From delivering a memorable speech, on debut, at the historic Red Fort, to pulling off a diplomatic coup by getting the Obamas, and then unwittingly landing into a huge controversy over his sartorial choices, Modi’s journey from last Independence Day to this one has been a roller coaster ride. But it’s running low on steam now. Economic indicators are flashing warning signs. His much hyped schemes look masterpieces on paper, but fail the ground test. More bluntly put, his honeymoon phase appears to be over. People have begun to seek returns, for the trust they posed in him, writes ABID SHAH to pose the question: Can he deliver?
Somehow, years and decades that elapsed ever since India’s famed tryst with destiny on August 15, 1947 have lulled the verve, passion, hope and pride that it had brought in the wee hours of that historic morning. The country had won freedom giving rise to huge expectations. Yet, the Independence Day that is observed every year to mark this momentous event with its full ceremonial framework never fails to remind of disappointments that have come to stay after so many years. One able Prime Minister or the other rose ever since whenever August 15th came to address the nation from the ramparts of Red Fort in Delhi. They have invariably been trying to bridge the gap through these highly publicised speeches between the promise that independence brought and its realization. Sadly, the gap remains far from being filled. So much so that Prime Minister Narendra Modi rode to power last year only amid this continuing, may be deepening, gap, though there must have been other factors too to propel him to the top job of the country.
Narendra Modi must have been quite surely conscious of the grim deficiencies that have been left behind to linger through the twenty-first century India by his predecessors howsoever illustrious they could have been. And, thus, when he rose to deliver his maiden Independence Day speech from the majestic Red Fort on August 15 2014, he more than once called himself as prime servant of the country and not Prime Minister and once as ‘the first servant’ to underscore perhaps not just his humility but also the enormity of the task before him and the steadfast devotion that it calls for. He went on to talk about those working with him in the subordinate rungs of the Government and said, “I ask a person in private job, he tells that he does the job; when you ask the same from a person in Government job, he says that I do the service. Both earn, but for one it is job while for the other it is service. I ask a question from all brothers and sisters in Government service, whether the word ‘Service’ has not lost its strength, its identity? Persons in Government service are not doing ‘job’, they are doing ‘service’. We have to revive this feeling. We have to take this feeling forward as a national character. We have to move forward in this direction.”
A sober, gently veiled and yet effective admonition as this is, Narendra Modi’s advent at Red Fort with such polite yet resolute words on his lips looked like a ray of hope after a long spell of gloom. He said, “I’m amidst you not as a prime minister, but as the first servant. I have formed the Government not as a ruler, but as a servant. .” One wished that such a laudable resolve lasts and works to shake away the lethargy, indifference and withdrawal symptoms setting in for ages and gnawing at the proverbial steel frame that the bureaucracy is reputed to be made of. He has been in power for over a couple of months before he addressed the nation for the first time from the Red Fort. He had washed off the charge of flamboyance and bravado of his election or campaign days by his maiden Independence Day speech. People looked up to him for his noble intentions as enunciated in August 15 speech as days, weeks, months went by till the time for Republic Day came and it brought in its wake no less a guest than the US President Barack Obama.
The diplomatic coup, the controversies and the Delhi debacle
This could have been another distinction vis-à-vis Modi’s leadership as it, indeed, was until the impeccable blue stripe suit that Prime Minister donned to receive Obama turned out to have Modi’s full name strewn through the golden pinstripe of his suit. Such self-obsessed regal touch all over the attire belied the claims of his being the prime public servant made only less than half-a-year ago. So what he pitched in for on Independence Day was lost on Republic Day.
