Over the weekend, President Pranab Mukherjee and later PM Narendra Modi addressed the nation. Both the speeches had a strong political flavour, making them compelling
Over the weekend, keeping with custom, first President Pranab Mukherjee and later Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the nation. Both the speeches had a strong political flavour, making them compelling, no doubt.
More importantly they provide clear markers on the thinking of the Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA). Yes, the President, particularly this one, does exercise his own latitude, yet it is a speech that is consistent with the thinking of the government.
The speeches are particularly relevant because of the backdrop. They came in the context of an unprecedented and acrimonious duel between the Congress and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) just two days earlier in a Parliament session that has been a washout. And unlike in the run-up to last year’s Independence Day celebrations, the NDA is, on the one hand, being called upon to address the burden of electoral expectations it aroused on the way to its spectacular win and on the other explain the alleged infractions in office of three of its senior leaders—exactly why the Congress laid siege to Parliament in the monsoon session.
The two speeches, therefore, need to be taken together to collate the takeaways.
First, President Mukherjee was very blunt in criticizing the washout session of Parliament.
“The finest inheritance (the Constitution which guarantees democracy) needs constant care for preservation. Our institutions of democracy are under stress. The Parliament has been converted into an arena of combat rather than debate,” he said, before adding, “If the institutions of democracy are under pressure, it is time for serious thinking by the people and their parties. The correctives must come from within.”
Within his constitutional limits, the President has more than made clear his deep reservations and at the same time hinted at the likely correctives; the onus is now on the political establishment because, as the President rightly signals, this is not sustainable.
Second, the prime minister was clearly unfazed by the bruising monsoon session that failed to pass key legislation, including the Goods and Services Tax bill. Delivering a very political speech lasting about 90 minutes, he bypassed his increasingly voluble critics by making his case directly to the people using metaphors such as jobs, corruption, aspirations and participation in governance, which, as we know from the Aam Aadmi Party blowout of its rivals in the Delhi elections, is an eminently saleable idea. Implicitly, he drew attention to the mandate the BJP won last year.
It was a speech addressed to Bharat (made up of economically disenfranchised youth, farmers struggling with rural distress and the new economy and the socially marginalized Dalits) and it is my sense that it struck a chord: as a Mint survey (mintne.ws/1h9CyxD) showed on Friday, Narendra Modi’s popularity rating has actually improved from last year to almost 80%, suggesting that people trust him.
Like he has done with his Mann ki Baat radio talk (or his weekly rallies during his long tenure as Gujarat chief minister), Modi is signalling his intent to speak directly to the people; and this is presumably why he preferred to address the country as “Team India” and made 23 references to it in his speech.
Second, to back his claim of delivering on governance for all, he dared to present a report card for the last year. Given that Modi has approached governance as a summation of missions—building toilets, financial inclusion, direct benefits transfer, social security and so on; a listicle was published in Mint on Friday (mintne.ws/1J2V4NX)—with clear milestones, it presumably has made it easier for the prime minister to make empirical claims.
“The touchstone (of a government’s promises) is whether we walk the talk or not. We’ve laid a great stress upon a new work culture,” he said to make his claim of a government that works, before taking a dig at his predecessors, “Dear countrymen, our nation has many schemes which are 40 years old or 50 years old, but these schemes could not reach more than five or seven crore people.”
Third, Modi went to lengths to explain that the idea of India was undergoing a tremendous transformation. According to him, cynicism was being replaced with an air of optimism that the country’s fundamental development challenges can be overcome.
Referring to his commitment to build 425,000 toilets on Independence Day last year, Modi said, “This is an issue of creating an atmosphere of self-confidence at a time, when we were so engulfed with the negativity that it was being told that nothing could happen, there was no hope, it was not possible. But now, the “Team India” has demonstrated that we are ready to accept challenges, we would not withdraw, and we are committed to our success. The nation runs on this self-confidence, the nation runs by realizing newer resolutions. We cannot stop anywhere.”
And he served up a fresh challenge to power minister Piyush Goyal by advancing the electricity for all deadline to the next 1,000 days—18,500 villages will have to be covered.
Fourth, he dwelled at length on corruption and how his government was trying to fix a broken system. And given the way retail (daily payoffs for accessing various government services) and wholesale (payoffs in the sale of spectrum, coal blocks,etc) corruption have ravaged the country, it is something that continues to draw traction. “It’s been 15 months since you put our government at the centre and gave me the mandate. This government does not have any allegation of corruption against it for even a single penny,” he said.
According to the prime minister, this, citing the example of coal auctions, is being done through the introduction of transparency and audit trails; essentially replacing the broken delivery system with one which emphasizes disintermediation.
As an example, he cited the direct transfer of the LPG subsidy, which led to an annual saving of Rs.15,000 crore.
Finally, Modi tapped into the aspirations of a young India —65% of 1.2 billion people are below 35 years of age—understandable, given that 12 million are joining the workforce every year and the country is barely generating jobs.
And unlike the previous generation, the young of today are growing up in a materially better off India. As Mint’s “trading up” series (mintne.ws/1nL4MJZ) revealed, Indians are dramatically better off than at the turn of the millennium. Obviously, this has stoked aspirations, which have been so easily frustrated so far.
Modi argued that his government is doing this by creating an enabling environment—ease of doing business—providing a social security net for all and of course a corruption-free environment. The implicit strategy of the NDA is teach people how to fish as opposed to giving them fish.
Anil Padmanabhan is deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.