Making a determined effort to establish himself as a commoners’ president, Pranab Mukherjee today echoed what civil society has been saying for most of 2012: that “India did not win freedom from the British in order to deny freedom to Indians”, and gender inequality cannot be countenanced any more.
He was addressing the nation on the eve of India’s 64th Republic Day, his first R-Day speech as President.
Apparently deeply influenced by the here-and-now events of the last six months, Mukherjee recorded deep distress, not just at the rape, brutalisation and snuffing of a promising young life but also at the levels of corruption among politicians, two of the most enduring themes of 2012.
“The brutal rape and murder of a young woman, a woman who was a symbol of all that new India strives to be, has left our hearts empty and our minds in turmoil. We lost more than a valuable life; we lost a dream. If today young Indians feel outraged, can we blame our youth?” Mukherjee asked, reflecting the opinion of the former as well as present Chief Justice of India.
“The time has now come to ensure gender equality for every Indian woman. We can neither evade nor abandon this national commitment, for the price of neglect will be high. Vested interests do not surrender easily. The civil society and the government must work together to fulfill this national goal”, Mukherjee said.
Interestingly, Mukherjee’s view of civil society when he had been in government, negotiating the knotty issue of the Lok Pal, had not been so charitable.
He asked the nation to address the problems of the young, not treat them as deadwood. “We are on the cusp of another generational change; the youth of India spread across villages and towns, are in the vanguard of change. The future belongs to them. They are today troubled by a range of existential doubts. Does the system offer due reward for merit? Have the powerful lost their dharma in pursuit of greed? Has corruption overtaken morality in public life? Does our legislature reflect emerging India or does it need radical reforms? These doubts have to be set at rest. Elected representatives must win back the confidence of the people. The anxiety and restlessness of youth has to be channelized towards change with speed, dignity and order,” he said in his speech.
While extolling the benefits of economic growth and emphasing India should be proud of what it had achieved since independence from the British, he was acid about tendencies to become irrationally exuberant: “Figures mean nothing to those who do not benefit from them.” Striking a note that was markedly socialist in an environment where taxing the super rich is being contemplated, he said: “It is true that we have come a long way from 1947, when our first Budget had a revenue of just over Rs 171 crore.”