Prime Minister Narendra Modi's address on the occasion of the most crisis-ridden Independence Day in decades was keenly anticipated for indications he would provide people on how he proposed addressing their pressing anxieties in the short- and medium terms.
At the conclusion of the speech, most would have been a tad let down for several reasons. First, the pandemic continues to rage and partial correctness of statistical arguments put forth officially, regarding how we escaped the 'worst', offers little solace.
Modi offered few words of hope except remarking that research for the vaccine was on track and his government would ensure its availability, whenever ready, in quick time. People would have been more assured to hear that it would be universally available at affordable cost, and not remain the privilege of the wealthy and influential as quality healthcare has been over past months.
Second, personal economies of most citizens are almost hollowed out and there is no certainty when the majority of people would get on the recovery curve. In recent years, even on his I-Day addresses, Modi emphasised on the need to transform from being a nation of job-seekers to job-givers.
A String of Slogans, Alliterations and Announcements
In the wake of the pandemic and the unplanned suddenness of the lockdown, many in both categories remain worried about where their next square meal shall come from. In place of concrete assurances from Modi, his address remained a string of slogans, alliterations and announcements which were either previously declared or were repackaged versions of what was already put in place.
For instance, his laudatory mention of five crore sanitary pads being distributed at cost of rupee one through public health network. He received kudos for "being the first PM to talk of sanitary pads from the Red Fort." It's worth mentioning that in 2014 he had become the first premier to talk of rape from the same venue yet when his party needed to act for the Chandigarh incident, he forgot his homily.
The advantage with leaders like Modi who live from speech to speech (this was his ninth speech in August), is that sheer volume of words blurs public memory.
As a result, old pledges and schemes appear new if they are restated after a time gap -- menstrual hygiene after all, has been a buzzword of this regime for long, discernible from a favoured Bollywood actor also making a Hindi film on the theme.
The government launched Jan Aushadhi Suvidha Oxo-Biodegradable Sanitary Napkin scheme in June 2018. Before the 2019 polls, Modi promised cheaper sanitary pads and in August 2019, price of each pad sold at Pradhan Mantri Bhartiya Janaushadhi Kendras was slashed to one rupee.
The Modinomics of Grandiose Ideas
Since the last week of April, the notion of Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) as panacea for all ills is being proclaimed ad nauseam, not just by the prime minister, but by anyone keen to display loyalty and admiration.
Said in the same breath with Aatmavishwas (self-confidence), Modi claimed these are now the nation's mantra or chant. Grandiose ideas sound platitudinous when most people have an emergency on hand.
For long, defining principles of Modinomics were at odds with the pursuit of the century-plus drive of swadeshi. Even as Gujarat chief minister, Modi and economic nationalists within the saffron fold tread parallel and often conflicting tracks.
Modi’s grand Make in India plan, announced in 2014, remains a project in the making after six years and thus new apparel for the idea.
Modi reiterated need to cut export of raw material and slash import of finished products, calling for indigenous manufacture.
Recently the government also banned import of 101 defence equipment -- an announcement over which the jury is still out on whether this will transform Indian defence industry.
But it is settled, such decisions shall not generate jobs immediately although these are required post-haste. Infrastructure development will certainly generate jobs but will take time.
Modi has said in the past that however much the Centre does, it will still appear minuscule. It is his task to ensure this sense doesn't become a grudge.
There were laudable announcements but these are hamstrung by refusal to look at underlying issues. The launch of National Digital Health Mission is one such headline-grabbing declaration. Backed by information that an Aadhaar-like health ID will store all medical test reports, prescriptions, and disease history of every citizen, it is a praiseworthy initiative.
The rider, however, is what value would this be? Especially in the absence of quality public health system and majority of people being unable to secure quality and timely treatment because they cannot either afford it, or there is no good hospital in the neighbourhood.
It is commendable, the rise in the number of AIIMS-like health institutions as Modi mentioned in his 'report card', but this must be backed by simultaneous improvement in health services across India. If quality health services remain centralised and available in few institutions, this card shall be of little use to masses.
Likewise, Modi informed that the government had selected 100 cities for reducing pollution. But most problems in cities arise not just for local reasons, but also due to habits, practices and policies in the neighbouring region -- for instance smog during winter in north India, greatly caused by stubble-burning. Furthermore, would this programme be exclusively in the cities or would stakeholders that fall in the pollution-causing belt also be drawn in?
The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan, declared on I-Day in 2014, is in prime position on the government's list of achievements. Yet, the programme remains hamstrung in absence of municipal reforms and failure to improve infrastructure and the lot of sanitation workers.
Modi’s ‘Mission Mode’
A former senior bureaucrat in Gujarat once explained that Modi works in "mission mode". Such 'missions' or projects with clearly defined objectives, scopes, implementation timelines and milestones have been part of governance before Modi became prime minister.
Modi emphasises on frequently announcing new missions because he knows the persuasive powers of catchy coinages and alliterations. Due to his capacity to communicate with people, the prime minister succeeds in retaining his constituency.
There was much anticipation over what he would say regarding the ongoing military and diplomatic tangle with China and the Ram temple's Bhoomi Pujan. On both he said little beyond the already stated. Significantly, Modi announcement regarding expansion of National Cadet Corps (NCC) in 173 border and coastal districts is a throwback to the decision post-1962 Indo-China conflict when serving in the NCC was made compulsory. In 1968, this was reverted to being voluntary service.
Importantly, the prime minister emphasised on how India's ties with the "extended neighbourhood" has been strengthened under his stewardship. He, however, ignored making any mention of the crisis with several nations in the 'immediate' neighbourhood.
(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)