PM Modi had raised great expectations with his exceptional first I-Day address. His second one was tepid, but only by the standards he has set for himself. But his passion and commitment are as steely as ever.
Narendra Modi defied all the security agency warnings to once more address the nation without bullet-proof glass shielding him. This little obstinacy—which is of extreme national importance in many ways—calls for a bow of respect.
If his first Independence Day speech was dedicated to socially relevant messages, the second gave an account of what the government believes are its achievements and what it resolves to do in the future. This was expected. All non-first speeches to a nation—from the I-Day Red Fort speech in India to the US President’s State of the Union address—follow that rule, and have to.
So that the speech is not projected as gloating by commentators, the prime minister credited “Team India” — constituting of “sava sau karod Bharatiya” (1.25 billion Indians) — for all the ‘feats’ of the government and sought every Indian’s cooperation towards achieving milestones in the future.
In fact, if there was a theme to this speech, it was Team India. There were no flourishes, no new acronyms that Modi is so adept at devising. What was unchanged, however, was his passionate extempore oratory.
After congratulating those responsible for building public toilets and separate lavatories for girl students in schools, a substantial portion of Modi’s speech dealt with ways to tackle corruption such as Direct Benefit Transfer Schemes including voluntary abdication of LPG subsidy, a unique ID to let poor, migrating workers of the unorganised sector access their money from banks across India and more effective implementation of MGNREGA.
Modi had reasons to be proud of the successful open auctioning of some of all the more than 200 coal blocks whose allocation the Supreme Court had declared null and void last year. In the same breath, he announced the successful bidding for FM station bandwidths “despite a lot of pressure on me to look at this as a means of modest income”.
The Prime Minister, however, sounded tentative on quite a few counts. While Modi spoke of a Supreme Court-monitored SIT and pacts with members of G-20 for sharing of information on black money, he did not dwell upon one root cause of black money – complicated and adverse tax regime, mainly, though he did speak at length about removing the root causes of corruption.
His defence of the draconian law on black money, was a slip up. Draconian laws have not worked in the past in India unless the root causes are removed and only encourage corruption and more innovative ways of hiding income.
But by mocking criticism of the black money law as being driven by vested interests, Modi exhibited a reluctance to admit to mistakes. The black money law has drawn flak from a spectrum of opinion, including liberal economists who support this government’s reformist thrust; it is unfair to club them with those whom the law targets. The point about the law is that it is prone to harassing honest tax payers and Modi would have been well placed to address this concern.
Reducing 44 unnecessary laws to a mere four is another feature among Modi’s list of ‘achievements’ that warrants further explanation. The prime minister claimed the measure was meant to remove administrative hassles for the poor.
Modi insisted that in the 15 months of his rule, there has been no allegation of corruption of “even anaya paisa” against his government though, he admitted, corruption continues to afflict the system in “lesser” places. Likening the malaise to a house infested with termites, he said adequate doses of antidotes must be injected into every square metre of the entire nation.
Beyond the issue of corruption, the matter that made the Prime Minister look shaky was that of “One Rank, One Pension”, which successive governments have failed to address. Modi did little more than assure the retired military officers that his government is committed to OROP in principle.
One can understand his predicament. A fact that has not been communicated to the people at large is that this is basically a demand of the upper ranks in the defence forces. Once implemented, the policy will benefit retired officers by several thousand rupees in pension every month while the juniors will see just pittance added to their accounts.
So, if the retired officers are protesting now, retired jawans are very likely to complain once OROP is implemented. However, it would have been unwise of the chief political executive of the country to articulate this dilemma and thus drive a wedge in the rank and file of the armed forces. He expectedly left the problem unexplained.
The focus on economic development continued in this year’s speech as well, moving away from the sop-driven povertarian discourse of all previous Independence Day speeches.
So, there was the exhortation to banks to offer soft loans for start-ups, which the prime minister renamed as “stand ups” — expected to “generate jobs in 100s, 200s and 500s” in various units across the country. Another big plus was asking each bank branch to give a loan to start a business to one tribal, one dalit and one woman. This was a refreshing change from announcing more welfare schemes.
The focus on farmers was necessary, given the anti-farmers image that has been sought to be projected in the light of the push for the land acquisition law. The Prime Minister seemed to understand the basic reasons for agricultural distress. But is merely renaming the agriculture ministry as agriculture and family welfare ministry and announcing a Kisan Kalyan Yojana the right way to go about it?
The announcement on huge spending – Rs 6000 crore a year – on infrastructure and development in mineral-rich tribal areas was also part of this attempt to deflect criticism of being anti-tribals.
Great also that village electrification has got time-bound targets – every village is to get a electricity pole, wire and connection in 1000 days. This is essential for the rural economy to grow.
Finally, the Prime Minister appealed to the people to make resolutions for the Independence Day of 2022, the 75th year of an India free of colonial rule.
Was he slightly defensive in his speech? If so, that can be definitely excused. It has been only 17 months since this rank outsider took the reins in Delhi. As the nation has watched him grow as a statesman, it is certain that he has also been observing and learning. His commitment to his job and to his vision of rebuilding India remains unchanged. His strategy for execution of that vision has perhaps become more nuanced.
Which is a good thing for our nation.
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