Modi’s Pre-2019 I-Day Speech Marks Rollback to 2014 – With a TwistTheQuintOpinion
With the 2019 general elections on his mind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the final Independence Day address of his term, to try and recapture the optimism that drove his 2014 campaign — and won him an unexpected majority.
A Statesman-Like Address
In a marked departure from his recent speeches, PM Modi refrained from spewing venom against his political rivals, especially the Congress. Nor did he resort to polarising rhetoric to cater to his core Hindu constituency. And surprisingly, there was no sabre-rattling against Pakistan, a common feature of Independence Day speeches. (Modi himself had indulged in this ploy two years ago when he flagged Islamabad’s troubles in Balochistan, Gilgit and Baltistan.)
In fact, the PM attempted to invoke the flavour of his very first address from the ramparts of the Red Fort, which had won him accolades even from critics — for its almost statesman-like modern outlook, laced with the heady promise of change.
Modi talked of women’s empowerment and their contribution in various fields; he talked of youthful aspirations for a better life; he talked science and technology without harking back to the Vedic times (which is a favourite RSS theme); and he unveiled plans for an ambitious health insurance scheme that would benefit 50 crores of the very poor.
The cherry on the cake he served up was a manned indigenous space mission by 2022, possibly headed by a woman.
The tone and tenor of his speech suggest that Modi has decided he needs an image overhaul before the elections.
This year’s 15 August address was a decided attempt to shake off the reputation Modi has acquired, of an autocratic pracharak with a dubious talent for losing friends.
Modi’s Credibility Test
Instead, he tried to craft a more inclusive persona with a pan-Indian appeal, as he distanced himself from the narrow, ‘Hindi-Hindu’’ agenda that is the hallmark of the RSS. PM Modi drove home the point, by quoting the Tamil activist poet Subramania Bharati — not in Hindi or English, but in Tamil.
It remains to be seen whether people will buy into the change. It was easy enough in 2014 when he was up against a corrupt, moth-eaten, ineffective Congress government led by a ‘weak’ Prime Minister. Modi came as a breath of fresh air. He was the ‘outsider’, a self-made man, a humble chaiwala who dared to compete for the top job. Modi represented the aspirations of the neo-middle-class, which was sold on his Gujarat model of development. In hindsight, the situation was tailormade for Modi, and he exploited it to the hilt, with an aggressive yet positive election campaign.
This time, however, he will be judged by his own record and performance.
While his promise of a bright bold India in the future sounds tempting, Modi may well face a credibility challenge, as people do a reality check of their lives against the hype around ‘shining India’.
The past four years have been turbulent, marked by joblessness, communal and caste violence, increasing incidence of rape, policy flip-flops, and intemperate comments by Union Ministers and BJP leaders. There were also twin shocks to the economy in the form of demonetisation, and a hastily implemented GST-scheme. The impact of these two decisions is still being assessed.
Even on the foreign policy front, the government has little to boast of and much to regret, particularly in the neighbourhood, where Bangladesh is the only country left that India can count as a friend.
Another Chance for Modi to Reset Image Before 2019
Significantly, Modi side-stepped most of these issues in his speech. For instance, he did not specifically refer to mob lynching. There was just one sentence on his government’s commitment to the rule of law. He was a little more expansive on the ‘rape’ question. But beyond a general observation that people must alter their mindset, Modi had little to offer in terms of concrete steps his government could take.
It was evident that the PM was determined to shed the impression of a government under siege.
This is something he has been battling for the last many months ever since the BJP lost key Lok Sabha by-polls in Uttar Pradesh. The just-concluded Monsoon Session saw the government trying to snatch back the narrative by showing up the weaknesses and divisions in the Opposition through double victories: one in the no-confidence motion in the Lok Sabha, and the second in the election of the deputy chairperson in the Rajya Sabha.
The traditional Independence Day address provided Modi another platform to reset his profile for 2019.
Although the audience response to his speech was rather lackluster, Modi did not allow that to faze him. He wove dreams for the aspirational Indian, as he showcased the work that his government has done in the fields of skill development, sanitation, digital growth, poverty alleviation. “The sleeping elephant has woken up,’’ Modi declared.
Can Modi Pull Off a 2014 Again?
While fears continue about attempts by fringe groups to communalise the atmosphere in the run-up to the 2019 polls, it is evident that Modi is desperate to distance himself from disturbances on the ground. It was managed cleverly in 2014 when the party exploited the communal fires from Muzzaffarnagar on the ground, to sweep 73 of UP’s 80 Lok Sabha seats, while Modi wore a Teflon-coated suit with ‘development’ written all over it.
The question is: can Modi repeat the same feat in 2019?
Modi’s 15 August speech marks the start of a rollback to 2014 with a twist.
This time, Modi has also cast himself as a flag-bearer for social justice and equality. He began his speech with the declaration that the Parliament had just passed two important pieces of legislation that will give a boost to the backward classes, Dalits and other marginalised sections. ‘Pro-poor’ is very much part of the palate Modi is offering this time.
(The writer is a Delhi-based senior journalist. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)