-use plastic, and expressed the hope that it would be promoted by a range of stakeholders, from shopkeepers, who will start selling cloth/jute bags to people who will gift these bags to each other on Diwali. More controversially, PM Modi announced a shift in the conversation on population policy from “demographic dividend” to “population explosion” (“jansankhya visfot”). This is tricky terrain, given the unhappy spectres invoked by the latter formulation from another regime that spoke of the need to control the population.
Most controversial was the part of the PM’s speech where he spoke of the decision to downsize Kashmir, abrogate Article 370. Here, the PM’s message hit a wall of his government’s making — the continued lockdown of people and detention of leaders, in the wake of its consequential August 5 move. If the most engaging part of the PM’s message to the nation was the invitation to the people to take ownership of the change, it will resonate across the country when restrictions on the people in the Valley are lifted.