Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on the 74th Independence Day — his seventh consecutive one — on Saturday sought to reassure the nation on the twin challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic and external aggression. He has always used his oratorical skills to foreground concerns that have traditionally not been considered worthy of a Prime Minister’s personal attention. The very fact that he mentioned menstrual hygiene will encourage health workers to be more attentive to the issue and create more awareness. Sanitation and access to drinking water have been issues dear to Mr. Modi’s heart, and the speech reflected that. The Jal Jeevan Mission that seeks to provide piped drinking water to every home, along with the expanding networks of electricity, the Internet, banking and cooking gas, will equip India to rise higher. Slogans such as self-reliance, “vocal for local”, “make in India to make for the world” are just old rhetoric for a new occasion, but their reiteration could spur the state apparatus into action, besides galvanising opinion. Mr. Modi has been an exceptional user of the I-Day pulpit to outline priorities, and deserves credit for it. While celebrating the nation’s milestones, the massive challenges of governance and development must not be glossed over.
Announcing new schemes that do not resolve, but camouflage, these challenges are of little help. The PM promised to bring a revolution, as the National Digital Health Mission, which will give every Indian a digital health ID that links up all her medical records. But the real issue is the abject lack of primary health facilities in much of India. Digitalisation is welcome but is no substitute for inadequate human resources and infrastructure in the health sector. Mr. Modi also reiterated his vision for India in relation to the world, a tightrope walk of promoting import substitution on the one hand and seeking global partnerships on the other. The challenges in managing such an approach were apparent when he mentioned India’s successes in attracting FDI and talked about self-reliance in manufacturing PPEs in the same breath. He did mention ‘Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam’ — the world is one family — as India’s guiding principle, but his characterisation of its centuries-old interactions with other populations and cultures appeared more in line with his Hindutva politics than with the spirit of the freedom struggle. The construction of the Ram temple in Ayodhya now has the support of most political parties and is on the basis of a Supreme Court judgment, but its mention did not address concerns regarding what it portends for India’s future. Ambitious collective goals can inspire a community, which must be increasingly inclusive as it progresses. Triumphs that are not equally shared are no triumphs at all.