“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”
Narendra Damodardas Modi had done his homework. In a speech that was a cross between John F Kennedy’s feisty appeal to his countrymen and Martin Luther King Junior’s dramatic defence of his dream, Modi established himself yet again as a master performer — the Pied Piper of Hindustan, puppeteering a patriotic mass into believing the veracity of his intentions, through his powerful rhetoric.
“Can someone please tell me whether he or she has ever introspected in the evening, after a day’s work, as to whether his or her actions have helped the poor of the country? Whether his or her actions have resulted in safeguarding the interest of the country? Whether the actions have been directed in country’s welfare? Whether it should not be the motto of one and a quarter billion countrymen that every step in his or her life should be taken in the country’s interest?”
The cynic in me would customarily have shot an eyebrow up at this much display of sentiment but there was something about Modi’s speech which prevented me from doing so today. The persuasive speaker had splendid back-up to the excessive emotional outpouring. He was trying to rouse the sentiments of a nation that is largely afflicted by the curse of complacence, almost Rang De Bansanti style — that is not only with the aid of hollow words; he was willing to cut out a portion of his heart and hold it high up from the ramparts of Red Fort for public perusal —
“I come from a poor family, I have seen poverty. … This is the beauty of India’s Constitution … [It] has made it possible today for a boy from a small-town, hailing from a poor family to pay homage to the Tricolour of India from the ramparts of Lal Quila. This is the strength of India’s democracy. … [And] I am present amidst you not as the Prime Minister [of this democracy], but as the Prime Servant.”
Example, Modi knows, is better than precept. And what therefore by way of exemplification has the pradhan sevak of the nation done for its citizens?
“The first work I started here after the formation of government is a cleanliness drive. People wondered whether it is the work of a Prime Minister! People may feel that it is a trivial work for a Prime Minister, but for me this is a big job. Cleanliness is very big work. Can our country not be clean? … Brothers and Sisters, as well as my colleagues in the Government, [let me assure you] that if you work for 12 hours, I will do so for 13 hours; if you work for 14 hours, I will do for 15 hours. Why? Because … I have formed the government, not as a ruler but as a servant.”
No matter what else the statesman might be guilty of, on this occasion, he was certainly not guilty of elitism. And that struck a chord with the masses, long fed on and fed-up of the prepared speeches of a distant, even though benign, former shadow Prime Minister. The dignity of labour depends not on what you do but how you do it — Modi’s appeal to the young people of the nation to make themselves available for “skilled labour” was in keeping with an egalitarian spirit —
“Today, the world needs a skilled workforce. Today, India also needs a skilled workforce. At times, we look for a good driver but one is not available, we look for a plumber, but one is not available. If we need a good cook, one is not available. We have young people, they are unemployed, but the kind of young people we seek are not available. If we have to promote the development of our country then our mission has to be “skill development” and “skilled India”.”
The rags to riches story with which Modi wanted to seal the deal, having already won the hearts of a number of people with the fire of his words, was indeed the fitting conclusion to such a passionate appeal —
“Shouldn’t the citizens of the country take steps for the welfare of the nation? Picture this – if these 125 crore countrymen move one step forward, then the country moves 125 crore steps forward. The meaning of democracy is not just limited to electing a government, but its meaning is that 125 crore citizens work together with the government, to fulfill the hopes and aspirations of the country; this is the meaning of democracy.”
It was only proper that a speech delivered by the fifteenth Prime Minister of the largest functioning democracy of the world, on the nation’s sixty-eighth Independence Day, includes a definition of this oft-used and mostly abused word. The master politician and shrewd orator, delivering his maiden speech from the Red Fort, was refreshingly different from his predecessors — the extempore, as opposed to the regular scripted speeches delivered over the years, was full of vitality and vigour; passion and promise. These, Modi knew, earned him the votes of the nation once; these he knows will allow him to hold them in thrall yet again; but is rhetoric sufficient? The D-word which won him mass support featured in this speech as well. However, is the “development” that he talks about to be relegated only to the text of his speeches? With not much tangible proof of development to offer since he assumed office, one has to be wary and look beyond the energy of the spoken word and search for equal enthusiasm on the premiere’s part, in converting his words to action.
