A18 INDIA SPECIAL India Abroad August 29, 2014
He came, he conquered, but did not quite like what he saw. August 15, Prime Minister Narendra Modi held up a mirror to India and proceeded to tell us
how things could change.
Independence Day has been India’s annual general meeting. Its CEO, the prime minister, presents on that day the
annual report for the year past and lists the agenda for the
year to come to the shareholders, the Indian people. This is
how prime ministers in the past have treated it. For the
most part, it has been a forgettable experience of ritual
Not so this year. Modi delivered his address lasting just
over an hour, the longest since Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s
time, without inducing a yawn. He could not have reported
on the past because he had had the job for just 81 days thus
He presented instead what I call a moral balance sheet of
India. He could have chosen the time-honored path of
incoming CEOs to write off all bad debts at one go and
blame the previous management for all ills. Instead, he graciously gave credit to all his predecessors for having raised
India to its present position. That was a first-rate act of
Modi said he was baffled by the internal satrapies within
the government and not just the opposition outside. He
pledged a focused, faster, dynamic government, unleashing
its power in the effective pursuit of developmental goals.
He could have rightfully talked of rule through majority
in view of his decisive electoral triumph, but he stressed
consensus. He said national character was of essence,
which would make the bureaucracy ask the question
whether its work benefits the nation or the poor instead of
worrying about what is in it for me.
The Modi government is lauded for its punctuality and
cleanliness drives, but he wondered how low we must have
sunk for these minimal requirements to be considered
achievements. He stressed that spirit of service must
inform our work ethics, and proudly called himself the
First Servant of India.
The prime minister listed more liabilities: Our skewed
sex ratio caused by female feticide or infanticide, distorted
priorities in monitoring boys but not girls, absence of toilets causing indignities to women, and divisiveness caused
by religion, caste, region or politics.
He stressed that character-building begins at home. He
urged legislators to use their discretionary grants to build
toilets in schools within the year, with separate ones for
girls. He advocated a 10-year moratorium (why not a permanent one?) on violence and urged that shoulders be used
to carry ploughs rather than guns, making the earth green
and not drench it in blood.
The prime minister was acutely conscious of the overarching economic dimension to our objectives. He targeted
rural poverty and distress while proposing a new scheme
that provided inclusive banking and insurance cover for
even the poorest.
Skill development was needed for finding employment
for the young and simultaneously boosting manufacturing.
That held the key to faster growth and balance of trade.
The goal of e (easy, effective and economic) governance
through a digital India required greater urgency to making
components at home.
He invited the world to ‘Make in India’ and asked us to
take pride in the Made in India label. That would be possible only with zero defect and zero effect (on environment)
which were prerequisites to India claiming a rightful place
in the global comity.
As always, Modi plumped for tourism as another and
quick way of boosting growth and creating employment.
But this time he linked it to a drive for cleanliness. As he
has said on many occasions earlier, he wanted a clean India
to emerge by 2019, when it will observe the 150th anniversary of the Mahatma’s birth.
Apart from banking and insurance cover, only two overtly economic announcements formed a part of the prime
minister’s address. The first was a scheme for every state
and federal legislator to develop a model village in the constituency before 2016 and three more by 2019. Obviously,
these 15,000-odd villages would form the nucleus of rural
The Planning Commission is to be imminently replaced
by a new body more attuned to the current economic situation within the country (with states playing an increasing
role) and abroad.
Only the cussed will find fault with these.
Ceremonial observances such as Independence Day orations are often meant to stress national, feel-good themes.
But Modi did not shy away from talking of squalor and the
need to fight it, be it in the moral realm of gender and
opportunity imbalance, or economic in terms of shoddy
output or even physical filth threatening our cities and villages alike.
He was conscious that he was treading in uncharted territories, which took some courage and confidence to do so.
Modi wove his many themes deftly into a compelling narrative. Gender issues were connected to the outrage and
shame at reported rapes, women’s dignity to toilets,
tourism to cleanliness and rapid economic growth to manufacturing and skill development.
The appeal to unity against divisiveness was linked to the
universal desire for peace and harmony.
There were only a few references to foreign policy issues
and even those were confined to the immediate neighborhood of South Asian Association for regional Cooperation
nations. Modi reminded India that he had admired Nepal’s
attempts to eschew violence and give itself a constitution.
He said that all the countries in the region had a common
objective of overcoming poverty, which should unite, rather
than divide, them. There were no hawkish noises about
continued skirmishes with Pakistan or border disputes
Compare this to the Nawaz Sharif address to Pakistan the
day before, full of anguish over the Kashmir issue to gauge
the full import of the regional diplomacy.
Critics would say that some of Modi’s address is born out
of necessity. His government lacks a majority in the Rajya
Sabha, the upper House of India’s Parliament, and must
perforce seek consensus. His party is under fire for presumably fanning communal fires in Uttar Pradesh, so he
must appeal to abjure divisions and violence.
That is being churlish. The very fact that he understands
these compulsions and makes efforts to address them is
indicative of a high level of leadership. And the rest of his
speech, his presentation of the moral balance sheet, was the
stuff of visionary statesmanship.
His sensitivity to the gender issue is extraordinary. It was
evident in his concern for the girl child, the indignity of
women lacking toilets, his allusion to daughters being sterling supporters of aged parents, as it is in the presence of
six strong women in his Cabinet.
Modi constantly reinvents himself — from the belligerent
state chief minister to the aggressive campaigner to the
ambitious leader firing up the enthusiasm of the party
cadres to the statesman addressing the nation, exhorting it
to clean up its act everywhere if it were to meet its own lofty
aspirations. They are all various facets of the same persona.
His symbolic description of himself as the First Servant
or addressing extempore, from the heart, as it were, and
foregoing the security of the bullet-proof enclosure — that
must be rectified at all costs, because we cannot be too cautious against a mad assassin or terrorist — all fitted to a T
to the message he wanted to deliver.
Another rock star of a leader, Pope Francis, has been
doing much the same lately.
This was the best Independence Day address I have
watched, and I have seen them all since 1985.
Shreekant Sambrani taught at the Indian Institute of
The best Independence Day address I have watched
Management-Ahmedabad and helped set up the Institute
of Rural Management, Anand.
For the most part, it has been a forgettable experience of ritual observances. Not so this year.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the Red Fort, August 15.