Review of Asian Studies

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Virginia Review of Asian Studies

Volume 17 (2015): 36-40

Mathur: Shaping India


Triveni Goswami Mathur Visiting Professor of Media and Communication Pune, India

Indian Prime Ministers over the 68 years of independence have addressed the nation from the ramparts of the historic Red Fort in New Delhi – a place that was the residence of the Mughal emperors for about 200 years. The Red Fort, became a symbol of Indian unity and witness to the vision and promises of Indian leaders defining the trajectory of growth and development.

Each time, a Prime Minister walks up to the rampart, citizens wait to hear the words that would shape their destiny. Every speech made there, has drawn a socio-political blueprint for a nation that has faced odds with courage, grit and determination despite challenges of a huge population, poverty and corruption. India has today become a country that is poised to be among the most powerful economies of the world.

When India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru spoke of a “Tryst with Destiny”, on 15th August 1947 (Indian Independence from British Colonial Rule), it became not only a beacon of hope for a newly born nation, but, almost prophetic, if one were to review many other Prime Ministers speeches in subsequent years.

Nehru spoke of the long struggle for independence calling upon the citizens to look at this achievement as an “opening of opportunity.” He said, “We end today a period of ill fortune and India discovers herself again. The achievement we celebrate today is but a step, an opening of opportunity, to the greater triumphs and achievements that await us. Are we brave enough and wise enough to grasp this opportunity and accept the challenge of the future?”

India gave unto itself a democratic form of Government. And Nehru spoke of the importance of freedom and power bringing responsibility and service to the nation, being of prime significance:

That future is not one of ease or resting but of incessant striving so that we might fulfil the pledges we have so often taken and the One we shall take today. The service of India means the service of the millions who suffer. It means the ending of poverty and ignorance and disease and inequality of opportunity.
Jawaharlal Nehru gave a clarion call for people’s participation along with the new Government machinery to give shape to a new India where the goal would be eradication of poverty and equal opportunities.

Prime Minister Nehru

India’s citizens saw the transformation of India’s third Prime Minister, also the country’s first woman Prime Minister, who had the distinction of being the longest serving Prime Minister of India (1966 – 1977 and 1980 to 1984 until her assassination), through her speeches. While the content of her speeches focused upon a developing India, moving towards scientific progress as well as a strong political force in South Asia – with India’s role in the independence of Bangladesh, her tone, stance and body language also showed how she began to be looked upon as the “iron lady” from being earlier ridiculed as “a dumb doll” or “a wax doll.”

Indira Gandhi redefined the meaning of independence when she said, “Independence is not a one-time achievement, but one has to fight for it every moment.” She invoked the principles of brotherhood, love and compassion as professed by all religions and said, “If we follow that path, then we can shape a new society.”
Her first speech in 1966 after the Indo-Pakistan War, raised issues of border control. But, she spoke of the prevailing domestic scenario of drought, hunger, famine and economic struggles.
“What is the meaning of Independence for you?” she asked the common citizen questioning whether they were able to fulfil their hopes and aspirations and free themselves from hunger. “Unless we fulfil these aspirations and rid ourselves from hunger and poverty, I do not think we would have achieved total independence.”

