The PM lays out his blueprint
There were multiple, significant messages in his I-Day speechUpdated: Aug 15, 2019 21:01 IST
Narendra Modi has made the habit of using the prime minister’s Independence Day speech to present big ideas and emphasise his government’s priorities. Between 2014 and 2018, in the five speeches he gave from the ramparts of the Red Fort, he launched three big missions – Swachh Bharat in 2014, Start-up India in 2015, and Ayushman Bharat in 2018. He also lashed out at Pakistan for nurturing terrorists in 2016, and asked Kashmiris to join the mainstream in 2017. With the benefit of hindsight, the first statement heralded the resetting of the India-Pakistan equilibrium. In September 2016, India responded to the Uri terror attack by carrying out surgical strikes across the Line of Control. And earlier this year, it responded to the Pulwama terror attack with an airstrike against a terror training facility inside Pakistan. The second statement (again, with the benefit of hindsight) was a reiteration of the Modi government’s commitment to scrapping Articles 370 and 35A of the Constitution that gave Jammu and Kashmir special status, and its permanent residents, special privileges.
Given this background, it is worthwhile to trawl the PM’s latest speech – the first in his second term, and one that comes at the end of a productive session of Parliament that saw the passage of several laws, including the one criminalising instant Triple Talaq, and the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A — for similar nuggets. The 92-minute long speech saw Mr Modi acknowledge his government’s legislative push in its first 75 days in power; riff off the slogan “One nation; one Constitution”, with specific reference to Article 370; dwell on his pet themes of Ease of Doing Business, Ease of Living, and Digital India; and address concerns about the economy (the fundamentals are strong, he stressed), but it also featured six interesting messages including the government’s latest mission. The emphasis on these to create what the PM calls New India presented a sharp contrast to Pakistan PM Imran Khan’s Independence Day speech on Thursday, which focused sharply and largely on India.
The government’s latest mission, as first reported in this paper, is Jal Jeevan, on water conservation and providing drinking water to every household. Given the water crisis in many parts of the country — Bengaluru and Chennai, for instance, bore the brunt of water shortage this summer — this is a crucial intervention, one on which the PM said ~3.35 lakh crore will be spent. Water is fast becoming an issue even in the developed world, and it is widely acknowledged that the next wars (civil as well as otherwise) may well be fought over water.
Of the five remaining messages, one, the creation of a Chief of Defence Staff, was more on the lines of an announcement. First suggested after the Kargil war, the idea is aimed at creating a role that can ensure the effective and complete cooperation of the three arms of the defence forces. Increasingly, both offensive and defensive military strategies are seeing a larger role for integration. Another, the economic potential of tourism, is an opportunity (and it’s likely, given Mr Modi’s popularity, that some will take up his challenge of visiting 15 tourist destinations by 2022).
It’s the three remaining messages that are most interesting, especially because they could hint at coming campaigns and pose intriguing questions. The first is on how India can ill-afford a population explosion. With most South Indian states already at the so-called replacement level, this is a message aimed at the other parts of the country. It will be interesting to see how the government follows up on the PM’s message. Will there be incentives or benefits for those with small families? The second is on the insidiousness of plastic. Drains across India are choked with plastic, resulting in flooding. Agricultural land everywhere is loaded with plastic wrappers too – beneath-the-surface testimony to the satchet revolution of the 1990s that was hailed by marketers. Microplastics have already become part of water cycles and food chains – with deleterious health effects. So, will there be a nation-wide ban on plastic of certain kinds (especially single-use plastic)? Will companies that sell chewing tobacco, snacks or consumer products in plastic wrappers be forced to take responsibility for their disposal?
The third is on how India has to celebrate wealth creation and wealth creators. “Wealth creation is a great national service,” the PM said. “Let us never see wealth creators with suspicion…” This is a message aimed at highly-paid executives and businesspeople who are upset with the increase in the peak tax rate to 42.7%, and a bout of aggression by the tax department that some have termed tax terrorism. Could the PM’s call mean an end to or even a lessening of this?