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‘Outsider’ Modi berates India’s ruling elite

He may be the most powerful man in India but Narendra Modi burnished his credentials Friday as the establishment outsider as he used his first Independence Day speech to berate the ruling class on its failings. Three months on from his stunning win in the world’s biggest election, the fledgling premier told the assembled ranks of VIPs that he had been taken aback by what he had found since moving to New Delhi and India’s achievements were thanks to the common man, not its rulers.

Modi is the first Indian prime minister to have been born since independence from Britain in 1947 and his style of leadership marks a sharp break with the past. While India’s leaders have usually delivered keynote speeches in English, Modi’s 45-minute address in Delhi’s historic Red Fort was in Hindi.

And while his immediate predecessors were shielded from the crowds by a bullet proof glass, Modi spoke both without a screen or a script. “The beauty of this country is that the son of a poor family from a poor city can rise through the ranks and is able to salute the flag from the ramparts of the Red Fort,” said the 63-year-old who used to help his father serve tea on a railway station platform. “It was not the politicians or the rulers who built this nation. No, it was the farmers, the labourers, women, youth, seers, scientists.”

An unashamed nationalist, Modi chose to use his address to focus on subjects that are often taboo in India and certainly not aired at such a grand occasion. A spate of rapes had led Indians to “hang our heads in shame”, he told the crowds in a speech that included appeals to end female foeticide and communal violence. And he also made a plea on behalf of the hundreds of millions of people who have to defecate in the open as they have no toilets in their home – something Modi said was intolerable in the 21st century.

“People may criticise me for talking about toilets from the Red Fort,” he said. “But I am from a poor family, I have seen poverty first hand. For the poor to get dignity, it has to start from here.” Before the election, Modi spent nearly 13 years in charge of the western state of Gujarat and had never held office in Delhi. Since he came to power, there have been reports of tensions between Modi and bureaucrats and judges who have been rattled by his muscular style.

Civil servants who were rumoured to have spent their mornings on the golf course have been leaving their clubs at home, fearful of being caught out when Modi calls on their ministry. “Should government officers coming on time be news?” said the prime minister as he spoke of some of his shock at witnessing departmental rivalries. “I am an outsider to Delhi. But as an outsider who has now got an insider’s view, I have been surprised by what I have seen.

“I have seen how even within government there were different governments. It is as if each has its own fiefdoms, with one government department quarrelling against another… How can we take India forward like this?” While Delhi’s main thoroughfares were sealed off to allow the great and the good to reach the venue in their red-sirened Ambassador cars, several thousand members of the public were invited to attend this year’s speech.

K.G. Suresh, a fellow at Delhi’s Vivekanand International Foundation thinktank, said he was struck by how Modi addressed some of India’s biggest problems after criticism that he has been too quiet. “Usually you don’t see a prime minister talking about his own difficulties with the system and administration but today he spoke about the problems he’s facing being an outsider, adjusting in Delhi,” he told AFP. “It seemed as though Modi was trying to silence his critics because after he took charge, people started tagging him as a mute prime minister, not taking action. But he dispelled that in his speech. Modi was in his element.”

Christian otton, "‘Outsider’ Modi berates India’s ruling elite," Business recorder. 2014-08-17.
Keywords: Political sciences , Political issues , Political system , Political change , Political reform , Economic issues , Government-India , Politics , Violence , PM Modi , Delhi , India