The much awaited speech by Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi at the India Today Conclave 2013 seems to have triggered massive interest both online and at the venue. While the webcast seems to have crashed at least once, the event itself was running more than 20 minutes late as Headlines Today anchor after anchor updated on Twitter of the massive crowds trying to get in and seated.
The sense of anticipation around a prime time Narendra Modi speech is understandable. Our democracy still doesn’t have a structured platform for the principal political parties to engage in debates outside of Parliament. These televised speeches at media organised events are perhaps the closest we can get to Presidential or Prime Ministerial debates so common in Western democracies.
The speculation ahead of the speech had largely focused on what message Narendra Modi would send out on mounting the BJP’s challenge to unseat the Congress from power in Delhi. In a first, social media witnessed a parody of what “post-speech” leftist trauma would look like. Even Niti Central saw a satirical piece on the themes Modi was likely to touch upon. Self-deprecating humour in high voltage political events has become the norm in recent times in the West. Parodies and satire making their way to the pre-speech anticipation was perhaps a reflection of this.
The speech finally started about 30 minutes behind schedule.
Before we get into the substance of Modi’s speech it was interesting to note Arun Poorie, India Today’s Editor-in-Chief, remark that ‘Modi’ was now the most repeated four-letter word in Indian politics.
Modi spoke extempore in Hindi. He also surprised the audience and this columnist by opting to open with a video instead of launching directly into his speech. The 12-minute video reminded of the 2008 Obama Campaign Infomercial on prime television ahead of the historic Presidential election in the United States. The video ensured that for the first time a national television audience in prime time was introduced to Gujarat with facts and figures without the distortion that has become typical of most discourse on television these days.
The speech had a markedly different tone. It was not a political speech. It was not aimed at firing up the audience. It was conversational and laced with anecdotes. It also marked for the first time a major Indian politician in elected office laying out clear Centre-Right principles on a host of issues that marked a clear line of distinction between the path Narendra Modi intends to tread and the path on which the current UPA Government is on. The distinction also went deeper for Modi repeatedly during his speech also pointed out his chosen path challenged his own party at times, forcing it to change its attitude and direction.
The speech also focused on why democracy has to be about partnership between people and Government and that governance cannot be about people outsourcing all of their problems to Government. Significantly Modi spoke about changing the mindset of bureaucracy and making bureaucrats accountable to the communities they serve through stability of policy and through people-centric grievance redressal mechanisms.
The highlight of the speech was Narendra Modi standing up for his convictions be it on why Government must not be in the business of Government, why a mindset shift is needed from rights-based entitlement towards the spirit of enterprise, on how creating a sense of pride and ownership can make a marked difference. The speech also saw for the first time a major BJP leader speaking out against the UPA’s flagship schemes like NREGA and the UPA’s penchant for new Acts and rights.
The punchline, “We don’t need more Acts we need action”, clearly resonated with the audience.
The strongest aspects of Modi’s speech were when he dwelt on a range of innovative ideas from solid waste management to solar energy to make the point that ideas need to be institutionalised not individual centric for sustained development.
Narendra Modi also went where no major Indian politician went in recent memory to challenge why the railways cannot be privatized. From privatized coach manufacturing to the need for India to become a global supplier of weapons, Modi held forth on why Government needs to get out of the business of running businesses. In the process he did field one of the tougher questions of the evening from the audience on squaring that philosophy with the public sector focus of his Government in Gujarat.
Laying out a roadmap for professionalising Public Sector Units, making them competitive to opening them up to private competition, Modi showed a side of him on how he managed the apparent conflict between his personal conviction and the political reality.
The question and answer session clearly showed the distance Narendra Modi had travelled from Gujarat to Delhi as a Chief Minister while getting quizzed on a range of issues. The best answers came on the questions of becoming Prime Minister and on being stopped from coming to Delhi. Then there were the predictable questions on HDI, malnutrition, FDI and the 2002 riots on which Delhi’s elite audience perhaps did not get the answers they were hoping for.
For the first time a presumptive challenger from the principal Opposition from outside Lutyens’s Delhi held forth on a range of topics on national television. A barrier was breached and a message was sent that to be a credible challenger one doesn’t necessarily need a permanent address in Delhi or be an establishment status quoist.
Narendra Modi defied establishment stereotypes in today’s speech to go where no major politician has gone in recent memory.