Why this Independence Day is different

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Later this week, India will celebrate its 68th Independence Day. Besides recording the momentous break from an oppressive and debilitating colonial rule, this 15 August promises to be different due to five fundamentally changed circumstances.

Firstly, for the first time in 10 years, it won’t be a Congressman—Manmohan Singh—who will have the honour of addressing India on its Independence Day. Instead, it will be the battle weary Narendra Modi, who surprised critics and supporters alike to inspire the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the most spectacular win by any non-Congress party ever, who will take the stage. And it came at the expense of the decimation of the Congress party—reduced to 44 seats, which leaves it short of the number required to be the leader of the opposition.

It is a humiliation similar to that suffered by the BJP in 2004, which, seemingly against the run of the play, lost the electoral battle. Like the BJP did then, the Congress is unable to come to terms with its defeat; manifesting in the form of a disruptive force in Parliament. At the moment, bereft of any introspection, it has been reduced to ring-fencing its family leadership. As a national party, it has the wherewithal to serve as the country’s political opposition. But, at the moment, it seems to be in a state of drift and the grip of pique—presumably to distract from the leadership vacuum. Not since 1984 have we seen the country’s political opposition so helpless.

Secondly, this will probably be the first time that any government will be facing such a rising tide of expectations. Not without reason though. The electoral win was achieved by a deliberate moulding of the aspirations of the people by Modi who dared young India to dream. Demographically, 65% of India is less than 35 years of age, it is made up of people who have been spared the bad times. To them, Modi’s message was too compelling to ignore. Never before has the BJP managed to acquire such a national electoral footprint. 

But this comes at a price. This generation of Indians is unlikely to be very forgiving of a government that does not deliver on its promise. See what it did to the Congress that so blatantly lost its way with governance. As Nitish Kumar discovered in Bihar, there is no one level of aspirations—it is a genie that grows daily. Thirdly, the first 75 days of this government have shown that it is beginning to effect a course correction in ideology: a shift from entitlement to empowerment. While it is careful to ensure that the lot of the poor continues to resonate in the policy framework, the path to empowerment is by creating a facilitating environment to do business—create a million entrepreneurs as it were—and skilling the country’s workforce.

The Congress so brilliantly captured the nation’s imagination in 2004 with its entitlement formula that culminated in the food security legislation. But along the way, the country materially traded up and aspirations took flight. And what hurt the Congress was that the one mode of realizing these aspirations—creating jobs—was ignored at a fatal cost. The outcome of the 16th general election showed us that the people of this country now wish to change the grammar of realizing these aspirations. Presumably, India today is ready to bury its holy cows like labour laws. 

Fourthly, the haste with which India’s neighbours turned up for the Modi government swearing in emphasized the thirst for peace in South Asia. It is not just India or its neighbours, the entire world is challenged by the same problem of tackling growing inequality and lack of jobs. 

The populace can no longer be distracted by jingoistic warmongering—a fallout of the demographic shift, wherein the new generation is carrying less or no baggage from the past. Further, globalization and real-time communication through social media are showing up the false claims perpetuated by the political leadership of our countries. So it is a tremendous opportunity to effect a break from the past. 

Finally, as India’s flip-flop on the World Trade Organization (WTO) deal on trade facilitation showed that the country is willing to court unpopularity (especially among motivated editorials in the Western press) to stick to its stand. 

Elsewhere, in Mint today, my colleague exposes the Congress for letting down India at the Bali negotiations and then covering up its failures. So can you really blame the rest of the world when India retracts its stand under a new regime. But as Modi pointed out to the BJP at its national convention over the weekend, the world is recalibrating itself to a majority government. 

In the final analysis, it is clear that India is at a point of inflection this 15 August. It is, like he did during the election campaign, a moment for Modi to seize. –Courtesy Mint

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