Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration: Jayachandran/Mint

Opinion | Modi’s messaging goes big on social inclusion

His Red Fort speech did not have enough clarity on economic reform ideas for the coming years. His more resonant message was on social inclusion

The overarching theme of the fifth speech given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi from the ramparts of the Red Fort was inclusion. This is partly political signalling before the country goes to the polls in the next few months. However, it also reflects the core belief of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) that social failures are as important an obstacle to development as state failures or market failures.

The subtext of the message is that these social failures need to be tackled with a combination of government policy and individual action. Nowhere was this more evident than in his comments on how honest taxpayers help put cheap food in poor homes. It is worth remembering that Modi in his very first Independence Day speech called out to parents to teach their sons to respect girls’ freedom. He was implicitly arguing at the time that individual responsibility is as important as better policing by the state. Such moralizing reflects both the strengths and limitations of RSS thinking.

This year’s focus on healthcare, electricity access, toilet building and gas connections is a clear electoral pitch. There is a more subtle message as well, which reflects some of the best achievements of the Modi government. The Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Abhiyan—or Modicare—is a good start in a country where health costs are rising, and health shocks are perhaps the single biggest reason why families slip back into poverty. The challenge now will be to create the necessary funding for the health programme as well as to build the capabilities needed to make it successful.

Much of the inclusion programme embedded in these initiatives benefits women directly. Women suffer the most from inadequate healthcare; well-lit neighbourhoods will provide them with more safety; the lack of toilets in homes is especially felt by women; and free gas connections should ease their daily lives. It is also important to note that Modi spoke out against the regressive triple talaq tradition, announced permanent commissions for women in the Armed Forces recruited via short service commissions and welcomed the fact that there are now three women judges in the Supreme Court. Modi also spoke about the need to free the country from “the disgusting mentality of rape". He would have done well to hit out at the murders by cow vigilantes as well.

No speech by Modi is free of promises that seem far-fetched. He reiterated the commitment to double farmer incomes by 2022, but the persistent farm crisis makes it sound hollow. The recent sharp increase in farm support prices may at best provide some temporary relief to farmers, but the crisis is a structural one that can be solved only if millions are provided opportunities to leave the farm for jobs in modern enterprises. The overall pitch to farmers was quite a thin one, and the Modi government has struggled to come up with a coherent set of policies to deal with the farm crisis.

Prime ministers use their speeches from the Red Fort to both enhance their political appeal as well as give citizens an idea of the direction the government is moving in. It is no secret that Modi is an articulate speaker and would have been expected to focus on initiatives that will win votes in the next national election. The quality of this speech was clearly superior to the listless one he gave in Parliament during the recent no-confidence motion.

The Modi government is now coming to the end of its first term. Modi came to power promising economic reforms as well as effective governance. The record on both these fronts has been a mixed one, with hits and misses. Modi did touch upon these themes on Wednesday, but they were clearly not the central focus of his communication. There was not enough clarity on the economic reforms ideas for the coming years. His more resonant message was on social inclusion, a reflection of a new style of politics that emerged in India after 1970, combining the integral humanism of Deen Dayal Upadhyaya and the Gandhian socialism of Ram Manohar Lohia. Modi is a product of that political culture, and its core concerns have been reflected in his five Independence Day speeches, including the latest one.

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