Narendra Modi has yet to show that his government can make a significant difference to the way that India is run and performs, but this morning he impressed critics as well as supporters with his first Independence Day speech as prime minister from the ramparts of Delhi’s majestic Red Fort.
Breaking with tradition, he ad-libbed his hour-long speech with minimal notes, and was not protected by the bullet-proof screens that have cocooned prime ministers at this event for some 20 years.
That left Modi free to deploy his impressive free-wheeling oratory and speak directly to the thousands of people (including schoolchildren who he chatted to later) gathered at the Red Fort, and others watching on television. This was in stark contrast to the monotonous detached delivery of most previous prime ministers, especially Manmohan Singh who made the speech ten times
Modi’s key policy announcement was the expected closure of the Planning Commission, which has become an out-dated top-down hangover from the days of India’s controlled economy. It is to be replaced by a new, less aloof, and reforms-oriented organisation that co-operates with the states.
Other initiatives included providing bank accounts and insurance for the poor, plus a campaign for cleanliness, and separate school toilets for girls within a year. People “might not appreciate my talking about dirt and toilets from the Red Fort,” said Modi, who went on to condemn the country’s widespread rapes and appeal for parents to rein in their sons.
He appealed for India’s youth to avoid the divisive and often violent effects of the caste system, and of communal and sectarian divisions, and proposed “a ten years moratorium to get a society free of all these tensions”.
He also tried to inspire moves to boost India’s slow-developing manufacturing industry and urged foreign companies to “come and make in India”, with “Made in India becoming a synonym of excellence”. He dreamed of “ electronic digital India” uniting the country in the way that the railway system has helped do in the past.
And he referred to changes in the government’s work culture, which he has been trying to transform. He had been “appalled by the discord and disunity among various Government departments”.
This was a grand shopping list and was delivered in a style that seemed more like an election campaign speech than a programme for action. It dealt with the government’s key issues of protection of women and development of the economy, but it was little different from the last Congress government’s policies and lacked details on delivery. Modi’s challenge now is to satisfy the massive hopes and expectations he has generated with firm action.
Each one of the points he raised are central to what is wrong with the way that India functions – from the filth and dirt and lack of respect for women that repel tourists and worries investors, to the caste and communal divisions that lead to mass violence (notably in the state of Uttar Pradesh in recent weeks). Manufacturing industry lags behind foreign competitors, especially China but also other Asian economies, and government departments fail to provide effective administration.
So far, in the 12 weeks since he became prime minister, Modi has been most effective in improving the time-keeping of bureaucrats and smartening up government offices, and in setting a new approach to foreign policy. After years of working from their homes in the mornings, or just turning up to office late, ministers and bureaucrats now arrive around 9am and there are countless stories of mazes of ancient files and office clutter being cleaned up.
In foreign policy, Modi has broken new ground by visiting the small neighbouring countries of Nepal (the first Indian prime minister to do so for 17 years) and Bhutan, both of which are buffer states with China. All the neighbouring countries’ leaders attended his swearing in, and at the end of this month he will visit Japan that is emerging as a leading economic and diplomatic partner.
Making visits however is easy, and the government will now have to find ways to improve day-to-day relations and economic development in Nepal, and also offset Chinese influence there and in Bhutan. Elsewhere among the neighbours, there is little sign yet of improved relations, and on the broader foreign front India has upset the US and other countries by blocking an international trade treaty at the World Trade Organisation.
At home, Modi has begun moves to raise the limits for much needed foreign investment in defence manufacturing and insurance, and has begun to change out-dated labour laws. He has also cleared some blockages for construction of infrastructure and other projects, though this has led to risky and controversial jettisoning of environmental protection arrangements. Environmental clearances have been rushed through, and a key environmental advisory body, the National Board for Wildlife, has been revamped with members more committed to development than environmental protection.
Modi won his landslide general election victory, however, because people expected more dramatic and fundamental improvements in the way the country is run, with government departments becoming more efficient, police becoming less indifferent and brutal, and the railways and other services becoming more effective and responsive to people’s needs.
That is an impossible task for one man. So, to deliver what is expected, Modi needs to motivate those around him. He said at the Red Fort he was speaking “not as Pradhan Mantri but as Pradhan Sewak” – as the first servant, not the prime minister. That was a part of the populist appeal that he likes to portray along with a powerful image. His challenge is to use both to deliver.