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Narendra Modi's Independence Day speech: Prime minister reinforced bond built with electorate over 4 years

Narendra Modi's Independence Day speech: Prime minister reinforced bond built with electorate over 4 years

In 2014, Narendra Modi's job was easier. Tired of the corruption, cronyism and policy missteps of UPA II, people were looking for an escape. Modi was selling a dream of “achche din” and people readily bought into it.

It is different now. Modi is now the incumbent. His narrative of hope will now be judged on the touchstone of performance. And if the gap between promise and achievements is considerable, selling a narrative of renewed hope will be difficult.

This presents a challenge for the prime minister who has gone on record claiming that his platform for 2019 will be “development, fast development and development for all”. To campaign on a development plank again will require Modi to convince the electorate that his track record as the country’s chief executive officer has been exemplary. ‘Development’ is an aspirational narrative, and aspirations are set progressively higher, not lower.

In his 82-minute address on Wednesday, the prime minister performed twin tasks — he set the momentum for 2019 and projected himself again as the symbol of country’s hope and aspirations. That he would choose a narrative of optimism and present himself at the front and centre of that narrative as a “change agent” wasn’t a surprise. India is demographically young, and it is the nature of youth to be ambitious and impatient.It was worth noting how Modi handles his final Independence Day address before he seeks a return mandate from people, and whether he chooses the occasion to delineate his campaign priorities. It was inevitable that Modi would choose the occasion to put his campaign in motion. The prime minister is a consummate orator. He loves the big stage. It is hard to get a stage bigger than the ramparts of Red Fort on India’s Independence Day.

The interesting bit was witnessing the prime minister’s craft in reselling the dream of a resurgent India as an incumbent.

This was a difficult art. To make his narrative believable, Modi had to first convince the electorate that he has lived up to his promises and then lay out the roadmap for the future. Whether he managed to convince people depends on his performance and the depth of his vision. On these parameters would lie his appeal to voters to elect him again so that there is the necessary continuity in the plan to “transform” India. Modi’s skill as an orator was evident in the way he pulled it off.

But oratory is not enough. If Modi has failed to deliver on his promises on all parameters, no amount of oratory or sleek rhetoric will work. The nature of his 2014 campaign promise and mandate make this job tougher because people expect nothing short of a “transformational” change from Modi. Incremental change won’t do.

What we saw during the I-Day address, therefore, was a conscious attempt from Modi to “compare and contrast” India in 2013 and 2018. On an assumption that public memory is short, Modi strived to remind the people of the affliction that India was suffering from and then laid out the transformational changes that he has brought about in a span of four years. He stressed on both the micro and macro revamps to hammer home the claim that he has performed to the best of his abilities.

This provided Modi the space and the base to recount the “tough” steps that he has taken as the prime minister, which the previous government had shied away from undertaking.

Of equal interest was Modi’s attempt to demonstrate how reforms touch the lives of the poor and bring about revolutionary changes. He recounted having been ridiculed for launching the sanitation drive “Swachh Bharat” and referred to a WHO report to claim that this scheme alone has saved the lives of three lakh children.

Modi also had a word of praise for the honest taxpayer. The number of taxpayers has doubled, he said, and assured the taxpaying citizens that their hard-earned money isn’t going to waste. When an honest taxpayer sits down for dinner with family, he must remember that three more poor families are having dinner with him, said the prime minister.

Modi’s words are hardly revolutionary or new, but they serve an important purpose. In reaching out to a constituency (middle class) or breaking down the benefits of a reform into quantifiable benefits (saving children’s lives through building toilets), Modi is trying to reinforce the bond that he has meticulously built and nurtured with the electorate over a four-year span. It is this bond, developed over his direct communication strategy, that Modi has surprisingly been able to maintain through his popularity graph. The address also bore the hallmarks of Modi’s speeches. It was technically accomplished and structured to address the key points. Modi’s every speech is a performance. He tailors his tone, tenor and subject in line with the occasion. Abroad, he is statesmanlike in approach; in Parliament, he is broadly conciliatory, holding back his punches that he lands with a flurry in election rallies. The Independence Day addresses are different. He focuses on nation-building, explains the logic behind his policy choices and clarifies the connect between reforms and the masses.

This time, Modi not only laid out the granular details of nation-building but also focused on the roadmap for the future by setting ambitious targets. These targets are not just in areas of basic necessities such as clean fuel, water, power and housing, but also loftier ones, such as space technology.

In his promise to send an Indian astronaut to space by 2022 in the 75th year of Independence, or “if possible, even before”, on board ‘Gaganyaan’ to complete a manned mission, Modi was sending several messages at once. Upfront, a successful completion of ISRO’s “manned mission” will make India only the fourth country in the world to do so after the US, Russia and China. It will “announce” India’s arrival on world stage and be the signifier of a resurgent India.

It also panders to India’s aspirational youth and middle class who identify with a strong, self-assured India that has unshackled itself from past constraints and is now soaring into the sky, forming the engine for global growth in the next three decades.

It also sends the subliminal message that Modi’s isn’t worried about “mundane things” such as winning elections and being voted to power again, because he takes it as an “inevitable” fact of life. Those are for the Opposition to worry about. Modi appears to have his sights on bigger things.

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