Independence Day: The art of moving goalposts

On August 15, 2017, in his fourth speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi spoke of building a "new India" by 2022, the year India will mark the 75th anniversary of its independence.

Today, on August 15, 2021, as India celebrated the 74th anniversary and entered the 75th year of its independence, the PM spoke of building a "new India" by the year the country celebrates its hundredth Independence Day in 2047.

Could it be that the scourge of Covid-19 has impeded the country's progress by as much as 25-years? The PM did not elaborate on why the goalpost has shifted by a quarter-century.

However, in his speech four years back, the PM had implored citizens to take the "new India pledge and move ahead". Quoting from scriptures, the PM had said, "If we don't accomplish work within a stipulated time, we shall not be able to get the desired results."

Today, the PM said that "we should not limit the occasion of 75 years of the Indian independence to just one ceremony." He said this was a time to "lay the groundwork for new resolutions" and termed it to be a start of a 25-year long journey, from now to 2047, as the "Amrit Kaal", or period, "of creation of a new India". "We have to start now. We don't have a moment to lose," Modi said.

The PM seemed to suggest that it was no longer the job of only the government to build this "new India". He asked citizens to change themselves, to adapt to the changing era.

Modi gave the slogan of "sabka saath, sabka vikas", or development for all, in 2014. He had added "sabka vishwas", trust of everyone, five years later, on May 26, 2019. Today, Modi said "sabka prayas", or effort by everyone, was vital to achieving these goals.

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In his speech four years back, Modi had envisioned that India of 2022 would be a country where each family would have a pucca house and access to electricity. Farmers' income would double, the country would be cleaner, healthier, and free of terrorism, communalism, casteism, corruption, and nepotism.

These were ambitious targets even for mid-2017. Intriguingly, the Press Information Bureau website, the government's publicity arm, has a section on "promises and delivery". Under this, the PIB posts a table on the promises made in the PM's speeches delivered from the Red Fort and delivery. The last such "fact sheet" relates to the PM's "new India" speech of 2017. The PIB has not updated the section since.

It is likely that this failure to update and post "fact sheets" for the PM's subsequent three speeches from the Red Fort, from 2018 to 2020, could be a case of oversight. But in his speech today, the PM seemed conscious that he should present a report card of the seven years of his government's social welfare scheme to the country. However, the PM sidestepped quoting specific numbers of beneficiaries of these schemes, which he did in his earlier speeches.

Modi said that millions have benefitted from the many schemes started in the last seven years. He noted every poor of the country knows the importance of Ujjwala to Ayushman Bharat. "But it does not end here. We have to achieve saturation (of the schemes)," the PM said. The PM did not give any deadlines for achieving the hundred per cent saturation in these schemes, nearly all of which are ongoing from the Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004-2014) led governments.

Modi said that all villages should have roads, all households should have bank accounts, all the beneficiaries should have Ayushman Bharat cards, and all eligible persons should benefit from Ujjwala Yojana and have gas connections. The PM said that "now have to move ahead to achieve saturation of schemes, and, for this, we do not have to keep a distant deadline." While there was no reference to 2022, he said, "we have to make our resolutions come true within a few years."

With the Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls looming large, the PM referred to his government granting constitutional status to the OBC (Other Backward Classes) commission. He also sought to defend the government's three farm laws. He said his government's agricultural reforms would benefit small farmers, which comprise 80 per cent of the country's farmers who have less than two hectares of land.

If in his speech from the Red Fort in 2020, the PM had promised an investment of Rs 100 lakh crore in revamping India's infrastructure, today he promised Rs 100 lakh crore for a newly christened "Gati Shakti' National Infrastructure Master Plan. It will lay the foundation of holistic infrastructure and integrate India's means of transport. He did not detail the progress of the previous promise. The speech was realistic in some other respects too. For example, the PM did not mention making India into a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25.

In 2017, the PM had asked citizens that to achieve the goal of "new India", they should replicate the "collective resolve" that was visible during the five years from 1942 (Quit India Movement) to 1947 (Independence). He said that it had forced the British to quit India within five years. "We will have to exhibit the same resolve from now on in the 70th year of independence to 2022, the 75th year of independence," Modi had said.

In their way, the people have reprised those five years. Protests had marked the period between 1942 to 1947 to achieve freedom from colonial rule.

Some of the biggest protests have taken place from the summer of 2017 to now. The firing and killing of farmers in Mandsaur, in Madhya Pradesh, in June 2017 had triggered countrywide farmers' protests in 2017-18. In 2019-2020, millions hit the roads to protest the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), and the farmers' agitation against three central laws will soon complete a year.

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