Indira Gandhi
For the first few years of her governance, Indira Gandhi spoke of poverty and hunger. Earlier, Lal Bahadur Shastri – the second Prime Minister coined the slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” (Salute the soldier, Salute the Farmer) – combining the significance of the Indian soldiers victory over Pakistan in 1965, and the importance of agricultural growth. Indira Gandhi took it further with her focus on “Garibay Hatao” (eradicate poverty) campaign.
She announced her steps for a developing India by nationalization of the banking sector, thereby empowering the common man to access the benefits of banking and growth, introduction of the Land Ceiling Act for the benefit of the landless and abolition of privy purses (the Privy Purse was a payment made to the royal families of erstwhile princely states as part of their agreements to first integrate with India in 1947, and later to merge their states in 1949 whereby they lost all ruling rights. The Privy Purse was continued to the royal families until the 26th Constitutional Amendment of 1971. Source:
According to political observers, Indira Gandhi was at her peak between 1969 and 1971 and proved a point to the world by her stand on the liberation of East Pakistan to form Bangladesh. She sent signals that India was not a country to be taken as being reticent. However, power, position, sycophancy became her worst enemies and the announcement of an internal state of emergency in India for twenty-one months in 1975, her nemesis. Indira Gandhi made that phase of Emergency the darkest blot on Indian democracy scuttling people’s freedom of speech. The nation saw her downfall, but also saw her rising like a phoenix to serve her next term, (after an erratic term by coalition parties) from 1980 until her assassination in 1984.
Uncanny as it may sound, Indira Gandhi in her last public speech before her assassination said, “I do not care whether I live or die. I have lived a long life and I am proud that I spend the whole of my life in the service of my people. I am only proud of this and nothing else. I shall continue to serve until my last breath and when I die, I can say, that every drop of my blood will invigorate India and strengthen it.”
It was the former Prime Minister, P. V. Narasimha Rao, who became the Prime Minister after Rajiv Gandhi (son of Indira Gandhi who became the Prime Minister after his mother, riding a huge sympathy vote) was assassinated, changed the trajectory of Indian economy. It was Rao who announced the shift from a Nehruvian socialist mixed economy to an open market liberalized economy. Less hailed for his progressive economic statements, but much criticized for his alleged involvement in corruption scams, coupled with communal tension, P. V .Narasimha Rao’s contribution died even without a whimper.
Former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh, the only Prime Minister to have served as long as Indira Gandhi did (2004-2013), was not one from a political background but an economist of international repute. Although he served two full-terms in government, he was unfortunately perceived as a “voiceless PM” and termed a “lame duck” following the diktats of the Party President and widow of Rajiv Gandhi, Mrs. Sonia Gandhi. When Dr. Singh spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort as the Prime Minister, he began his tenure saluting Indira, congratulating Rahul and remembering Nehru. ((Source of Prime Ministers’ audio speeches:
Dr. Singh advanced the vision of P V Narasimha Rao’s announcement of a liberalized economy (Dr. Singh was the Finance Minister in Rao’s cabinet). Yet, rising prices became a major concern. Over the years, scams, corruption cases, social security, lack of good governance disillusioned the Indian masses.
A country that exercises its democratic rights with a conscious reasoning voted Manmohan Singh’s government out of power in 2014. India saw the emergence of Narendra Modi, as the Prime Minister – the first Prime Minister to be born after independence. Narendra Modi, the current Prime Minister, won with a thumping majority making an Opposition almost irrelevant. His first Independence Day speech began with his paying tributes to the founding fathers of India and former Prime Ministers. Calling for people’s participation in this journey to India’s progress, Modi too floated schemes for the cause of the common man that would strive towards eradication of poverty. He announced banking benefits for the poor, sowed the seeds of a ‘digital India’, shifted gears from ‘Made in India’ tag to “MAKE IN INDIA” to accelerate manufacturing growth, and announced a massive “clean India campaign”, and a “moratorium” on communal violence. While Modi touched upon issues ranging from promoting brand India, to rural development and inclusive growth, it was unfortunate to see affronts to religious minorities in the country, prompting Modi to make a separate public speech reiterating India’s commitment to religious pluralism.
From Nehru’s romantic, yet visionary blueprint of a new-born nation; to the days of speeches by the first woman Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, transformed from a ‘dumb doll’ image to an ‘iron lady’; through speeches indicating a new liberalized economy or the address of the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi - citizens of India have heard every spoken word with equal enthusiasm, concern and hope.

Slogans and metaphors emerged from these speeches – Jawaharlal Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny”, or Lal Bahadur Shastri’s “Jai Jawan- Jai Kisan” (Salute the soldier, salute the farmer)

Narendra Modi

moving towards Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” (Eradicate Poverty) to Narendra Modi’s “Make In India” – each provided a trajectory of development for the nation and its teeming millions.

What, however, glares in the public eye is the Human Development Index as per the UNDP report 2014 which is far from being encouraging.

It is therefore, interesting to see how each of the speeches of Prime Ministers commemorating Indian Independence Day have addressed similar issues of growth and development. Each speech has pointed out major social concerns of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment.

One wonders, why then, social parameters of growth continue to appear dismal and remain matters of ‘concern’, even as political agendas are furthered.

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