Prime Minister Narendra Modi made his first Independence Day speech this week, and he showed what a terrific orator he is. He has, particularly in Gujarati and in Hindi, the ability to use conversational and everyday language in formal speech. He is a better communicator than any leader we have had for a very long time in national politics. He is a master of what the ancient Greeks and Romans knew as rhetoric, the art of speaking persuasively.
So, what was the thrust of his message? The most important aspect of the speech to me was that Modi broke from the language of the campaign. When he was seeking votes, Modi told Indians that their problems all lay in government, and that it was merely a change of political parties that would transform India. He told us that he would solve the big issues once he came to power because it required the talent and hard work of one man — him. In his August 15 speech, Modi said, correctly in my opinion, that many of India’s problems lay not in government, but in society. A couple of examples include, what he said about female infanticide, and what he said about cleanliness, telling Indians that we should be ashamed of how filthy our nation is. Modi acknowledged that some of this work was beyond the government (his exact words were “yeh sarkaar se hota nahin hai”). A third example was what he said about rape in India. Families who are eager to control the whereabouts of their daughters should also focus on what their sons are up to, Modi said.
Unfortunately, having framed the issue in this way, and having diagnosed the problems correctly, Modi strayed when it came to handing out the medicine. For instance, he said that the way to transform rural India was for members of Parliament to develop one model village each in their constituency each year. These ideal villages would then become role models for surrounding villages and rural India would magically transform itself. This is harebrained and totally off, in my opinion.
On the one hand, we have had many such experiments before. Ralegan-Siddhi in Maharashtra is supposed to be an ideal village, nurtured by Anna Hazare not for a year, but for decades. It is apparently green and prosperous and pious. In achieving this perfection, it has banned alcohol (people caught drinking are tied to posts and whipped there).
Even assuming that it has become some sort of a perfect village, which I doubt, Ralegan-Siddhi’s transformation has not affected the villages around it.
The other point is more important. Is this how Modi imagines a 3,500-year-old civilisation transforms itself? There is a reason why India, among the most ancient cultures of the world, is the way it is and I don’t think it is because of its parliamentarians. Some deeper thinking was required here, but it was missing. On other issues, Modi’s speech was a bit of a hit and miss. He made a glancing reference to Indian men, who were off to West Asia to fight jihad for the ISIS, but media reports say that there have been only 10 or so instances of this, so I do not know if this was an important enough thing for him to raise.
Modi reached out to India’s neighbours and said we should concentrate on alleviating poverty. This was a good thing to say, however, it doesn’t respond substantively to the problem. Pakistan also accepts that South Asia’s major problem is poverty. However, its leaders add that the reason for South Asia’s poverty is the conflict between India and Pakistan. If this conflict ends, the countries can reduce defence spending and focus on development. So, what Modi said really brings us nowhere. But overall, it was a fine speech and it cannot be denied that in many things, Modi is well meaning. He is right in accepting that not all things are the government’s fault. I hope this realism extends to some of the solutions as well. India doesn’t need a messianic figure to lead it out of darkness. What it needs is internal change and social reform, and most of that is not the work of government.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2014.
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