New Delhi: Bipartisan and defender of the Constitution—these are probably the first descriptors that come to mind when one talks about the President in India. So it is safe to assume that when the President addresses the nation—especially ahead of Independence Day and Republic Day—he will focus on larger issues pertaining to national identity, the social and cultural fabric of the country, and threats the country may be facing at the time.
The late A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was President a decade ago when India celebrated her 60th Independence Day. He delivered a speech built around the theme of India as a developed nation by 2020.
On the eve of the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, the new President, Ram Nath Kovind, will address the nation on Monday evening. His speech comes as the country grapples with an avoidable public health tragedy in Gorakhpur and increasing polarization.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi will deliver his Independence Day speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort.
Modi has delivered three popularly acclaimed Independence Day speeches, although the gold standard for such speeches remains the one delivered by the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru at midnight on 14 August 1947.
“A good Independence Day speech should have a vision for the country, a vision for the current political scenario, concrete and general points woven in with storytelling. There needs to be familiarity, language which is not technocratic and it should be honest," explains sociologist Shiv Vishvanathan. There cannot be any rabble-rousing and there shouldn’t be any political point-scoring. “It’s very important that the speech has passion; it shouldn’t simply be read out," he adds.
Even today the speeches of both the president and the prime minister, especially the latter, on the occasion of Independence Day, are an important part of the news cycle. For instance, in his first Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Modi chose to talk about the girl child, the importance of raising our boys right and the how cleanliness was the need of the hour.
“President Pranab Mukherjee’s speeches always touched upon the larger picture which was the Constitution, the strength of the process, the issues that can negatively impact independence and freedom of people. And then there was the second aspect , issues that were relevant at that particular point in time. Issues that needed to be addressed from a national point of view," says Thomas Mathew, additional secretary to former President Mukherjee. For instance, in 2013, President Mukherjee spoke about the need to reset the moral compass of society. This was in response to the December 2012 gang rape in Delhi.
“An occasion speech is a political document for public broadcast. The first speech by Nehru was in fact meant for archival purposes," says political scientist Pushpesh Pant.
But more than such “occasion speeches", it is “political speeches on the campaign trail" or in Parliament that sometimes give rise to iconic slogans, he adds.
“Chalo Dilli, Gareebi hatao... all these are phrases that came from political speeches; they have remained in our minds," he adds.
Historically, speeches delivered in Hindi or other regional languages have usually had more impact than those in English.
It is also difficult today for a political speech to occupy the same kind of mind space or enjoy the same kind of importance that it did till even a decade ago. Speeches today have to compete with tweets, memes, and Facebook posts. Prime Minister Modi is hailed as a great orator but even with him, it’s tough to find a speech that has resonated to the extent some speeches of the past have. All eyes are on President Kovind and his first address to the nation.