Narendra Modi used his second Independence Day speech to issue a glowing report card of his government’s achievements, take the odd dig at his opponents and provide a glimpse of his next catchily named grand schemes.
The I-Day celebrations, hosted at the Red Fort, a potent symbol of the power of the state, offer Indian PMs a grand stage to make a statement or two, and someone with Modi’s sense of occasion was always unlikely to miss the opportunity.
As always, the optics were strong: Modi’s attire was smart, as usual, and he sported a striking saffron turban. There was a huge crowd, listening patiently on a muggy Delhi morning. And several cameras captured the PM’s every gesture, every jab of his finger, from close up.
Fortress Delhi was also in evidence, not surprising given the high security threat. Notably though, the PM opted – for the second year in a row – to speak without the protection of a bulletproof glass shield.
Relative to last year’s speech, which was strewn with promises, this year’s was somewhat lower key as the focus was on measuring performance, on which analysts say the government has a mixed track record.
Modi spoke for 90 minutes, a similar duration to last year and far longer than his taciturn predecessor Manmohan Singh, who watched him from the gallery, with his trademark, studiedly neutral expression.
The early part of the speech was devoted to claiming success for the plethora of schemes announced a year ago, notably a drive to open bank accounts for all. In ringing tones, Modi noted that the accounts, which need not have any balance to operate, had in fact attracted some Rs 20,000 crore – “the riches of the poor”.
Modi, whose government’s lawmaking has been stalled in Parliament by an Opposition demanding action on corruption allegations against a Union minister and two chief ministers, took a dig at Congress, saying that all governments made promises, but his fulfilled them. He also noted that there were those who enjoyed wallowing in despair; Indians were not interested in investing time on them.
“In 15 months there is no allegation of corruption worth one naya paisa,” he claimed, a statement likely to be widely assailed by opposition leaders.
As far as new schemes go, Modi, who is fond of snappy nomenclature (Make in India, Skill India, Digital India and so on), made a passing mention of something called Start Up India and Stand Up India. Details were few, but likely involve bank assistance to Dalits, Adivasis and women entrepreneurs. The phrase "Team India" popped up with regularity through the speech as the PM sought to build the impression of carrying 1.25 billion Indians with him.
There was also a scheme to electrify 18,500 villages in the next 1,000 days and a proposal to eliminate interviews in hiring of junior staff in government jobs, a possible nod to potential voters in Bihar, UP and eastern India.
But it took him roughly 85 minutes to get to the gorilla in the room – the One Rank One Pension scheme for the armed forces. And here he had little to offer beyond an assurance that there was acceptance of the idea in principle, and things would happen soon. This didn’t hold much water with the likely beneficiaries, who have been agitating for a quick deal, and there were angry reactions on television in response to the non-announcement.
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