To say that the speech by an Indian prime minister on the nation’s Independence Day marks a solemn occasion is tautological. The prime minister, irrespective of which party he or she belongs to, cannot use it for self-glorification nor can it be used for maligning one’s political opponents. Much less can it be used as an election speech.
The reasons are self-evident.
India’s independence was not won by any single political party, nor any single political leader. Similarly, India’s post-Independence nation-building has not been achieved by any single political party, much less by any single prime minster.
Like the rath (chariot) of the famous temple in Odisha’s Jagannath Puri, which is pulled by thousands of devoted hands, a nation’s progress – especially that of a vast and diverse one like India – is made possible by a collective effort.
The prime minister, irrespective of which party he or she belongs to, cannot use an Independence day speech for self-glorification nor can it be used for maligning one’s political opponents.
When Modi addressed the nation for the tenth time from the ramparts of Red Fort on India’s 77th Independence Day, he predictably converted it into yet another election speech.
Modi has weakened his own claim by condoning “parivaar-vaad” in his own party and also by bringing into the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders such as Ajit Pawar by splitting Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party.
Modi gave no credit to the good work done by state governments (a majority of which are ruled by non-BJP parties) as well as to the work done by previous governments at the centre.
A Self-obsessed Prime Minister
However, these canons of self-restraint are not applicable to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, or so he thinks. When he addressed the nation for the tenth time from the ramparts of Red Fort on India’s 77th Independence Day, he predictably converted it into yet another election speech.
Not even North Korea’s supreme leader, Kim Jong Un, would praise himself like this while speaking to his people. Certainly, no Indian prime minister in the past has done so in their 15 August addresses to the nation.
“The next time, on 15th August, from this very Red Fort I will present before you the achievements and developments of the country," he said. Should the PM predict the outcome of next year’s parliamentary election? One might say, it shows his confidence. Others might say he is over-confident.
But that is not the point.
No one would raise any objection if, speaking at a BJP rally, Modi were to say that he would return as India’s prime minister after the 2024 Lok Sabha elections. But should he be saying it in his Independence Day address to the nation? It’s akin to President Joe Biden using his 4 July speech to predict he would return as the US President for the second term in the 2024 elections.
Modi in his speech mentioned his own name as many as seven times. India will soon become the world’s third-largest economy. Why? Because “it is Modi’s guarantee”. India accelerated reforms after 2014 and 2019. Why? “Because Modi showed courage”. Ten crore Indians were misusing government schemes to reap benefits in corrupt ways. “Modi stopped this.” Similarly: “Yeh Modi hai samay ke pehle nayi sansad bana karke rakh diya.” (It is Modi who constructed the new Parliament building before time.)
Modi Must Practice What He Preaches
Modi identified “corruption, family-led parties and appeasement” as the three ills afflicting India’s political system, governance and development. He made a strong and valid point speaking out against corruption, which is indeed, a cancer eating away the vitals of our political establishment, enfeebling governance mechanisms and distorting our development outcomes. It is also true that corruption has come down at the top levels in the central government. Modi deserves credit for this.
But can Modi truthfully claim that he has rooted out corruption in his own party? While his government, using ED, Income Tax and other such bodies, has acted ruthlessly against alleged scamsters in other parties, has it taken any action so far against leaders in his own party who are suspected to be involved in corrupt deals?
Modi again has a valid point when he critiques dynastic politics.
Without taking the name of the Congress party, he said, “How can a political party have only one family in charge? For them, their life mantra is - party of the family, by the family and for the family.” The Congress has a lot to introspect on this matter.
But Modi has weakened his own claim by condoning “parivaar-vaad” in his own party and also by bringing into the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) leaders such as Ajit Pawar (not a paragon of incorruptibility) by splitting Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party.
Let’s come to (Muslim) appeasement. Modi didn’t use the word ‘Muslim’, but the reference was obvious. It’s true that the Congress and other “secular” parties used Muslims as a “vote bank”. It didn’t benefit either Muslims or the nation at large, but gave the BJP an opportunity to slam these parties for practicing the politics of "Muslim appeasement”. But what have we seen in India since 2014? Isn’t the BJP, under Modi’s own leadership, aggressively following a policy of “Hindu appeasement” aimed at consolidating its “Hindu vote bank”?
A close look at Modi’s speech makes it problematic on another important point. Anyone who is ignorant of the history of India’s freedom movement, but who listens to his speech, would be forgiven for thinking that India was enslaved not by the British but Muslims for “1000-1200 years”. For Modi dwelt more on (Muslim) invaders and how they harmed India.
In contrast, he was completely silent on the colonial rule of British imperialists, which looted and impoverished India and heaped untold atrocities and indignities on our people. Not surprisingly, Modi didn’t pay homage to a single Muslim martyr or patriot who fought against the British.
Here is another proof of the prime minister’s self-obsession and exaggerated self-praise. According to him, “What we do in this era, the steps we take, and the decisions we take one after the other will germinate the golden history of the country in the coming 1000 years.”
The next “1000 years”? All the futurists in the world would be amazed to know that India has now become so long-sighted that it is now the laying the foundation that will determine its future over the next millennium.
Taking All the Credit: What About State Governments?
Yes, the prime minister listed many achievements of India in the past ten years. All patriotic Indians should feel proud of these achievements ─ Chandrayaan, the digital revolution in India, a rapid expansion of renewables in India’s energy basket, the modernisation of India’s infrastructure, inclusive banking, women-led development at the grassroots, the vaccination drive during the pandemic, and so on. There is no doubt that Modi’s government deserves a good deal of credit for these.
But, here again, one is forced to express a troubling thought.
Does the central government alone deserve all the credit for all these achievements? What about the contribution of state governments? After all, the very first Article in our country’s Constitution proclaims that “India, that is Bharat, shall be a union of states”. Narendra Modi is not just the head of the central government.
As the prime minister of India, he is the leader of the entire nation ─ which means, he should speak as the leader of all the states and all the 1.42 billion people of India, especially when he addresses the nation on Independence Day.
Sadly, Modi gave no credit to the good work done by state governments (a majority of which are ruled by non-BJP parties). He gave no credit to the good work done by previous governments at the centre. As if India embarked on a path of reforms and development only in 2014!
In fact, Modi berated the three decades before 2014 (which, it must be mentioned, also included six years of Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s premiership) as a “period of instability, uncertainty and political helplessness (rajneetik majboori)”.
All this makes one wonder if Modi has a single democratic bone in his body.
A final observation. Modi in his speech cited three sources of India’s national strength ─ “Demography, Democracy and Diversity”. India possessed each of these three strengths long before he became prime minister. The prime minister can take no credit for the fact that India, building further on its democratic prowess, has now become the world’s most populous nation overtaking China.
But Indians must ask themselves one question: “Who should get the credit for the current deeply disquieting state of India’s democracy and diversity?”
(The writer, who served as an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, is the founder of the ‘Forum for a New South Asia – Powered by India-Pakistan-China Cooperation’. He tweets @SudheenKulkarni and welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)