India celebrated its 68th Independence Day on August 15. With due pomp and grandeur, the new Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, addressed the citizens of his country from the front of the ramparts of the Red Fort (Lal Killa) in New Delhi. He dispensed with the bullet proof glass box and stood before the audience with no barriers in between. He did not want to separate himself from the people, thereby telling the world that as a democratic leader he stands next to them even if there is any threat to his life. He also did not use any script to read out his speech. It was totally extempore and emotion laden. He, therefore, injected his deep feelings about the state of India and how he wished to pilot this country forward. In the past, the Independence Day speech was just a formal acknowledgement of the event. But Modi made it clear that he wanted to convey some messages which he thought the poor and the struggling masses of India were trying send to the policy makers of India but had failed in the past.
Modi began by saying that he was an outsider to New Delhi and its internal politics. The infighting and intrigues among the various power players in Delhi was not so well known to him. But in the two months that he worked as an insider he discovered certain things which were indeed pulling back India from growth and prosperity. First was the Indian central bureaucracy, which he found was an extremely powerful force that operated almost independently and had its own dynamism. It did not care what the politicians who had the people's mandate wanted to do. They were over-ruled, ignored and side-lined most of the time. The other aspect that he discovered was that there was infighting between and among the various departments and government offices and this often spilled over to courts, which led to inordinate delays in normal functioning of the government. This washing of dirty linen in public by the prime minister was unheard of.
But Modi's intention was to tell the story about the 'other India.' This is the India which still remains desperately poor and without the people cherishing hope for the future. He said that he himself came from an extremely poor background and knew about the struggle of the majority of the people of India. He wanted to change their lot. He said India could depend on the dynamism of its youth, but they needed to be helped in this endeavour. He spoke about the girl children in India and how they were suppressed in most of the communities. Because of being deprived of toilet facilities in schools there were numerous dropouts from the classes. He was determined to see that sanitary facilities were put in place at the earliest so that the female population of India was not at an inordinate disadvantage.
Interestingly, Modi is keen to introduce two things in rural India which he thinks will help many of them come out of poverty. He wants poor Indians to be able to have bank deposits in their name so that they can benefit from the banking system. The other thing was that he wants to 'digitalise India.' The mobile phone has penetrated deep among the people of India, who can now be introduced to mobile banking, tele-medicine and information sharing. Bangladesh has already been practicing and using these things with great success in the last few years.
So what Modi articulated was essentially the voice of 'other India.' He wanted the bureaucracy and the people to cooperate to help him help the deprived come out of deep poverty. It was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who was the last leader who used to come to the ramparts of the Lal Killain to speak about the woes of the 'other India' and not the so-called 'shining India' housed in Bangalore, Chennai, Mumbai and Gurgoan in New Delhi. This is what Modi felt strongly about and urged the elite to change their ways so that together they could lift India from its present miseries. Modi also spoke about India's future relations with its neighbouring countries. He suggested that the common objective should be to cooperate economically to fight poverty in all these countries, so that the whole region could emerge from poverty.
Modi was not shy to encourage foreign entrepreneurs to invest in India. He suggested a slogan that the world may like to 'make in India.' India will welcome them with open arms, easy regulations and financial support. Only then India can be proud of products which will carry the label 'made in India.'
The vision which Modi proffered before Indians was partly shared by him during his election campaign. But his opponents criticise him saying that he talks too much and does not deliver. His championing of communal harmony, of which he spoke again on Indian Independence Day seemed to be hollow. In the last two months of his stewardship of India it is reported that there has been more than 600 communal rights only in Uttar Pradesh. The elite of India need to be further convinced that Modi can take effective action on several issues. He needs to act on the vision he has given from 'other India.' He will need deeper engagement with the millions of Indians whose fate he plans to change. Modi has far to walk before he can match his talk.
The writer is a former Ambassador and a commentator on current issues.