The challenge of hope
By: M.J. Akbar
Prime ministers choose one of three options when they step up to the podium at the Red Fort on Independence Day. They speak to their governments; or mumble to themselves; or talk to the people of India. The first is easiest, since government is both narrator and narrative, and can enjoy the false comfort of self-congratulation: we did this [applause]; we will do this [obligatory high-five].
The second option is a consequence of diffidence more than introspection. And if Dr. Manmohan Singh made it a habit, it was possibly because introspection told him he had much to be diffident about. Dr. Singh was a curious case of a Prime Minister who had to bow before a Supreme Leader in a dysfunctional relationship. He got stuck with the responsibility while Sonia Gandhi and her temperamental son Rahul Gandhi enjoyed power. The country suffered.
No prizes for guessing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s preference. He spoke to the people. His problem was not being better than the competition. That would have been too easy. His challenge was to excel himself, after the extraordinary standards he had set during a tumultuous election campaign. Now he had to establish his destination, notch priorities along the perspective and chalk out the route map of delivery, for if you soar without direction you can end up on a long flight to nowhere.
On the morning of August 15 we saw and heard the quintessential Narendra Modi. The horizon was set by his heart, the compass was magnetized by his mind. The thrust of his message was controlled by an elemental idea: India’s progress is not just a government project; it is a people’s project. As he put it in an eloquent metaphor: if 125 crore Indians take a single step each, then India moves ahead by 125 crore steps.
And so what in previous hands had degenerated into a bookkeeper’s report to the annual general meeting of shareholders, swivelled on a fulcrum that probed, on the one hand, any malaise in national character, and repeatedly dragged our focus toward the curse and indignity of poverty, or the many crimes of gender bias. But this was realism, not pessimism. He also offered a vision that transformed the national mood with the conviction that achievement was not only possible, but within our grasp. The loudest cheers came from the young; the applause of teenage children in the audience at the Red Fort echoed the hopes of hundreds of millions in towns and cities across the land.
The exhilaration was explicable. India had found not just a Prime Minister but also a leader. Narendra Modi asked the questions that no one has raised: Why are we indulgent toward sons at the expense of daughters? Who is responsible for the utter shame of female feticide? Do we need a law to keep our homes, our streets, our nation clean? When is the poison of caste and communal violence going to end? He challenged Indians to witness the rewards of harmony within ten years. Perhaps it is only the outsider, which is how the Prime Minister described himself, who can clearly see the plain truth of Delhi’s insiders; but it needs leadership to tell the oldest elite of Indian democracy, the governing political-bureaucratic class, that its civil wars had damaged governance to a point where drastic reform was the only alternative.
An obituary notice was read out for the Planning Commission, for the very good reason that it has lost purpose. The significant failure of this body in the last decade has been its smug and arid approach to our gravest national crisis: poverty. A common sense estimate shows that in six decades of planned economy, we have reduced the number of Indians living under the poverty line by only an abysmal half percent or so every year. This is both astonishing and unacceptable. Moreover, instead of searching for solutions through cooperation with states, the Planning Commission functioned through a series of imperial commands. It told state governments to beg before Delhi, so that they might be awarded their scrap or two. India is a federal nation, in law and practice. The Union Government does not rule directly over any geography other than a few tiny territories. Development works best through state governments. Delhi must be an enabler, not a dictator.
The world, as the Prime Minister noted, is changing. We cannot be insular; we need the creative energy of international cooperation in an era where technological innovation and state-of-the-art manufacturing are largely in the private sector. Jobs, in both industry and agriculture, are the best antidote to poverty, for they link individual welfare to national growth. India must prepare itself, as he said, to become a manufacturing hub of the world.
Prime Minister Modi knows that dreams become a reality only during waking hours. You cannot sleepwalk your way toward enchantment. He has the will to rouse the nation from inertia. The next months will show us how.
M.J. Akbar is an eminent Indian journalist