Modi’s August 15 Speech Was an Underwhelming Experience

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others during the 69th Independence Day function at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi. Credit: PTI Photo

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others during the 69th Independence Day function at the historic Red Fort in New Delhi. Credit: PTI Photo

Narendra Modi’s speeches, especially political ones, are characterised by punch and aggression on his part and rapt attention alternated with cheering from the audiences. During the election campaign before May 2014, he drew massive crowds all over India who were eager to hear him speak.

He rarely disappointed them. His sharp barbs at his rivals, his fiery rhetoric and his turn of phrase, all delivered in thunderous style won him fans and voters, propelling him to the Prime Minister’s office. What hit his rivals most was his consistent raising of important questions of governance and corruption. They not only shoot the scam-ridden UPA government, but assured citizens that Narendra Modi, whose Gujarat was being hailed as a model state, would come into office and get about cleaning the mess.

When he addressed the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day 2014, he spoke in a conciliatory tone asking the country to move in unison to achieve great heights. He offered a vision of a great, successful India. He said the credit for many achievements lay not just with the government but also with the Opposition, pointing to the just concluded Parliament Session. “We are not for moving forward on the basis of majority, we are not interested to move forward by virtue of majority,” he had declared.

Post May 2014 glow

Then, the afterglow of the handsome May victory still shone bright and the country, which had seen and heard Narendra Modi the campaigner, sharp and penetrating, even if sometimes hitting in the below the belt region, saw before them Modi the leader, graceful in victory and wanting to take everyone along. In August 2014, it was a Modi who surprised everybody.

But exactly a year later, we got a different Modi. Not only was the energy and the electricity missing, he seemed to be extra cautious. In his nearly 90 minute address, he presented his report card for the last year, coined catchy new labels—Team India, Stand Up India, Start up India, defended his own team: “This government does not have any allegation of corruption against it for even a single penny”. He once again reiterated, as he had done last year, that communalism and casteism had no place in society? In the light of the incendiary comments made by Sangh parivaar members, this claim sounds hollow, as does the emphatic claim of there having been no corruption.

By all indications, the nation was left underwhelmed. It was not just the humidity that dampened the spirits of the throngs at the Red Fort; it was that they just couldn’t grasp his core message. Phrases like Team India sound like what an HR manager would come up at a middle-management offsite. It also reduces 125 crore citizens of the country to a single, unified unit, without considering the vast diversity of this land. These cliches have no potential of assuring the country, much less rousing anyone.

What came as a surprise was that Modi, sitting comfortably with an unassailable majority in the Lok Sabha, appears to have been stung by the ferocity of the Opposition’s assault on his ministers. It is clear that the Congress has overdone its campaign and is now losing support and sympathy. Other Opposition parties have already begun distancing themselves from the Congress. Yet, the appropriate place to call their bluff is in the Lok Sabha. Instead, Modi chose to stay away from Parliament through most of the session, but then chose the podium at the Red Fort to declare that his government was corruption free. Clearly he is aware of the perception among the people about dodgy behavior by his cabinet colleagues and feels the need to clarify. He managed to get a dig in about the Congress talking about corruption, but that argument is now wearing increasingly thin. It begs the question—why did he not speak out in Parliament, where he could have effectively silenced the opposition? Was it tactical or did he not want to face fellow MPs? More important, is the public buying this defence?

Inevitable disappointment

This is going to be Modi’s dilemma. As disappointments set in – as they inevitably will, considering that the many grandiose promises made during the election will be difficult to fulfill – those looking for assurances will have no indication of what the Prime Minister’s thinking on the issue is. He does not speak anywhere, barring in highly controlled environments, in India and abroad. Will we all have to wait once a year for his pronouncements?

The dangers of this are obvious. The expectations of soldiers on the issue of One Rank One Pension had been raised sky high and nothing has moved on it during the past one year. Army men have been on hunger strike at Jantar Mantar and the nation saw the unedifying spectacle of policemen trying to remove them just before Independence Day because they were a “security threat.” This is a PR disaster, especially for a party that loses no opportunity to declare its uber-patriotism. The soldiers had hoped that Modi would give them a pleasant surprise—instead, he merely said the government was looking into it, an announcement that any ministry spokesperson could have made. It indicates Modi’s inability to deliver on his own commitments. Given the state of the country’s finances, OROP may not be such an easy decision; but wasn’t Modi supposed to be the decisive person who found solutions to vexing problems?

The law of diminishing marginal utility has set in. The country does not hear much from Modi during the year and when it does, once annually, there is little actual substance. In time, the August 15 speech will become just another ritual, like it did for Prime Ministers before him. Modi, who was expected to be different, has only flattered to deceive. Last year on Independence Day he had said he was an outsider to Delhi; this year he has become part of the system.

A shorter version of this piece appeared in The Times of India.

  • Vikram

    Your disappointment started the day he became PM. Please do not equate your disappointment with that of the people.