Delivering his first Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of building a brave, new India — a country in which every citizen has a bank account, women are safe, parliamentarians adopt villages, cleanliness is a priority, and much more.
A relaxed and confident Modi — a man visibly in control at the top — radically departed from past practice on Friday. He spoke to the nation directly, extempore, and without a bullet-proof shield.
The Prime Minister made a surprise announcement to replace the once-powerful Planning Commission with a new institution that will foster cooperative federalism, facilitate public-private partnership and help in better navigation of the changing economic landscape.
He delivered an overarching message of social and financial empowerment for millions of India’s poor, women’s safety and better sanitation in an address that was high on emotion but measured in political rhetoric.
His saffron-and-green turban fluttering at the windy ramparts, Modi wore a white kurta to complete the tricolour, addressing a nation glued to the television and 30,000-odd ordinary citizens and dignitaries gathered at the ground, the majestic Jama Masjid silhouetted in the backdrop.
Modi’s speech, which lasted more than an hour, was a break from the style of his predecessors. He did not read out from a prepared text and his podium at Red Fort did not have a bulletproof podium, apparently at the insistence of the Prime Minister himself.
He called himself a “prime servant” and cut across barricades to meet schoolchildren, looking to establish himself as the people’s PM. He also replaced the poll-campaign discourse of acrimony and partisanship with an inclusive, statesman-like language.
“This is a platform not for rajniti (politics) but rashtraniti, or national policy formulation,” he said.
Last year on I-Day, a combative Modi had spoken in Gujarat soon after then prime minister Manmohan Singh’s address to the nation. This year, he magnanimously gave credit to his predecessors and expressed gratitude to all former PMs, past governments and state governments for helping India reach where it is now.
He connected with the audience who had gathered at the site, as they clapped and cheered when Modi outlined the policies his government will initiate en route to a new India.
Nevertheless, his address was not a laundry list of new schemes — a departure from the PM’s Independence Day address in the recent years. Instead, Modi focused on what his supporters called the “small ideas” that can make a “big difference”.
His critics said the speech was all rhetoric and that they would wait to see how his promises translate into action.
“Trust my words,” Modi said, as he spelt out the vision for his government that came to power in May this year, winning a landslide victory.
Seeking in part to negate impressions that his government was pro-industry, pro-rich, the Prime Minister devoted a substantial portion of his speech to the need to improve the quality of life of Indians, including the need for a greater sense of cleanliness and toilets for the poor and civic shortcomings that are a blotch on India’s growing stature on the global stage.
“You would think that from the Red Fort he is talking about cleanliness and toilets, but I am speaking from the heart,” the Prime Minister said.
“I come from a poor family and I want the poor to get dignity. We want to start a movement for a Clean India,” he added, announcing an initiative to build model villages, saying nation-building had to begin from villages.
“Every school should build separate toilets for girls in a year so that our girl children do not leave schools.”
Modi also spoke about violence against women, saying his head hung in shame to see reports of rape across the country. He said while the law will take its course, Indian society must itself be raising sons in the best possible manner.
“Our heads hang in shame when we hear news about rape.
“After all, a person who is raping is somebody’s son. As parents have we asked our sons where he is going? We need to take responsibility to bring our sons who have deviated from the right path to bring them back,” Modi said.
He also put emphasis on the power of the youth to take the country forward and said a scheme would be launched to impart job-oriented training among youngsters.
“Skill development, skilled India is our mission. Skill development will be towards job creation and empowering the youth with skills.”
Modi laid stress on economic self-reliance, saying the country should strive to become a manufacturing hub for global investors with zero-defect products and zero-effect on environment.
“I tell the world, Make in India,” Modi said, reaching out to investors. “Sell anywhere but manufacture here. We have the skill and talent for it.”
The Prime Minister added Indian enterprise must come together to think of ways by which the country does not have to import goods, but export to the world.
The speech was seen as an attempt by Modi to rise above politics and reach out to a cross section of society over issues that have stoked both public anger as well as expectations from the government.
His address also struck a politically inclusive note as Modi sought to reach out not only to his principal opposition but reiterated his focus on empowering states to bolster the country’s federal character.
“All PMs, governments have contributed. All governments of the states have contributed. I offer my respect to all of them,” Modi said.
“Let us walk together, think together, and make a determination to take the nation ahead together. We are not those who want to move ahead on the basis of our mandate. We want to walk together with consensus.”
The speech was eagerly awaited for bold changes and big-ticket economic reforms, given that so far the government had only announced incremental steps such as opening up foreign investment in certain sectors.
He announced an initiative to improve access to financial services for the two-fifths of Indians who lack a bank account and are often at the mercy of moneylenders who charge extortionate interest.
The new ‘Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana’ will help the poor open bank accounts which will come with the facility of a debit card and an insurance cover of Rs. 1 lakh.
The Prime Minister appeared to save the biggest announcement for the last. He said he would replace the Nehruvian, socialist-era Planning Commission that for decades guided the country’s economy with a more modern institution.
“The times have changed since the Planning Commission was created. In a short span of time we will initiative a new institution that will work in place of the Planning Commission,” Modi said, referring to the proposed body which will encourage greater engagement of states in charting the country’s growth path through “cooperative federalism”. He did not give further details.
Sharing his experience of becoming an ‘insider’ in Delhi’s power circles from an ‘outsider’, the PM said he was shocked at the fragmented nature of the government, where different departments battle each other. “It seemed like there were a dozen different governments within one government, each running a fiefdom of its own. I have begun my efforts to bring these walls down, to ensure that the government is an organic unity,” he said.
Modi also spoke of the potential for tourism, a favourite theme ever since his days as chief minister. He visualised a digital India in which electronic items were produced indigenously and e-governance was the norm.
Modi did not forget to mention his humble roots. “When I talk about tea sellers, I feel a degree of affinity,” he said.