Even as BJP dithers on when to declare him as its PM candidate, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi on Thursday staked claim to the top job by delivering an Independence Day speech aimed at rivalling incumbent Manmohan Singh’s address from Delhi’s Red Fort and softening a hardline saffron image.
Breaking the restraint that political opponents have traditionally exercised in critiquing the PM’s August 15 address, Modi had no qualms in turning the grounds of Lalan College here into a parallel pulpit as he attacked Singh’s speech, daring the PM to a debate on development.
The speech, populist as well as partisan, reflected the Modi camp’s desire to turn the 2014 Lok Sabha elections into a presidential race, with the Gujarat CM fully harnessing his oratorical skills. He looked to exploit UPA’s weaknesses — inflation, corruption, gloom over the economy as well as an alleged weak stance towards Pakistan and China.
Modi used his advantage of rhetoric also to play to his strengths: perception of having delivered on development front as a decisive leader and being tough on national security, and the fact that he has not been tested on the national arena.
Thursday’s speech was strongly defined by an ambitious attempt by Modi to de-sectarianize himself. “Governments should have one religion, that of putting India first. They should follow the Constitution as their only scripture, while treating the entire population of 1.25 billion as their strength. They should take all 1.25 billion Indians along and earn their trust as a matter of faith,” Modi said.
The chief minister was careful to avoid any references such as “burqa of secularism” that had given his critics an opportunity to reiterate their misgivings over him being a divisive leader.
The 50-minute speech saw Modi savaging the PM and Congress, projecting himself a man who has the vision which departs from weather-beaten and worn out approaches and can help the country actualize its potential and help the youth realize their aspirations.
“We need freedom from the status quoist mindset, We need to have a new vision and a fresh enthusiasm,” Modi said, the punch line echoing the “nayi soch, nayi umang” theme that BJP has unveiled to mark his pre-eminence.
Emphasizing Congress has run out of ideas, Modi said, “The PM has listed the same problems that the first prime minister Pandit Nehru would enumerate in his Independence Day speeches. This shows we have not achieved much and underscores the need for us to liberate ourselves from old ways of doing things.”
He attacked the PM for blanking out mention of corruption and focused on land scams allegedly involving Congress chief Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law Robert Vadra. “TV serials would earlier capture the issue of corruption by focusing the misdeeds of uncles and nephews. They have now been replaced by the ones which would be titled ‘saas bahu and damaad (Mother-in-law, daughter-in-law and son-in-law),” the CM said.
He attacked Singh for not being tough in responding to Pakistan’s aggression as well as Chinese incursions. “I know he was constrained by the protocol of office. But the least that he could have done was to boost the morale of our armed forces. Red Fort was the right platform for that,” Modi said while addressing jawans of the BSF. He said Indian troops on the border should be allowed to exercise their right to retaliate.
Seeking to tap into mounting restlessness over rising prices, declining rupee and corruption, Modi said, “We need freedom from inflation, insecurity and sleaze and arrogance of the ruling class.”
The theme he outlined also reflected BJP’s calculation that the perceived disenchantment with Congress with help the party surpass social and geographical limits the saffron challenge faces. “Janata aise faisle karne ko mazboor ho gayi hai, jis se faasle mit jayenge (People are being forced to take decisions that will transcend divides),” he said.
The speech, which had the trappings of a state-of-the-union address, came at a time when there are indications that an announcement on Modi’s candidature is being delayed by a last-gasp resistance of entrenched holdouts in the BJP.
By hammering away at the PM, the chief minister may have established himself as the main challenger and reduced the relevance of his opponents in his party.