IF THERE WAS a theme to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s nearly 90-minute Independence Day address from Red Fort, it was this: The nation cannot wait any longer. Yahi samay hai, sahi samay hai, this is the time, this is the right time, was the refrain, in a sprawling speech that urged a pause in the nation’s vikas yatra (journey of progress) for a rededication and renewal — of sankalp, parishram, parakram, resolve, hard work and valour. And he set urgent timelines. The nation was entering an “Amrit Kaal” of 25 years at the end of which it would complete a hundred years of Independence, and it had already embarked upon a 75-week “Amrit Mahotsav” or commemoration of 75 years as an independent nation, till August 15, 2023. But, he said, we must not wait even that long, because we don’t have a moment to lose, “ab ham zyaada intezar nahin kar sakte”. This, Modi’s eighth I-Day speech as prime minister, was marked by an urgency that was insistent and striking.
And audacious. After all, this speech was set against a much darker backdrop of distress and decline. The Covid pandemic has set the country back in ways that are still being mapped and measured, causing a nation to hunker down behind masks and closed doors, while coping with loss and death. It has hurt an economy that was already on a downward slide, exacerbating the vulnerability and economic precarity of vast numbers of Indians without safety nets. This has also been a time when the government was seen to fumble and flounder the most, especially as the brutal second wave of infections heaved and rose.
A government that prides itself on summoning political will and deploying technology for the targeting and delivery of goods and services, from subsidised gas cylinders to zero-balance bank accounts, failed to prevent the terrible shortage of oxygen cylinders and hospital beds for its citizens even though red flags had been raised between Covid’s first and second waves. In this dismal setting, it was audacious and ambitious — or perhaps strategic — for the prime minister to use the I-Day podium to talk about a makeover, frame the Big Idea, set a deadline.
OF BIG IDEAS, there were many. The PM spoke of a new marker of success of the governance scheme — shat pratishat hundred per cent delivery to the labharthi or beneficiaries. A sarv sparshi vikas, that touches all, would require handholding of some sections, he said, among which he emphasised the OBC. The underlining of his government’s commitment to the OBCs was also a political statement with an eye on impending assembly elections — the PM pointed to the recent extension of the OBC quota in the all-India seats of medical colleges, passing of the bill to give states the power to frame their own OBC lists, and earlier, to give constitutional status to the National Commission for Backward Castes.
The PM spoke of recognising cooperative-ism alongside socialism and capitalism. He spoke of the gati shakti yojana, a master plan for a renewed push for employment and holistic infrastructure creation, which would reach into Tier 2 and 3 towns to tap the start-ups and unicorns, the new wealth creators. And the need to get the government to roll back unnecessary interference in citizens’ affairs. There was a time, he said, when the government sat itself down on the driving seat, and it was also the need of the hour. But that period is over and it is the moment now to move ahead without the burden of outdated laws and a million compliances. There was a time, too, he said, when primacy was given to the rights of citizens — now they need to prioritise duties. To his earlier slogan of sabka saath, sabka vikas, sabka vishwas, he added: Sabka prayas (everyone’s effort).
IN ALL THIS, PM Modi struck more than one jarring note. The attempt to turn the spotlight to citizens’ duties at a time when the country is still in the throes of a pandemic and economic recovery is uncertain, seemed too much like an abdication of government’s own responsibilities. “Sabka… prayas” sounds good and alliterative, but it also looks like a negation of the PM’s own ideas of re-energising administration and delivery, in order to pass the burden of recovery and revival on to the people amid a public health emergency. In any case, even as the PM extends the slogan, the “sabka” part remains underdeveloped, in idea and practice, under his government’s watch.
“Sabka…” implies inclusiveness, and equal participation of all in the nation’s journey. It calls for listening to the dissenter and political opponent, including and especially inside Parliament, which was adjourned too early a few days ago, because the government couldn’t find the language or tools to engage the Opposition. And because it stonewalled demands to discuss allegations of using sophisticated spyware for targeting politicians, activists, journalists and others for snooping. The promise of “sabka…” requires outreach to, and handholding of, the poor and vulnerable who include OBCs, but also the minority community made more insecure by decisions and moves such as the discriminatory amendments to the law that make religion a criterion of citizenship.
The framing context for the PM’s speech on August 15 was also provided by his government’s announcement the previous day, of marking every August 14 as Partition Horrors Remembrance Day. The PM has a point: It is necessary to remember in order to break free of the past. But his own party’s chorus in the wake of the announcement, heavy with references to “appeasement”, sends disheartening signals about its real intent.
It was a speech, then, that sought to rise, to soar even. In many ways, in a dispiriting time, it did achieve its ambition, in parts. A fuller lift-off, however, will require much harder labour on the ground. Indeed, it will need sabka prayas — with sab getting their voice heard.
This editorial first appeared in the print edition on August 16, 2021 under the title ‘India’s road ahead: The challenge and compass’.