from Asia Unbound

The Substance of Indian Prime Minister Modi’s Style

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi on August 15, 2014 (Ahmad Masood/Courtesy: Reuters).

August 18, 2014

Indian prime minister Narendra Modi addresses the nation from the historic Red Fort during Independence Day celebrations in Delhi on August 15, 2014 (Ahmad Masood/Courtesy: Reuters).
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On Friday, August 15, Indian prime minister Narendra Modi delivered his maiden Independence Day speech [video here]. Many commentators have already noted his earthy delivery and direct ex tempore style, his campaign-like rhetoric, his deeply democratic authority, and his willingness to remind citizens of “all the things we like to disregard.”

And although this was not a policy speech as much as a call to all Indians to commit to bettering the country, some policy highlights have made headlines: a new mobile banking and insurance program for the poor; the end of the Nehruvian-era Planning Commission; a call to the world to manufacture in India; a call, in the context of addressing rape, for parents to supervise their sons as well as daughters; and a deadline of one year to build toilets for girls in all Indian schools. Some of these ideas are new, and some build on or continue with previous initiatives. But there’s no doubt that in Modi’s delivery, even the old substance took on new style.

Modi is indeed an unusual speaker. He is vivid, animated, and without the use of notes, speaks directly to his immense audience instead of reading from a page. His Independence Day speech, at more than an hour, was twice the length of the previous two Independence Day speeches of former prime minister Manmohan Singh. He personalizes things based on his own life, giving so many listeners whose backgrounds may be no different a moment to see themselves in him, such as when he noted that a “boy from a small town, a poor family” becoming prime minister was only possible through the strength of India’s democracy. While this was true for Manmohan Singh, also from a small town and a poor family, Singh did not directly connect with the audience to so great an effect.

Modi also, as he did on the campaign trail, appealed personally and directly to his fellow citizens to make India a better place. In a passage reminiscent of John F. Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you” speech, Modi mused about India’s national character and what the duty of citizens should be. He expressed regret that too many countrymen say “what does it mean for me?” instead of committing to lead in the nation’s interest.

The biggest substantive difference between Modi and his immediate predecessor’s previous speeches was Modi’s candid and lengthy discussion of problems not typically mentioned so bluntly. After querying India’s national character, Modi abruptly began a long discussion about rape, violence, political violence, and female infanticide. As Tavleen Singh noted in her column, these are topics people like to disregard. But these, along with a later section on toilets, formed very meaningful invocations to the entire nation in Modi’s speech.

Some other components of Modi’s speech mark continuity with previous prime ministerial speeches and previous programs. The new mobile banking and catastrophic insurance program, Pradhanmantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, expands ongoing financial inclusion efforts to create accessible banking platforms for the poor. In his 2012 Independence Day speech, for example, then-prime minister Singh called for bank accounts for all within two years. But the mobile platform takes this to the next level of accessibility, and the proposal for catastrophic insurance coverage will prevent financial ruin for those who run into hard times.

The need for ramping up skills, particularly in trades through vocational education, has emerged as a recurrent and increasingly critical priority for India since at least 2006, with a National Skill Development Initiative released in 2009. (This is because India needs to generate around twelve million jobs per year to match the size of its youthful population as people come of workforce age annually, and India’s services sector, currently comprising 59 percent of GDP, cannot be the jobs engine.) So attention to skills training represents continuity with ongoing priorities, as does the larger emphasis on growing India’s manufacturing sector to create more jobs for India’s growing workforce.

On manufacturing, the previous government developed a National Manufacturing Policy, no less. But what Prime Minister Modi brought to this at the level of campaign persuasiveness is a new slogan: “Come, Make in India.” The slogan will certainly attract international attention. Foreign investors, however, will be interested in the fine print about the overall business environment in their specific segment first.

Where former prime minister Singh spoke about health programs in his most recent Independence Day speeches, providing an account of new health programs and what had been accomplished, Modi tackled this question very differently. He invoked Mahatma Gandhi’s well-known preoccupation with sanitation, and called for the entire country to focus on making India clean to attract tourism; and to provide dignity as well as ensure educational opportunity to girls and women through adequate separate toilets for them in schools. Last year former prime minister Singh referred to the lack of “drinking water, toilets and other necessary infrastructure” in schools, but as only a passing mention—although the Ministry of Rural Development under the United Progressive Alliance placed great emphasis on toilets and sanitation. But Prime Minister Modi’s long exposition on toilets—punctuated by his own self-conscious remark that some may be shocked to hear the prime minister speaking about toilets from the Red Fort—in so blunt and logical a manner made this a striking and effective part of the speech.

Modi’s speech had relatively little content on foreign policy, but what he did say on strengthening relations with the neighbors marks continuity with previous governments. There was no mention of Pakistan, but a substantial passage focused on Nepal’s successful transition from insurgency to democracy.

Finally, his surprise announcement of the Planning Commission’s demise represents a decisive break with the past. In my view, this was the most dramatically different policy element of his speech. India’s new government is now saying that the era of a planned economy is over, and that a new kind of committee will be formed to support market-led economic development. For this listener, at least, this bureaucratic change has the potential to be the most consequential part of the Independence Day address.

Follow me on Twitter: @AyresAlyssa

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