Narendra Modi’s tenth consecutive Independence Day speech as Indian prime minister, delivered from the Red Fort in Delhi on August 15, was long (90 minutes) and characteristically loaded with bombast. It was not the inclusive message of a statesman seeking to address a nation’s challenges and opportunities, but more of a campaign pitch for next year’s general election.
At times, he resembled the old snake oil salesman cliché: he proclaimed the success of his product and ignored its side effects. He was vague on detail and tried to distance himself from any problems his policies had caused. And, as you’d expect, he rubbished what his competitors have to offer.
At other times, he channelled Julius Caesar, repeatedly referring to himself in the third person: “Modi had the courage to bring reforms … And Modi brought reforms one after the other.” His speech was littered with such references.
In a remarkable display of sophistry, he repeatedly called the citizens of India his “parivarjan” or family. This is significant, because Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is backed by the “Sangh Parivar” or “Sangh family” of Hindu supremacist rightwing organisations. So, when the prime minister refers to family, it’s clear this is non-inclusive – and his speech was rife with the familiar us-versus-them tropes that have become the staple of rightwing politics in Modi’s India.
He also presented his administration as the beginning of an “amrit kaal”. This is a term from Vedic (or Hindu) astrology that means an auspicious critical time to start a new era or new projects. But an important subtext of his address was his assertion that India underwent more than a millennium of slavery. India’s Independence Day speech is supposed to celebrate freedom from British colonial rule which ended in 1947. But Modi’s 1,000 years of slavery has been widely interpreted as deliberately referencing long periods of the country’s history during which the country was ruled by Muslim dynasties, including the Mughal empire (1526-1761), characterising it as an era of invasion, looting and subjugation.
Rhetoric versus reality
Modi has used his previous Independence Day speeches to announce his government’s campaigns – and this year was no different. Sadly but predictably, few media organisations were brave enough to point to the contrast between his rhetoric and reality when he listed his government’s successes.
His claim to have the economy under control rings hollow when you consider that inflation is at a 15-month high of 7.44%, driven by a doubling of fruit and vegetable prices in recent months. His claim that exports are increasing is simply untrue.
Meanwhile policy pledges of previous years that have not been fulfilled were simply forgotten. His promises to double farmer’s incomes, encourage the development of “smart cities”, provide housing and electricity for all, or to solve the crisis in Kashmir hardly rated a mention.
Modi’s speech was also big on was women’s empowerment and safety. He said it was “everyone’s responsibility to ensure there is no atrocity against our daughters”. But during his tenure, women’s participation in the labour force has fallen and crimes (especially relating to sexual violence) against women have risen. This was most recently seen in BJP-ruled Manipur. His tenure has been marked by shameful prolonged silences on ghastly situations and failure to fix responsibility and act on addressing crimes against women.
Similarly, his regular invocation of the “140 crore family members” (the entire population of India) as one “family” ignores the situation of minorities in India. This has deteriorated rapidly in recent years while mob violence against ethnic minorities has continued, against a backdrop of silence from those in power. A blatantly assertive Hindu supremacist vigilante mob culture is on display where hate speech against Muslims and Christians has become normalised.
Were Modi a statesman worthy of his position, he would have assured India’s minorities that they are equal rights-bearing citizens. He would have refrained from platitudes about peace and the “Indian family” and rather spelled out policy proposals to tackle ethnic violence in Manipur.
Modi’s speech spent some time accusing his political opponents of the “three evils” his government had worked hard to eradicate. These, he described in some detail as:
Corruption, nepotism and appeasement; these challenges have flourished which has suppressed the aspirations of the people of our country.
The Modi-led BJP administration has been notorious for its crony capitalism. One of India’s wealthiest businessmen, Gautam Adani, who hails from Modi’s home state of Gujarat, has gained the nickname, “Modi’s Rockefeller” for his reportedly close relationship with the prime minister. Adani himself commented on television earlier this year that: “These allegations are baseless … the fact of the matter is that my professional success is not because of any individual leader.” In general, though, well-connected billionaires have flourished under the BJP.
Modi’s reference to “dynastic politics” is obviously directly aimed at his opponents in the Congress party, the Gandhi/Nehru family. It is significant that the day before his speech, the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library (named after India’s first and longest-serving prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru) was renamed Prime Minister’s Museum and Library.
Finally, the word “appeasement” in Indian politics is a dog-whistle which is used to accuse his political enemies of favouring minorities. The BJP’s Hindu nationalism, meanwhile, has effectively and purposefully marginalised minority groups. Modi’s support for a Uniform Civil Code (UCC), which ostensibly aims to foster equality and unity, has been widely criticised for ignoring and endangering the rights of India’s minority groups.
Modi’s speech was nothing more than a stump speech for the 2024 election aimed firmly at the country’s Hindu majority. Towards the end of his speech, Modi expressed his confidence that on August 15 2024, he would again address the country from the Red Fort after being reelected.
Many Indians who care about democratic erosion, decline in media freedoms, institutional capture, pervasive identity-based anti-minority violence, deepening societal divisions and a centralisation of executive power, will hope otherwise.