With 2019 general elections on his mind, Prime Minister Narendra Modi used the last Independence Day speech of his term to launch the re-election campaign of his party from the ramparts of the Red Fort last week. Given the fact that the PM’s speech was telecast live on news channels and reached millions of captive viewers, the prime minister made full use of the opportunity to present himself as the leader the country needs. By counting his government’s achievements of the last four years, which he attributed to his decisive leadership, Modi not only eulogised himself, but the thrust of his address was aimed at seeking a second term for himself and his party in 2019.
In 2014, it was a different Modi, though. He dared to position himself as a statesman in his first I-Day speech. As he tried to reach out to all Indians, he came across as a leader focused on the future, quite determined to take India forward by asking people to become partners in his efforts to build a strong and prosperous nation. Laced with the heady promise of change, his first I-Day speech had won him accolades even from his critics. While in 2014, he exuded confidence and tried to capture the imagination of millions of Indians who were sold on to his narrative of growth and development, Modi on August 15, 2018 was less self-assured and resembled a leader who has under-performed despite a strong mandate. The tone and tenor of his speech was largely aimed at holding on to his core support base, though he attempted to craft a more inclusive persona for a pan-India appeal.
Since the beginning of 2018, Modi has been focused on 2019 and has used every opportunity to his advantage. His vision for 2019 elections was evident in his government’s budget on February 1, which was full of promises and grand schemes. His reply to the no-confidence vote in the Lok Sabha last month was no different: it was littered with a long list of his government’s achievements and venom against his rivals, particularly the Congress. While in a marked departure from his recent speeches, Modi refrained from spewing venom against the opposition and did not resort to polarising rhetoric, the major thrust of his Independence Day speech was that India has developed only after he took over as prime minister.
His primary argument is that the pace of development has picked up dramatically after 2014. Highlighting his government’s track record on growth and development, the prime minister predicted that India will be an engine of growth for the world economy for the next three decades. The “sleeping elephant”, he said, had started to run on the back of several reforms his government has undertaken. “If we had continued at the same pace at which toilets were being built in 2013 and electrification was taking place, it would have taken us decades to achieve these goals. India would not have developed in a hundred years,” he claimed. What it means is that all the transformation in the country has been brought about by the reforms undertaken by his government since May 2014.
If history begins only after 2013, then everything that this government has done is unprecedented and historic. While claiming progress, Modi constantly referred to 2013, thereby avoiding the benchmark to evaluate his year-by-year performance with that of the UPA. This ploy has been used time and gain in the last four years to run down the previous regime’s 10-year rule, though data tells a story of economic outperformance under UPA over the Modi government. The current government has delivered an average of 7.3 per cent growth over the last four years. In comparison, according to GDP back series data released by the government-appointed Committee on Real Sector Statistics recently, the average growth rate under the two UPA terms from 2004 to 2014 was 8.1 per cent – 9.42 per cent under UPA-I and 7.39 per cent under UPA-II. Moreover, it was also under Manmohan Singh’s watch that the Indian economy scored double digit growth twice – 10.23 per cent in 2007-08 and 10.78 per cent in 2010-11.
What’s even more important is that despite headwinds of high crude oil prices, the average growth rate during the last four years of UPA-II, which has been known for the so called ‘policy paralysis’, is also higher at 7.39 per cent. India has overtaken China to become the world’s fastest-growing economy in recent years. This fact has been used by the current NDA government to burnish its economic credentials and claim that it has performed better than the previous regime, even though data tells a different story. Obviously, the “sleeping elephant” had started to run much before the Modi government came to power. However, Modi has spared no opportunity to deride his predecessor, a noted economist, for allegedly messing up the economy.
In his 80-minute long speech, Modi covered a host of issues – clean drinking water, Kashmir, Aadhar, Digital India, fast-tracking of rape cases, farmers, GST and Triple Talaq – but remained silent on mob lynching and refrained from mentioning ‘Make in India’ that had once enthused people because they expected jobs to come. The prime minister also did not mention certain issues in his speech which raised questions – the falling rupee and demonetisation. His earlier bravado on China and Pakistan was also conspicuously absent, despite repeated transgressions in Doklam and across the Line of Control. Some of Modi’s claims on schemes like Swachh Bharat, Mudra Yojna and village electrification were either partly true or he overstated facts.
In his final Independence Day speech before 2019, the prime minister tried hard to reset his image for the next general elections. But whether people will buy into his promise of a bright and prospering India in the future remains to be seen. The situation in 2014 was tailor-made for Modi which he exploited to the hilt. On the other hand, the UPA government failed to counter Modi’s campaign on growth and development by claiming credit for the telecom revolution, fastest economic growth rate, sharp fall in poverty, electrification of 97 per cent of villages and comprehensive food security, among others. The question, therefore, is whether Modi can pull off a 2014 again. There is no easy answer to this. However, one thing is for sure: Modi will be judged by his promises and performance.
A L I Chougule is an independent senior journalist.