This added to other things to bring a heavy public indictment when Modi’s party soon lost quite badly the polls for Delhi Assembly. He did not call himself a servant of the country or its people when he addressed this year’s Independence Day event about a week ago or so; and, thus, he had to jump on another key phrase “team India” that he repeated several times through the address. Obviously, he found himself again faced with over a billion people who missed signs of change that he had promised a year ago. But before this the Republic Day guest from US had a piece of advice for Modi. The reason for this being that despite Modi seeking a ten-year-long moratorium on parochial divisiveness in his 2014 Independence Day speech, a shrill campaign targeting Muslims was on. Modi had said from Red Fort in 2014, “I appeal to all those people that whether it is the poison of casteism, communalism, regionalism, discrimination on social and economic basis, all these are obstacles in our way forward. Let’s resolve for once in our hearts, let’s put a moratorium on all such activities for ten years, we shall march ahead to a society which will be free from all such tensions.”
In utter disregard to this appeal Vishwa Hindu Parishad and its cohorts launched a campaign for reconversion of Muslims and Christians in the name of Ghar Wapsi. And Obama took note of it while speaking at a public reception in Delhi a couple of days after attending the Republic Day parade at Rajpath. He warned against what he called “religious splintering” and reminded the provisions like freedom of conscience, faith and belief enshrined in Article 25 of the Constitution. He hailed Indian diversity while warning against efforts to curb it through a sectarian agenda. Some of the euphoria created by Obama’s visit evaporated in the wake of such exhortations by the US President and the gap between the public positioning of Modi and the real agenda carried by his staunch backers from the Sangh Parivar got totally exposed.
Thus, not just the country but also the entire world has been watching Modi quite keenly so as not to miss the blurring of thin dividing line between words and deeds. This is more so since Modi came to power on the promise to script a new India Story that Obama gently referred to in his parting speech to youth and students in Delhi on January 28, 2015 while serving a warning so as to save it. Modi himself had initiated what Obama pointed out to in his 2014 Independence Day address. He said, “If we have to promote the development of our country then our mission has to be 'skill development' and 'skilled India’….We want to go for the capacity building of such young people. My brothers and sisters, having taken a resolve to enhance the skill development at a highly rapid pace, I want to accomplish this.”
Make in India: Modi Vs Manmohan
The skill development programme was initiated under the previous United Progressive Alliance Government led by Manmohan Singh and the rate of imparting skill has been higher in the last years of Manmohan Singh’s tenure than the first year of Modi’s rule (See the box).
The fate of other programmes announced by Modi in his first Independence Day address have hardly been any different as the hype around them has been so high that attention seldom went to their actual assessment. Take the case of Modi’s Make in India. More so, since he had said a year ago “I want to appeal all the people the world over, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, ‘Come, make in India’, ‘Come, manufacture in India’. Sell in any country of the world but manufacture here. We have got skill, talent, discipline, and determination to do something. We want to give the world a favourable opportunity that come here, ‘Come, Make in India’ and we will say to the world, from electrical to electronics, ‘Come, Make in India’, from automobiles to agro value addition ‘Come, Make in India’, paper or plastic, ‘Come, Make in India’, satellite or submarine “Come, Make in India”. Our country is powerful. Come, I am giving you an invitation.”
Not only he had this but a tableau of make in India also moved along the Rajpath on the last Republic Day to depict India as a manufacturing tiger. Yet, figures belie such a veritable show by the Government. The Foreign Direct Investment coming to India as per the Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion rose by 24 percent through Modi’s first year in office while the corresponding figure for this during UPA’s first year was 40 percent.
Irrespective of this, not just flow of FDI is important but its use is the ultimate yardstick of development. India continues to badly lag behind neighbouring China in optimum use of investments and capital. For years investments coming Beijing’s way have been meeting the needs of manufacturing sector whereas back home this is not absolutely the case. Lack of proper infrastructure has been having a crippling effect upon the growth of manufacturing sector in India. This has been the case during UPA’s time and so it is now despite both the Governments trying hard to bring foreign support to infrastructure. The only difference is that Manmohan Singh’s Government admitted this while his successors are trying to jump to manufacturing straightaway.
