What I-Day speeches tell us about our Prime Ministers

Suman K Jha | Updated on August 11, 2021

PM Modi Making a point   -  PTI

In his first Independence Day speech , Prime Minister Narendra Modi said something that set him apart from his predecessors. Modi said: “If we have reached here after Independence, it is because of the contributions of all the Prime Ministers, all the governments, and even the governments of all the states… I wish to express my feelings of respect and gratitude to all previous governments, and ex-Prime Ministers, who have endevaoured to take our present-day India to such heights and who have added to the country’s glory”.

A Prime Minister’s Independence Day speech is most eagerly awaited as it presents the PM’s blueprint for the future and his vision of the nation. An Independence Day speech also lays down the government’ priorities and milestones. A reading of Independence Day speeches, then, provides one a useful account of the changing India, its values, and the people’s aspirations.

If one were to distinguish the changes brought about by the Modi government, a reading of Independence Day speeches of the last 17 years, would be a useful exercise.

This comes with a caveat, though. A comparison of PM Modi with his predecessor Manmohan Singh can only be called unfair. In popular perception, Modi is said to have a “BJP Plus” appeal. On the other hand, even his supporters would concede that Manmohan Singh owed his position to the Family. It’s, then, an unequal comparison.

It is interesting, for instance, to note that PM Modi has often ended his Independence Day speeches with the three slogans of “Bharat Mata ki Jai”, “Jai Hind” and “Vande Mataram”. Singh, on the other hand, always used “Jai Hind” to conclude his Independence Day speeches.

It’s, however, the choice of national and cultural icons, symbols, and Freedom Fighters, quoted in the speeches, that gives one a peek into a Prime Minister’s worldview, philosophy and priorities.

In his 2009 Independence Day speech, Singh, after paying tributes to Mahatma Gandhi, said: “Our Government will follow the path shown by Pandit Nehru, Shrimati Indira Gandhi, Shri Rajiv Gandhi, and other great leaders of our country”.

There are occasional references to Rani Lakshmi Bai, Netaji Subhash Bose and Ambedkar. PV Narasimha Rao gets pride of place in one of the speeches. Congress leader Sonia Gandhi finds a mention.

Modi’s choice of national symbols, emblems and icons is a study in contrast. Apart from Gandhi, Patel, Ambedkar and Bose, Swami Vivekananda and Aurobindo figure in Modi’s speeches. Lokmanya Tilak, Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev, Rajguru find mentions. So do Jai Prakash Narayan, Lal Bahadur Shashtri, Deendayal Upadhyay, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Subramaniam Bharti and Saint Thiruvalluvar.

Yes, Lord Rama, Lord Krishna, Arjuna, Buddha, Guru Nanak Dev and Emperor Ashok find a mention too.

The two sets of Prime Ministerial speeches show how the country and its beliefs, ideals, and values have undergone an interesting change.

Indeed, in the last seven years, India has seen a deepening of democracy with the nation rediscovering many of its lost icons and heroes. Even political adversaries have been acknowledged as contributors to the India Story in Modi’s Independence Day speeches.

Those who argue that with Modi’s advent India has become “more illiberal” are therefore clearly off the mark. After seven years of Modi in office, Indian democracy has taken giant strides in taking everyone along, and moving forward.

The writer, a JNU alumnus, is a political analyst. Views are personal

Published on August 11, 2021

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