New Delhi: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said his government was trying its best to revive the economy, but also took credit for presiding over almost a decade of unprecedented growth and empowering Indians during his Independence Day address on Thursday at the Red Fort in New Delhi, his last before the general election scheduled for next year.
Halfway across the country, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi—who possibly sees himself giving the Red Fort speech next year—didn’t lose the opportunity to launch another scathing attack on the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government that Singh heads.
But the most measured assessment of the state of the nation and the considerable challenges that it faces came a day before from a man who’s out of the race for power, but could play the most critical role in deciding who will rule India after the next general election—President Pranab Mukherjee.
Singh’s Congress party-led UPA government, undermined by corruption scandals, a stricken economy, high inflation and a plunging rupee, is struggling to get growth back on track after it slowed to a decade’s low of 5% in the year ended March. India is not alone in its predicament, he suggested.
“We are trying our best to remedy the situation,” Singh said in his speech. “However, it is not only our country that is facing economic difficulties… All over the world, there has been a slump in export markets. All developing countries have slowed down.”
Singh spoke about the UPA’s record on economic development since it came to power in 2004. “I believe that the last decade has also been a decade of major changes in the history of our nation. In no other decade has our economic development increased as much as in this decade,” he said.
He highlighted the Congress party’s agenda of inclusive growth. “Democratic forces have been strengthened and many sections of our society have joined the mainstream of development for the first time. The common man has been given new rights, which have led to his social and economic empowerment,” he said.
With the emphasis on entitlement, a theme around which the UPA has drafted and passed key laws, the government recently introduced an ordinance to put in place an ambitious Rs.1.25 trillion food security plan that promises to subsidize food to two out of every three Indians. The government pushed through the ordinance ahead of the legislation aimed at enshrining it as law amid concerns that criticism of the Bill by lawmakers could delay its implementation.
The Bill itself, which was introduced in Parliament earlier this month, is seen as one of the main poll planks of the UPA.
Singh was delivering his 10th address as Prime Minister. No one, other than Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, and Indira Gandhi, his daughter, has delivered more.
The Prime Minister spoke to an audience comprising cabinet ministers, diplomats, school children and some members of the public. Modi’s audience was made up of mainly locals from Kutch, Bharatiya Janata Party workers (BJP) and politicians from the area.
Modi’s speech was delivered at the RR Lalan College in Bhuj, the Gujarati town that was razed by an earthquake in 2001 and has since been rebuilt. His delivery was in studied contrast with that of the habitually soft-spoken Singh. Modi’s voice was stronger, his delivery more forceful.
Singh began by acknowledging the monsoon devastation in Uttarakhand and the accident involving submarine INS Sindhurakshak on Wednesday, but his speech had three broad themes. It mentioned the contribution of Nehru (institution- and nation-building, central planning, industrialization); Indira Gandhi (space exploration, the Green Revolution); and Rajiv Gandhi (technological and economic modernization, Panchayati Raj); P.V. Narasimha Rao (liberalization). He also mentioned his government in this section (inclusion, economic growth, entitlements).
His second theme was the achievements of the UPA government: the food security Bill, agriculture, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, the decline in poverty levels, the Right to Education Act, the National Rural Health Mission, and “good progress” in “the infrastructure sector”.
The third theme of his speech dealt with the challenges India faces.
Singh spoke of slowing growth, national security, corruption, hurdles that have stalled projects, and slowing foreign investment.
He said the inclusive nature of the UPA’s agenda would be critical in creating a prosperous, equitable nation.
“We will also need to build an environment of political stability, social cohesion and security for this to happen,” he said.
Modi, who spoke after the Prime Minister, tweaked his address accordingly, pointing, for instance, to the absence of any mention of people across the country who responded energetically and generously to the natural disaster in Uttarakhand, and to the lack of specifics on what exactly the Prime Minister planned to do about Pakistan, tensions with which have risen in recent days.
Singh had said that for relations to improve between the two countries, “it is essential that they prevent the use of their territory and territory under their control for any anti-India activity”.
Modi took care to hit all the other hot-button topics as well—employment, development, corruption and the weak rupee, among others—peppering his speech with statistics from Gujarat, a state he has ruled since 2001,
He also resorted to sarcasm, comparing the graft allegations that have engulfed the government with the plot of a soap opera, taking a dig at Robert Vadra, son-in-law of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, without naming him. Vadra is at the centre of a controversy over his dealings with real estate company DLF Ltd.
Modi adopted a more belligerent posture on Pakistan (Gujarat, he said, was closer to Pakistan than Delhi), besides mentioning China’s incursions into Indian territory and the shooting of Indian fishermen by Italian marines. He also criticized the food security legislation for not being inclusive enough.
Meanwhile, President Mukherjee’s speech on Wednesday trumped those of the men who spoke after him. Traditionally, the President addresses the nation on the eve of Independence Day while the Prime Minister addresses the nation on the morning of 15 August from the ramparts of the 17th-century Red Fort.
Mukherjee, not known for being a great speaker despite his long innings in Parliament and at the top echelons of government, delivered a pithy yet thoughtful speech that was short on bombast and meaningless flourish.
“Are we headed in the right direction?” he asked. “Institutions are a mirror of national character. Today, we see widespread cynicism and disillusionment with the governance and functioning of institutions in our country.”
He was especially critical of parliamentary debate being reduced to a shouting match, with little business being conducted.
“Our legislatures look more like combat arenas, rather than fora that legislate,” Mukherjee said. “Corruption has become a major challenge. The precious resources of the nation are being wasted through indolence and indifference. It is sapping the dynamism of our society. We need to correct this regression.”
He went on to define the ideal qualities of Parliament (“that debates, discusses, and decides”), judiciary (“that gives justice without delays”), leadership (“committed to the nation”), state (“that inspires confidence among people”), and media and citizens (“who even as they claim their rights, are equally committed to their responsibilities”).
Mukherjee also weighed in on the importance of inclusion, the growth versus redistribution debate, reforms, entitlements and conservation. With regard to Pakistan, which he didn’t name, he said India’s “patience has limits”.
He reminded voters that a general election was around the corner, an “opportunity to elect a stable government, which will ensure security and economic development”.
That may well be a reminder to parties, including the Congress, of the importance of his own role in 2014, should no party or political formation win a clear majority.