Thus, Modi said a year ago, “I call upon the world and call upon the Indians spread world over that if we have to provide more and more employment to the youth, we will have to promote manufacturing sector. If we have to develop a balance between imports and exports, we will have to strengthen manufacturing sector. If we have to put in use the education, the capability of the youth, we will have to go for manufacturing sector and for this India also will have to lend its full strength, but we also invite world powers.”
Manmohan Singh used to appeal for investments in the infrastructure sector which is no longer the case. And despite all the stress on manufacturing now the growth in this sector has so far been not as impressive as ten years ago or during the first year of UPA’s rule when it had hit a growth of over nine percent. Modi’s stress on manufacturing is so great that he said on August 15, 2014, “Today we are importing electronic goods on a large scale… If we move ahead with the dream of 'digital India' to manufacture electronic goods and at least become self reliant there, how big can be the benefit for the treasury.”
Indeed, this is felt not by Prime Minister alone but also generally by most Indians. Yet, the problem is again the lack of infrastructure and technical wherewithal and also knowhow. Often electronic items made at home turn out to be costlier than the imported ones. They are also shabbier than their international equivalents. The Prime Minister appears to be aware of this since he said, “We should manufacture goods with zero effect that they should not have a negative impact on the environment… We should manufacture goods in such a way that they carry zero defect, that our exported goods are never returned to us.”
As for the impact on environment Modi’s Government has been quite liberal in giving clearance to several projects (See the box). The solution to the other part of his observation is sustained research and development which may not only take time but also a lot of efforts to boost technical manpower and upgrade its knowledge. The institutes would have to be linked with industry and the manufacturers would have to be asked to shell out from their coveted profit for this. So far the Government is yet to make any policy in this regard and provide support through adequate budgetary provisions.
His claims and the challenges he faces
Lack of progress, or its tardiness, in these areas has been leading to low generation of employment. Modi’s poll campaign had heightened expectations among youth and many have been anticipating robust creation of employment. Conscious of this fact, the Prime Minister last year took attention to this in his Independence Day address and said, “We want to promote tourism. Tourism provides employment to the poorest of the poor.” He must have been pointing to the low rate of foreign tourists arrival in the country during initial months of his rule as compared to that of UPA in 2004-05 (See the box).
Modi stressed the need for cleanliness to boost tourism. In an impassioned plea he called for making a beginning in this respect by completing the task of building separate toilets for girls and boys in over quarter-a-million schools spread across the country (See the story Clean India Mission: A Long way to Go…). This would reduce the dropout rate of girls from school besides making children aware of health and hygiene. This he said last year while fixing a year’s deadline to build girls toilet in all schools.
And when he spoke this year on Independence Day he thanked those involved in the task of accomplishing this successfully by saying, “I had announced it without consulting anybody. It was not announced after collecting relevant information from districts and villages. It just came into my heart and I had announced that we would build separate toilets for boys and girls in all of our schools till the next 15th August. But later on, when we started work, the ‘Team India’ figured out its responsibilities, we realised that there were 2 lakh and 62 thousand such schools, where more than 4.25 lakh toilets were required to be built. This figure was so big that any government could rethink to extend the deadline, but it certainly was the resolve of the ‘Team India’ that no one sought any extension.
“Today, on this 15th August, I salute the ‘Team India’, who, keeping the honour of our tricolour National Flag, left no stone unturned to realise that dream, and the ‘Team India’ has now nearly achieved the target of building all the toilets. I compliment to all the state governments, government officers of the districts, policy framers and implementers of educational institutions, who were involved in realizing this achievement. This is not just an issue of building more than 4.25 lakh toilets. This is an issue of creating an atmosphere of self-confidence at a time, when we were so engulfed with the negativity that it was being told that nothing could happen, there was no hope, it was not possible. But now, the ‘Team India’ has demonstrated that we are ready to accept challenges, we would not withdraw, and we are committed for our success.”
Indeed, the accomplishment has underpinnings of great hope for the ‘Team India’. It has been hearing Modi and may well want soon to be heard more by him and may be by his team.