n August 15, India celebrated her freedom from Britain. Traditionally, the day begins with a speech by the Indian Prime Minister from the towering ramparts of the Mughal-era Red Fort in old Delhi. First, the flag is hoisted and the national anthem is sung after a gun-salute has sent millions of roosting pigeons fluttering into the sky. Finally, the head of government “addresses the nation”.
In the 67 years since independence, most Indian prime ministers have used the occasion for self-aggrandizement, sonorous paeans to India’s glorious history and tall promises.
Earlier, there were glib commitments to the agrarian country’s bitterly poor farmers. In recent decades and from behind bullet-proof enclosures came sexier mood enhancers: India’s nuclear might and her prowess at Information Technology.
"The 63-year-old Prime Minister, the first to be born in independent India, spoke of shit and rape. Never in the history of India had a Prime Minister ventured into embarrassingly inglorious but absolutely imperative territory. He asked whether it has not pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open and whether toilets cannot be built for them and so protect their dignity"
No one ever forgot to announce grand ‘welfare schemes for the poor’ usually named after this, that or the other member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty (heads of the country’s oldest Congress party, which has been in power for most of independent India’s history but now sits as a decimated minority in the opposition).
The discourse would end with a well-deserved ode to the armed forces, the world’s third-largest, and a thunderous warning to Pakistan not to mess with them.
The PM would then descend to street-level (more recently, in a specially-installed elevator), climb into his limousine and glide away. Leaving millions of poor Indians to their daily tryst with a dismal destiny -- insufficient infrastructure, corrupt officialdom and growing violence -- for yet another year.
This year, new Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, struck untested, uncharted waters.
He had the bullet-proofing removed, ignored the elevator and bounded up the stairs. Speaking, not in Harrow English nor in ponderously incomprehensible Hindi but in a simple version of the latter, the skilled orator made no mention of India’s Mars mission and its imminent landing on the red planet. Nor did he dwell upon an Indian rocket that had launched European and Canadian satellites earlier this year.
Instead, the 63-year-old PM, the first to be born in independent India, spoke of shit and rape. “Has it pained us that our mothers and sisters have to defecate in the open?” he asked. “Can’t we build toilets for them and protect their dignity?”
Among the tens of thousands gathered at the foot of the Red Fort, the silence was deafening.
Dozing VIPs in the front rows squirmed and sat upright. Fidgety school kids squinted up at the distant speaker on the ramparts. Cynical reporters in newsrooms and bored stock brokers in Mumbai scrambled to turn up the volume of their TV sets. Never in the history of India had a Prime Minister ventured into embarrassingly inglorious but absolutely imperative territory.
"You parents ask your daughters hundreds of questions, where are you going, when will you be back,” said the childless Prime Minister. “But rapists are someone’s sons too. Have you ever dared ask your sons what they are up to or who their friends are?"
Modi was only repeating what a World Bank report in 2013 had reconfirmed: That a lack of sanitary infrastructure still forces 600 million Indians to defecate on open fields. But with the specific reference to poor, rural women, he had deftly and in a single stroke, included the numbing tragedy in May, when two poor girls who had similarly strolled out to the fields in the dark, were brutally raped and murdered by criminals in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. A crime, which had only reinforced India’s head-hanging reputation as the ‘rape capital of the world’.
“You parents ask your daughters hundreds of questions, where are you going, when will you be back,” said the childless Prime Minister. “But rapists are someone’s sons too. Have you ever dared ask your sons what they are up to or who their friends are?”
At the foot of the historic Red Fort, deafening applause sent birds into frantic flight all over again. Former Congress PM Manmohan Singh and the Italian-born party president Sonia Gandhi slouched, with crossed arms and grim faces. Millions around them and across the country cheered, clapped, hooted and whistled.
The crafty politician also tripped up India’s liberal urban chatterati, who had expected the PM of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), usually classified by the international media as ‘Hindu-nationalist’, to spew venom upon Muslims and other religious minorities.
Instead, Modi urged Indians to set a 10-year moratorium to racial and religious violence. After inviting foreign industrialists to manufacture in India, advising local entrepreneurs to make defect-free, environment-friendly products and urging all of South Asia to join hands in eradicating poverty, Narendra Modi broke from security, mingled with school-kids and took his own time to head back to the lush environs of Lutyens’ Delhi.
Sixty-eight minutes for India’s 68th birthday: Modi’s I-Day speech, one of the longest in the country’s history, stunned and delighted Indians of all strata.
“Our politicians have always swept unpalatable stuff under a carpet,” says advertising professional, Suhel Seth. “Modi rolled it up. He wants to clean up for good.”
Traditionally, governments in New Delhi are judged after 100 days of being in office. Modi crosses that benchmark this week.
Last week, India’s economy registered its fastest growth since March 2012, with the GDP clocking 5.7% as compared to 4.7 % in the last quarter.
Growth rates are nebulous concepts for ordinary Indians. But they, too, are upbeat and smirking: at the palpable and long overdue changes in New Delhi’s notoriously lethargic and grubby government offices.
"Up to now, we would make recommendations after much hard work but coalition governments would sit on them and do nothing,” says a top bureaucrat. “Modi’s majority rule means swift execution. We are finally enjoying our jobs"
Modi is a workaholic, rising at 5, practising yoga, eating sparse vegetarian fare and working 14 to 16-hour days. Ever since his ministers conducted surprise raids at 10.00 a.m., found unmanned desks and issued stern warnings, officials have been tearing to get to office on the dot at nine. Bio-metric clocks monitor arrivals and departures, shortfalls translate as salary cuts. Walls are being scrubbed clean of the grotesque trademark of South Asia: betel-leaf spit, while stinking toilets are being repaired and sanitized every day.
But government officials cannot be fired, unless they commit serious crimes. So why the sudden enthusiasm ?
“Up to now, we would make recommendations after much hard work but coalition governments would sit on them and do nothing,” says a top bureaucrat. “Modi’s majority rule means swift execution. We are finally enjoying our jobs.”