Ushering in a new era

Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speech was an attempt to evoke an everyday civics, replacing empty policy as the first step to development

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

Published - August 16, 2014 01:22 am IST

LANGUAGE OF VIRTUE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech is not the language of politics but of virtue, of the qualities required for nation building. Picture shows him addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

LANGUAGE OF VIRTUE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech is not the language of politics but of virtue, of the qualities required for nation building. Picture shows him addressing the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Sometimes a nation creates the new by restating the old. It is an act of symbolic gardening, where dead clichés once again become live values, where unity is no longer equated with unanimity but with inclusiveness. A new frame recreates a new nation. One could see it semiotically in the staging of >Narendra Modi’s August 15 address .

Announcing a new era The languor and still life speeches of Manmohan Singh’s era had to be forgotten. First Mr. Modi enters exuding confidence. He knows he has to announce a new era. He goes beyond Nehruvianism by appealing to the civics of Swadeshi. This is not the language of politics but of virtue, of the qualities required for nation building. He is attired in a saffron turban with a green border: a Bandhini, Kutchi in its origin. He evokes a new style and his voice resonates a different world. India is not making tryst with destiny. It is going to meet the future by reconstructing it. The camera widens the frame. Lal Quila is not just a fortress. It is a landscape of temples, history and a sense of a bigger city. He is standing at the ramparts announcing a new era by reworking the grammar of the old. There is no big statement on productivity, no appeal to economics, no cliché about foreign policy, no reference to corruption, hardly any mention of China or Pakistan. It is a day for positives, for a nation to recharge itself. The language is simple: it is not politics, not policy; it is a simple sermon on values, simply done, almost faultless.

This Independence Day speech does not begin with 1947. It begins with a salute to those who build the nation. The first shift in attitude is here. Mr. Modi says, “I address you not as Prime Minister but as the first servant of the nation.” He then suggests a nation is not made by a great man but by its people. A nation is built by its soldiers, its farmers, its youth, its workers, its teachers, its scientists, its martyrs. Politicians and government don’t build a nation; they merely rule it. A salute to a people is a salute to ancestors and predecessors. Suddenly you realise that Mr. Modi is making the transition from politician to statesman. There is little reference to the parochial and the divisive. A speech is tailor-made for the occasion. The hectoring battles of party politics yield to measured rhetoric. This nation, like Mr. Modi, has many selves and he is appealing to the best of each.

He begins autobiographically. He says he came to Delhi as an outsider where an elite class treated him as an untouchable. But in two months, he got an insider view which was devastating. He talks of a labyrinth called Delhi where each department stands like an empire. There are governments inside the government and worse, department battles before the Supreme Court. Unity breaks because of divisiveness of bureaucracies.

He moves to a softer reflective tone. He refers to punctuality — to the people’s surprise that clerks are punctual, that offices open on time. He then remarks that if this new punctuality is news, then we as a nation should be embarrassed about ourselves, about the depths we have fallen into.

He refers to the new individualism which asks, “What is in it for me?” He answers: Everything is not for the individual. The individual does not exhaust the nation. The social needs other solidarities and one can hear in this voice all the pracharak strains from the past. The nation is the ultimate construct of the social. He shifts gears. A nation without civics, responsibility and freedom is empty.

He talks of rape. He says when a daughter reaches ten, the parents play out the politics of anxiety, asking her where she is going, when she will return. The mobile phone is perpetually on, tracking her movement. But then, he says, there is not a word about the son, about his behaviour, where he goes, who he meets. If the victim is a woman who needs to belong to a family, so is the rapist. Parents need to ask sons what they are up to. To think of rape only as a wider problem is not adequate. Rapes too begin at home.

He begins with rape to talk of the position of women, of the place of daughters in our lives. He says a man with one loving daughter is better off than a man with five sons in old age because a daughter will never abandon her parents. He lashes out at foeticide, hinting that a society that values sons will be a society with old age homes.

He wants a society proud of women’s achievements and cites the medal haul of our athletes as a sign of the new achievement. One senses he is not talking of rights, of freedoms, but about institutions, responsibilities and duties.

The shift from family to governance is fluid. He makes a folklore distinction between a man in a private industry describing his work as “a job” and a man in government calling his work “service.” Mr. Modi emphasises the idea of service. Service is civilisational. It is not a secular idea of employment. English does not capture service. Service is the ability to prioritise the other. It goes beyond the individualism of careers, a point the Prime Minister borrows from Vivekananda.

He then examines the innards of society, claiming a decent society cannot ignore the fact of agricultural suicides. He then promises an India where every farmer has a bank account and every family an insurance of Rs. one lakh.

From farmers dying to unemployed youth, Mr. Modi returns to his favourite project: the re-skilling of youth. Skill is what gives employment, what makes India mobile across the globe. Organised skill is manufacture and it is manufacture that has to be the core of dynamic India. He gives it a step slogan: “No defect, no effect.” A product should be of high quality and should be environmentally sensitive. Such a product will take India to the world of global excellence. “Made in India” becomes the new dream of Swadeshi.

He talks of his dream of a digital India — not a network for the rich, but a digital India for the poor where digitality helps development, and where e-governance is easy, effective and economical.

To a digital India, he adds a tourist India, portraying tourism as that inclusivity which provides employment for the poor, for the channawala , the pakoda seller, the chaiwala . He adds that what stands in the way of tourism is dirt. It is interesting Mr. Modi begins with dirt rather than corruption. The word he uses is swatchtha (cleanliness) — cleanliness as a mentality, an activity, as a way of life. Interestingly, the values Mr. Modi brings in are civilisational values like seva (service) swatchtha . He is indigenising a way of life with a vocabulary that is civilisational. He invokes corporate social responsibility, not for some fancy dream, but asks corporates to use their wealth to create toilets in schools, including a separate toilet for the girl. The tenor of the speech of a Prime Minister talking about sanitation, dirt, toilets, cleanliness is almost Gandhian. This is an attempt to evoke an everyday civics which replaces empty policy as the first step to development.

The burial of an institution Yet, those who are waiting for a word about policy are not fully disappointed. Mr. Modi refers to the Planning Commission. He talks of it as an institution which was adequate for its time but then dismantles it like a magician, hinting that the commission was anachronistic. India needed a new institution with a new soul, sensitive to federalism. It is the quickest burial of an institution one has witnessed. A whole vision, a whole network of vested interests and academic cronyism collapses before Mr. Modi. The new governance makes its first step with the death of the Planning Commission.

By now the rhetoric is clear: a new self has been articulated, an old divisiveness is exorcised as Mr. Modi talks of fighting poverty as a dream of South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) nations. He dreams of a neighbourhood of developing nations, a dream of non-violence, where a nation state returns to its sources in a civilisation.

It is a perfect performance, crafted in ease, delivered with confidence. A nation, proud as an elite, looks puzzled. This man is not a new entrant to power, he is rewriting Delhi. As a semiotic act, it is difficult to beat. The success is almost matter-of-fact. Lutyens’ Delhi smells a new regime as India senses the new era. Looking back, if politics is performance, the Oscar goes to Mr. Modi. Even Bollywood could not have done it better. India has discovered a new myth maker.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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