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PM Modi's I-Day Speech: Beyond Savarkar & Corruption, a Dearth of Fresh Ideas?

There was little that has not already been stated by Modi in the last few years.

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on the historic occasion of the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence was noteworthy only for its shaky appeals and oft-repeated ideas and programmes.

Alongside, an acute awareness of the necessity to renew his appeal to voters below 35 years of age, was evident. He asked the youth to “take a pledge and walk with me ... take the oath of the tricolour and walk along”.

Modi repeatedly reminded people that India was just 25 years away from marking its centenary as an independent nation in 2047 – a period for which he has coined the catchphrase ‘Amrit Kaal’, drawn from Vedic astrology. But independent historians of the future may list this speech as a missed opportunity for its failure to be inspirational and impart fresh thought into governance and policy.

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Monday's Speech Was Lukewarm

Modi’s ninth Independence Day address was in sharp contrast to his first in 2014, when he convinced many – even those who disagreed with his politics – that they could still be a part of his vision for India. But Monday’s speech drew on previously shared ideas and was tepid in its focus – the call to citizens to make ‘panchpran’ (five pledges) for the next 25 years and ensure that their energies are focused on redeeming these undertakings.

There was little that has not been stated by Modi in the last few years.

  • Emphasising enhancing resolves and carrying these to fruition for a developed India.

  • Erasing every trace of ‘ghulami’ or servility because “centuries of slavery” have crept into the deepest crevices of our minds.

  • Pride in our heritage.

  • Unity and solidarity, where both sentiments are driven by the spirit of ‘Ek Bharat, Shresth Bharat’.

  • Every citizen (elected representatives too) must maintain discipline and discharge one’s duties.

None of these, presented as ‘big’ ideas, are new: Vikasit Bharat (Developed Bharat) is a derivative of the 'magic' Modi wove with the Vikas and Badlaav (Development and Change) coinage in 2014. Since then, jokes have been cracked ad nauseam over its illusionary character. But the Prime Minister knows that nonetheless, the idea of development can secure people’s endorsement on occasions that matter most – elections.

The phrase “centuries of slavery” precedes even the campaign of 2014. It is an integral component of the idea of Hindutva, which its codifier, VD Savarkar, stated is “history” and according to which the entire mediaeval period was “foreign rule” and “subjugation of Bharatwasis”.

The pitch for maintaining discipline and discharging duties, too, has been made repeatedly on previous occasions. Eulogising duties while frowning upon people demanding, rightfully, their rights enshrined in the Constitution undermines the founding principles of the republic.

Duplicitous Claims

The Prime Minister also asserted that after beginning with the slogans ‘Sabka Saath-Sabka Vikas’, Sabka Vishwaas (Trust of all) and Sabka Prayas (Efforts of all) were added in 2019 and 2021, respectively.

With religious minorities under constant scrutiny and attack, securing the trust of everyone remain remains a notional aim. Talk of participatory governance is also being used more to ensure compliance of people rather than genuine participation in the consultative processes.

Modi’s call for people to be proud of India’s heritage and remain united and forge solidarity with one another is not new. However, what must be noted is that Modi made the following points:

  • diversity of religions and traditions must be celebrated by people,

  • equality for all – including gender parity,

  • no one is to be treated as a foreigner or an alien

But these appeals appear duplicitous when not backed by disciplinary action when these principles are violated by one’s own.

In 2014, Modi, while condemning rising cases of rape, asked families to monitor the movements and actions of their sons, too, not of their daughters alone. But when a couple of years later, the son of a senior Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader from Haryana stalked a young professional woman returning home after work in Chandigarh, misogynist comments, against which Modi spoke on Monday, were used by various party leaders to defend the young man.

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Savarkar Is an Icon Now

While congratulating people for the landmark anniversary and paying his respects to freedom fighters, Modi named four leaders as ones to whom Indians must remain eternally grateful: Mahatma Gandhi, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, BR Ambedkar and VD Savarkar.

