In his last Independence Day speech before the next general elections in 2019, Prime Minister Narendra Modi looked back as well as outlined the future if he and his party come to power again. An 82-minute speech highlighted the achievements of the government over the past few years routinely comparing it to '2013'; the Congress and Manmohan Singh government.
Never one to avoid being ambitious, he announced that India will launch its first manned space mission by 2022 calling it 'Gaganyaan', which could make India only the fourth country to achieve the feat after the United States, Russia and China.
Another ambitious plan he spoke of was the launch of the Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Abhiyaan, a national healthcare scheme, which according to him will benefit 50 crore Indians. He said in part, "Pradhan Mantri Jan Arogya Abhiyaan will be launched on September 25 this year. It is high time we ensure that the poor of India get access to good quality and affordable healthcare."
The Hindu editorial, on this programme, shed some light on how such a policy would work with an upgrade in infrastructure needed –
"A large-scale Information Technology network for cashless treatment should be set up and validated…secondary and tertiary public hospital infrastructure suffers from severe efficiency and accountability problems, State governments should upgrade the administrative systems."
The programme, called National Health Protection Mission (NHPM) aims to provide coverage of Rs5 lakh per family/year through the Socio-Economic Caste Census to mainly poor families who live in rural areas. The policy was first mentioned by finance Minister Arun Jaitley in his budget speech earlier this year. Those who benefit from the scheme will be allowed to take cashless benefits from any public/private hospitals across the country.
One of the challenges facing the policy will be funding. The government aims to share the expenditure incurred in premium payment with the state governments; 14 states have finalised their memoranda of understanding with the Centre. The Hindu editorial points out that such a scheme can be rolled out further –
"The Centre should extend the scheme to all children and senior citizens, and cover out-patient consultation and essential drugs to sharply reduce out-of-pocket spending."
Speaking on women’s issues, he stated his pride at his cabinet having the "largest representation of women since independence". The controversial Triple Talaq bill came up in the speech as the government has made an effort to pass a bill that would ban the practice. He said it would a promise to his Muslim sisters that the government will try to get this done.
With the safety of women in the country at the forefront in the news, with recent revelations in Muzaffarpur and elsewhere, the Prime Minister spoke against the "demonic tendencies" of violence against women and welcomed the decisions by fast-track courts at handing out the death penalties in several cases.
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, vice-chancellor of Ashoka University, in his column for the Indian Express, offers a particular critique on the speech, particularly relating to the rising fear among minorities in the country. With cow vigilantism, the NRC issue and dissenters being silenced and/or threatened, the speech according to Mehta failed in that aspect as Modi did not speak to those fears and offer a better vision –
"...Institutions are being used to stifle freedom of expression; there is impatience with checks and balances, and the slow spread of an insidious communal poison in society. In not addressing those fears he was in effect signalling that the republic of fear is as much an acceptable prong of politics as the fantasy of hope he holds out," Bhanu noted.
The offer to comfort and ease the fears that many have at this particular moment in time would be an easy one; but it's something that Modi missed. While he characterises himself as impatient and restless to get more work done going forward, it's hard not to look at this as an opportunity missed.
While signalling his wishes for the future through his party's plans and ambitions, it was clear the speech had an eye on 2019. It was in part an electoral pitch towards the future by contrasting it with the previous government and signalling the policies that will be fulfilled if he is back in power. The Times of India editorial put the speech in political context given the current economic news –
"The rupee hurtling to unprecedented depths is a symptom of the many economic and social ailments the government currently battles. But with anti-incumbency and voter jadedness setting in Modi’s soaring rhetoric put the government’s best foot forward, giving notice that come 2019 BJP will rely on him to do the electoral heavy lifting once again."
The opposition said the speech was hollow. While no one has the reach of such a wide national audience as the Prime Minister on Independence Day, it is incumbent on the opposition to counter this, not in one speech, but in several over a period of time between now and the 2019 polls.
More columns by Varun Sukumar