Narendra Modi rose above partisan politics on Independence Day and spoke the way a Prime Minister should. His first address from the Red Fort was a study in reconciliation and empathy aimed at generating an inclusive national fervour so direly needed in these times of social ferment and economic distress.
The speech could be viewed as high on sentiment and short on detail. It could also be criticised for ignoring inflation and barely touching upon corruption. But what made it refreshing was the absence of rancour that marked the discourse in the run-up to and in the immediate aftermath of the Lok Sabha elections.
So much so that even the PM’s party allegiance wasn’t in evidence in the address in which he invoked Gandhi, Shastri and Jayaprakash Narayan. The focus was on the country and its people — notably the youth, the women and those struggling on the margins.
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By the time he concluded, Modi had many among his worst critics disarmed. The address was well received at home and in the perennially circumspect Pakistan. His concerns for the girl child and women — especially the comment as to why parents weren’t as watchful of sons as they were of daughters — had about them a strong sub-continental appeal. “He didn’t attack Pakistan. Was strong on women’s issues, especially unborn daughters,” messaged an activist from across the border.
“It was a social speech,” remarked poet-essayist Ashok Bajpai by way of appreciation. One couldn’t agree more with the Sahitya Akademi Award winner who isn’t a Modi acolyte.
Speaking extempore, the PM related better with the audience than many of his predecessors, whom he praised for bringing the country to where it stands today. In parts, he took the cue from the President’s Independence Day-eve speech to aver that development wasn’t possible without societal peace.
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The 10-year moratorium he mooted on social conflicts was rhetorical. But its salutary import couldn’t be disputed amid tangible communal undercurrents in UP and elsewhere. “Before we say more, we’d have to assess gaps, if any, between the thought and the action on the ground,” reasoned Bajpai.
One issue on which Modi found resonance with the urban elite — from which he’s insulated by choice as an ‘outsider’ in Delhi — was his strong pitch for security and privacy of women from the mother’s womb to adulthood. He said he has known families where daughters forsook marriage to look after their parents and sons abandoned them in old age homes.
Parental care being a huge issue, especially in the urban centres, Modi did well to link the problem with female foeticide and other prejudices against the girl child. But traditionalists related such references and his recipe for augmenting conveniences for women to campaign-time oratory. They felt the speech “oversimplified the complexities” of governance. “Promising toilets for women is fine. But is it possible without water supply, waste disposal and recycling?” asked a bureaucrat.
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Be that as it may, Modi touched, on the policy side, on financial inclusion of the marginalised citizenry, instilling entrepreneurship among youth and making India the world’s manufacturing hub for job generation. What lent the speech a flair befitting the occasion was the emphasis on the collective: “Democracy isn’t about electing regimes; it’s about people coming together…”
Leave alone attacking his political rivals, Modi desisted, and rightly so, from taking on or even naming Pakistan. He spoke instead about making Saarc an economic powerhouse to fight poverty — the region’s common enemy.