New Delhi: India isn’t the kind of place where people should be told what to eat and what not to, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Monday.
Modi was channelling Swami Vivekananda, who once spoke of “religion getting into the kitchen", only apt since he was addressing a students’ convention on the occasion of Deendayal Upadhyay centenary celebrations, and the 125th anniversary of Vivekananda’s famous Chicago address. But analysts also saw his speech as another attempt by the prime minister to speak out against intolerance.
Indeed, he was all for Rose Day, Modi said to an audience composed primarily of young people. His reference was to Valentine’s Day, which has attracted the ire of several right-wing groups affiliated to his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Modi used his speech to also speak on other issues such as respect for women and cleanliness.
“Do we have the right to say ‘Vande Mataram’ if we cannot keep our nation clean?," he asked. “We chew paan and then spit on Mother India and then, can we say ‘Vande Mataram’? Throw all waste on Mother India and then say ‘Vande Mataram’?."
Sanitation workers have the first right to say “Vande Mataram", the PM added. The Swachh Bharat programme is one of the Modi government’s flagship initiatives.
The Prime Minister also batted for a rules-based regime. “Follow the rules and India will rule," he said in a subtle message to young people.
He also spoke about respect for women, and while there was no explicit mention of the brutal murder of journalist Gauri Lankesh in Bengaluru last week, some analysts say this may have been his way of responding to it.
“The prime minister waited for the earliest and the right moment to speak on the issue rather than step on fire in a defensive mood. His statement was very balanced as he spoke about the larger issue of women safety and did not speak about the war of ideologies at play in the nation," said Jai Mrug, a Mumbai-based political analyst.
“The current atmosphere of the country is not conducive to women and the prime minister’s statement today comes as a positive step. The acknowledgement of a tragedy as grave as Gauri Lankesh’s murder is undoubtedly required," said Manisha Priyam, another political analyst based in New Delhi.
If that is the case, this will not be the first time Prime Minister Modi has used a public platform to respond to a polarizing issue. He has previously used such platforms to argue against self-styled cow vigilantes (or gau rakshaks) and his anguish at the suicide of Dalit student Rohit Vemula in Hyderabad (in early 2016).
The Congress’ spokesperson seemed to suggest the party wasn’t convinced. “We will be the first to laud and applaud the Prime Minister (for his comments), but unfortunately the actions of this government are just the opposite," Abhishek Manu Singhvi told reporters.
Anuja contributed to this story.