The Sansad Aadarsh Gram Yojna through which Modi asked each Member of the Parliament to select a village in his constituency and convert it into a “model village” by 2016, as also the acknowledgement of the fact that sectarian, partisan attitudes within the government which hampered the smooth implementation of programmes undertaken by the government, were welcome.
The repeated reference to the youth of the nation and how they can facilitate the nation-building process and give dimension to the national character of India, in the speech delivered by the first Prime Minister of this nation to have been born in independent India, sounded alarming close to the Congress Campaign during the 2014 election. The young of this country rejected the face of “youth politics”, Rahul Gandhi, and elected the experienced politician into power — but to hold forte, the veteran will need more than just promises.
Taking a “feminist” stance and talking against rape will win everybody an audience in India. Modi played the card brilliantly, again:
“When we hear about the incidents of rape, we hang our heads in shame. … today from this platform, I want to ask … every parent this – you have a daughter of 10 or 12 years of age; you are always alert; every now and then you ask where she is going, when she will be back … Parents ask their daughters hundreds of questions, but have parents ever dared to ask their sons where they’re going? Why he is going out? Who are his friends? After all, a rapist is also somebody’s son. He also has parents. As parents, have we ever asked our sons what they’re doing and where they’re going?”
But this, coming from a man who has to be coaxed into acknowledging the existence of his wife, having denied the fact for years, does not sound very convincing.
“Recently, the Commonwealth Games were organised. Indian sportspersons brought glory to the country. Nearly 64 of our sportspersons won. Our sportspersons brought 64 medals. But of them 29 are girls. Let’s feel proud and clap for them. Girls also contribute to India’s fame and glory. Let’s recognise it. Let’s take them along, shoulder to shoulder.”
The Prime Minister was perhaps well-meaning, but the sevak of the Sangh Parivar sounds a tab bit patronizing here, to me at least. Accusations of over-reading are anticipated, but I am at pains here, as a woman, to point out that it is precisely this sort of condescension that we need to steer clear of. We do not need men to ‘take us along with them’ — we are perfectly capable of walking on our own, thank you very much.
The other highlight of today’s speech, for me, was Modi’s allusion to Gandhi and Buddha’s doctrines of non-violence. Is the reference to Ashoka, and his renunciation of war, a subtle suggestion of the Prime Minister requesting his countrymen to give him a chance? Is this one, whose hands alleged turned incarnadine from the blood spilt of innocents in a communal riot, beseeching the nation to look beyond the bloody past, and ahead at a future free of such violence? For, he says –
“For one reason or the other, we have had communal tension for ages. This led to the division of the country. Even after Independence, we have had to face the poison of casteism and communalism. How long these evils will continue? Whom does it benefit? We have had enough of fights, many have been killed. Friends, look behind and you will find that nobody has benefited from it. Except casting a slur on Mother India, we have done nothing. … Let’s resolve for once in our hearts; let’s put a moratorium on all such activities for 10 years; we shall march ahead towards a society which will be free from all such tensions. And you will see how much strength we get from peace, unity, goodwill and brotherhood. Let`s experiment it for once.”
Non-violence is not a thing to be experimented with. Intolerance is not something that one resolves to keep at bay for a decade. Ahimsa, is the only way of life — it is not an alternative. While the appeal for such resolutions is welcome, it is not entirely heart-warming, given Mr. Modi’s history, which is rather difficult to overlook. Is our Prime Minister, indeed, schooled enough finally to renounce his infamous “path of violence“and take the path of brotherhood?
Modi’s speech, a break from tradition in many ways, was a good speech — well-worded, and sufficiently histrionic to hold in sway an impressive section of the nation; but words, without thoughts, as Shakespeare cautioned us long ago, never to heaven go, and one often ends up appearing to be full of sound and fury, but signifying nothing. Modi’s theatricality continues to inspire awe and faith in a large number of people; however, theatrics alone, without much matter, will never take a man far. Of course Modi knows that, and in a sort of meta-commentary on his own speech, he says —
“Brothers and Sisters, talking big has its importance, making announcements too has importance, but sometimes announcements raise hopes and when the hopes are not fulfilled, the society sinks into a state of despondency.”
Mr. Prime Minister, that was a good show, thank you, you may take a bow! But this nation now looks forward to some substance.