India needs Modi to infuse meaning to his I-Day vision with action on the ground

Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his Independence Day speech combined the familiar rhetoric with some fresh thoughts. He spoke at some length about the need for population control, water conservation and plastic use regulation indicating the importance that he attaches to these topics. Some policy measures, including the creation of a separate ministry, are already in place to deal with the crippling water crisis in India which gets worse every year. Indiscriminate plastic use along with the absence of effective solid waste management has already caused such ruin to the ecology that mitigatory measures are required on a war-footing. He also made the significant announcement of creating the position of Chief of Defence Staff, which could improve coordination among forces and restructure the military-civilian relations in a manner that suits the security challenges of the present times better. His call for people’s participation in all these and also for development of tourism and local enterprises was in the right spirit. The appeal to produce locally and consume locally may be out of line with globalist prescriptions of development but should be welcomed even if it sounds impractical. His first tenure between 2014 and 2019 focused on the needs of the people while the second one which began this year, he promised, would focus on meeting aspirations. Mr. Modi said his government has achieved in 70 days what previous governments could not in 70 years. He struck an optimistic note and said poverty can be eliminated, and shall be eliminated. As it enters the 73rd year as an independent nation, India needs hope and optimism, now more than at any moment in its recent past.

The triumphalist overtones of the speech, however, sought to camouflage the gathering clouds of a crisis in the economy on the one hand and the threats to the country’s social fabric on the other. Going by the trajectory the Indian economy has followed in the past, it could well be on the way to be a $5-trillion economy in the next five years. But he chose not to adequately address the current slump in rural and urban demand and investment slowdown. There was an attempt, however, to reassure entrepreneurs who were apprehensive of the recent burst of tax activism when he mentioned that wealth creators should not be demonised and he called upon businesses to invest. But while he touched on his decision to strip Jammu and Kashmir of its special constitutional status, J&K will need quietness and slow time to return to normalcy. There were elaborate mentions of unitary schemes — from the ‘one nation one tax’ that is already in place, to a ‘one nation, one poll’ plan that is in the making. Such overarching plans are central to his vision and the speech reflected that thinking. But if India is to be on a new course for the better, it needs more than grandstanding from the Red Fort. Deeds must follow words as noon follows dawn.