Why the Prime Minister’s address to the nation was a damp squib

The gravitas of an address to the nation lies not in the concept but in its content. PM Modi’s year-end speech was disappointing because it failed to live up to heightened expectations

Nilanjana Bhowmick

“The future beckons to us. Whither do we go and what shall be our endeavour? To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to the peasants and workers of India; to fight and end poverty and ignorance and disease; to build up a prosperous, democratic and progressive nation, and to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman”

Jawaharlal Nehru in his Tryst with Destiny speech on the eve of India’s Independence, August 14-15, 1947.

“In a few hours, we will be ushering in the new year of 2017. 125 crore Indians will join the rest of the world, in welcoming it with new hope, new energy and new dreams. Since Diwali, our nation has been witness to a historic rite of purification. The patience, discipline, and resolve displayed by 125 crore Indians, will play a critical role in shaping the future of the nation for years to come.”

Narendra Damodardas Modi in his New Year’s Eve address to the nation on December 31, 2016.

Nehru had addressed the nation on Aug 14, 1947. It was an emotional speech, recounting the hopes and aspirations of a newly free country; a speech that went down in history as among the best addresses to the nation in the world.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on December 31, 2016, following 50 days of chaos in the country after the government banned two of its highest currency notes, was also a recounting of the nation’s hopes and aspirations. But he did not speak on behalf of the people. He spoke for them.

The difference between the two addresses is subtle but important.

Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Photo by Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation on December 31, 2016, following 50 days of chaos in the country after the government demonetised ₹500 and ₹1,000 notes, left us none the wiser now than we were 50 days back

Addressing the nation is serious business because leaders save it for momentous occasions and crisis situations, in wartime or for making nation-building announcements or even major achievements; and because when a leader decides to address the nation, the nation feels something important will be communicated to them, the country was on tenterhooks running up to the address.

We expected life-changing announcements; maybe even more chaotic decisions. But what we didn’t expect—but what we got nonetheless—was...er...a pat on his own back. A beleaguered nation needed to know that the government has a plan, that everything was under control; that in the new year, things would improve; that we wouldn’t have to struggle to lay our hands on our hard-earned money; that small traders wouldn’t be forced to close down their businesses...

We needed tangible timelines, hard facts as opposed to woolly epithets. But we are none the wiser now than we were 50 days back.

After 50 days of harassment, misery and confusion, the speech was the “unkindest cut of all” and much like as the bard said, “O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!/Then I, and you, and all of us fell down.”

No matter whether one is a Modi critic or a Modi fan, whether we are openly critical or privately so, we are all anxious. We all had questions. Can we reboot to pre November 8? Did the 50-days-long sacrifice achieve anything? When could we again saunter out to buy a loaf of bread? None of these questions were answered

NO ANSWERS TO THE QUESTIONS ON EVERYONE’S MIND

Earlier in the day, in the marketplace, at bank queues and on TV studios, the PM’s address was trending. People did not ask each other what their plans were for the evening. It was given they would be in front of their television sets. Because no matter whether one is a Modi critic or a Modi fan, whether we are openly critical or privately so, we are all anxious. We all had questions.

  • Can we reboot to pre November 8?
  • Did the 50-days-long sacrifice achieve anything?
  • When could we again saunter out to buy a loaf of bread?

None of these questions were answered, although now we know that 125 crore Indians “will welcome the new year with new decisions, new spirits,” and that the pain that 125 crore Indians “have borne will be an example for generations”, and that “125 crore Indians have shown, in their fortitude, the importance we place in truth and goodness”, and that 125 crore Indians “have displayed the strength of people power, utmost discipline, and the ability to discern the truth in a storm of disinformation”, and also that 125 crore Indians “have shown that resolute honesty, can defeat dishonesty.”

What we still don’t know is how the pain borne by the 125 crore Indians will contribute to nation-building or how it will translate into an egalitarian society, if at all.

But the biggest question of them all is why the Prime Minister needed to address the nation when he had no clarity to provide on the situation to assuage the worries of the common man?

There is of course no law as to when a leader can address the nation. But it is given that it is reserved for the most pressing announcements or crises. When I hear that the nation will be addressed, I take it very seriously. I take it that matters of national importance will be divulged or discussed. And how fair is it to arrest the collective imagination of a country for days for an address that added nothing to the discourse or helped make it more comprehensible? The 40-minute-long speech could (and should) easily have been a PMO statement, or an episode of Mann ki Baat.

Nilanjana Bhowmick is a multi-award winning independent journalist based in Delhi. She tweets at @nilanjanab

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Published: 2 Jan 2017, 8:32 AM