This is indicative of Modi’s political necessity and orientation. Gandhi and Ambedkar cannot but be included in their pantheon of greats despite past disagreements with Hindu nationalist politics. Bose is venerated by the Modi government – the vacant canopy at India Gate has been filled by his statue – because of his popularity among the masses and for providing an opportunity to slam previous Congress governments for marginalising Bose’s legacy.

The mention of Savarkar as one of the leaders for whom gratitude must be expressed indicates the complete iconisation of the controversial leader, although his memory remains tainted on account of his association with Nathuram Godse.

Several pursuits [replaced the previous word] of the BJP are unambiguously Savarkarite in practise [replaced the previous word], and this explains the necessity to venerate him.

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Invoking 'Nafrat' for Corruption

Modi glossed over previous promises that remain undelivered, yet, with ease, he shifted the focus to a different terrain for the same target audience.

The Prime Minister sang paeans to emerging “digital entrepreneurs” while speaking of the impending 5G-driven revolution. Small farmers and entrepreneurs and the government’s efforts for them (unspecified though) is the new jargon.

The hope is that these will act as new seductive tools and save the Prime Minister and other leaders from being asked uncomfortable questions over the jobs crisis.

Politics, of course, is the key to every public intervention of Modi. In possibly a clear indication of the targets over the next few months, the Prime Minister said the two biggest dangers the nation faces are corruption and dynasticism.

On the battle against corruption, Modi said he was foreseeing “entering a decisive period”. He said, “Not even the biggest shall be able to escape.”

The statement has to be juxtaposed against the backdrop of a spurt in allegations and investigations of corruption charges against political opponents. “I not only wish to wage the fight (against corruption) but also hasten its pace, take it to a decisive point...”

Significantly, the battle against corruption is political, too, involving more than just investigative agencies and the legal process. “Till the time nafrat (hatred) is not whipped up against corruption and the corrupt, till the time this is not labelled as despicable by society, the mentality shall survive,” Modi said.

In the past eight years, India has witnessed a rise in social vigilantism; people have been lynched on mere suspicions. Will the Prime Minister’s virtual call for people to identify and ‘take action’ against the ‘corrupt’ before their conviction in courts lead to the establishment of kangaroo courts or heightened vigilantism?

Was it appropriate for the Prime Minister to call for fanning nafrat (hatred), regardless of the seriousness of the accusations?

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Dynastic Politics & 'Competitive Cooperative Federalism'

Dynasticism is another political bogey, especially when the ruling party itself has a large number of lawmakers, both at the national and state level, who are born into political families. Modi also asserted that the malaise is not restricted to politics but is prevalent even in sports bodies. But is not the present secretary of the Board of Cricket Control of India, Jay Shah, also the son of Union Home Minister Amit Shah?

Old habits die hard. During the 2014 campaign, Modi wooed voters in states that had heard little of him and which remained suspicious of him through repeated promises of ushering in cooperative federalism. Although state governments, especially those led by non-BJP parties, have bitterly complained about repeated violations of federal principles, a new spin has been added to the debate: Competitive Cooperative Federalism.

The Prime Minister was unequivocal: “The need of the hour is that along with cooperative federalism, there is also a need for Competitive Cooperative Federalism. There is a need for competition in development.”

The jury is still out on this formulation, which too is not a fresh idea. But on the face of it, the call shall lead to greater bitterness between the Centre and non-BJP ruled states on the one hand, and between these states and the BJP-ruled ones on the other.

It would be directly opposed to Modi’s call for unity and solidarity. But that has been the essence of his appeals – what is applicable in one instance is almost dangerous in most other situations.

(The writer is an NCR-based author and journalist. His latest book is The Demolition and the Verdict: Ayodhya and the Project to Reconfigure India. He has also written The RSS: Icons of the Indian Right and Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. He tweets at @NilanjanUdwin.)

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