Since the November 8 bombshell announcing demonetization, the nation tends to hold its breath in trepidation when PM Modi announces a surprise speech. So, when we were told that the PM would be addressing the nation at 7:30 PM on New Year’s Eve, there was a mix of hope and fear. Was he going to announce a nationwide liquor prohibition? Make Surya Namaskars compulsory? Release a Dubhouse mix titled Mitron?
Thankfully, he did none of that. It was a speech which focussed on thanking people for enduring the hardships they faced during demonetization, gave a stern warning to banks, literally took a leaf from Mr Jaitley’s upcoming budget and announced a slew of sops and measures for the marginalised.
Here are some of the important take-aways from PM Modi’s New Year’s Eve speech:
Thank you for your support
While a host of mainstream media outlets have looked to play the look-how-much-the-unwashed-masses-are-suffering card, the move still seems to have enough support among the people of the nation and the PM looked to thank them for their supreme sacrificed. He said: “They have shown how much, even people trapped in poverty, are willing to do, to build a glorious India. The people, through persistence, sweat and toil, have demonstrated to the world, an unparalleled example of citizen sacrifice, for the brighter future of a nation.”
What was interesting was the follow-up in which he claimed that great sons of India like JP Narayan, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Ram Manohar Lohia and Kamaraj would have ‘applauded the patience, discipline and resolve’.
While the first-three are no-brainers, choosing former INC president Kamaraj was an allusion to the man who tried to fix the Congress. It helped present a stark contrast between the Congress of old and the young scion who wasn’t even present in the nation during New Year’s Eve.
A stern warning for the banks
While thanking bank employees for their ‘herculean effort’, the PM noted that several instances came to light of bank officers committing serious offences and tried to take advantage of the situation. Promising that they wouldn’t be spared, he also had a slightly menacing message for the banks.
He said: “At this historic juncture, I wish to make an appeal to the banks. History is witness that the Indian banking system has never received such a large amount of money, in such a short time. While respecting the autonomy of the banks, I appeal to them to move beyond their traditional priorities, and keep the poor, the lower middle class, and the middle class at the focus of their activities. India is celebrating the centenary of Pandit Deendayal Upadhyay as Garib Kalyan Varsh. Banks should also not let this opportunity slip. They should take appropriate decisions in public interest promptly.”
The most important bit in this stern message seemed to be the words he didn’t utter ‘Or else’. We don’t know what ‘Or else’ might mean but there is a sense of foreboding.
Major sweeteners after demonetization bitterness
Assuming quite correctly that demonetization has hit the poorest-of-the-poor the hardest, the main course of the speech focused on sops which would gladden the heart of socialists. There were sops for pregnant women (announced earlier as a pilot project), more credit limit for small businesses, loan waivers for rural and urban housing and interest for loans for farmers.
Read: Modi’s year-end bonanza to benefit the poor
Where are the taxpayers?
Looking to expand on the fact that a lot of rich Indians were dodging the taxman’s gaze, PM Modi said that only 24 lakh Indians declared they had an annual income of Rs 10 lakhs. He said: “If we look at any big city, it would have lakhs of people with annual income of more than 10 lakh. Do you not feel, that for the good of the country, this movement for honesty, needs to be further strengthened? In this fight against corruption and black money, it is natural to debate the fate of the dishonest. What punishment will they get? The Law will take its own course, with its full force. But the priority of the Government now is how to help the honest, protect them, and ease their difficulty. How can honesty gain more prestige?”
It was a forceful message that will drive home the point to the have-nots, and haves that the have-lots are simply taking them for a ride and the government will crackdown on this. If anything, this was the single moment that will probably be remembered for a long time and it could become an albatross around his neck as well, if he can’t improve the numbers
Show us some numbers
If there’s one bit in the speech that was truly disheartening, it was the lack of any data to explain the benefits of demonetization were conspicuous by its absence. As my colleague Arghya Roy Choudhury noted in his piece: “PM Modi’s speech refused to shed any light on how hours of standing in queue had led to tangible benefits for the economy and society. While it is understandable that it’s too early for him to provide actual figures for the amount of black money that may have entered the system, he could have furnished numbers to show how demonetization has affected evils like Naxalism, Maoism, human trafficking, drug trade and counterfeit currency trade.”
Surely, the PM could’ve come with some data to back up his claims that demonetization was a grand success.
Bye, bye traditional budget?
The mini-budget style announcements made us wonder whether after Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley would become the second minister with a lightened portfolio. PM Modi has become the face of India’s foreign policy, choosing to transverse the globe to improve foreign relations (and it has improved given the support from across the world). And while Sushma Swaraj has become immensely popular on Twitter for playing agony aunt to stranded Indians and foreigners, there’s no doubt over the man leading India’s foreign policy.
Even though Jaitley took to Twitter to claim that PM’s announcements will enable a ‘cleaner & bigger GDP’ and enhance ‘economic activities’, one wonders what this means for the budget and his role at large.
The Railways Budget has already been merged with Union Budget and the decision has been taken to remove classifications for expenditure to make the exercise simpler. Advancing the budget cycle is something that might have tangible benefits, but it makes one wonder whether like demonetization, the Budget will also see PM Modi as the man behind the plan.
Critics need to stop crying wolf
One of the more startling after-effects of PM Modi’s win in 2014 has been the over-the-top criticism of his every move by many members of the media. Some people still haven’t gotten over it and perhaps that’s why the PM has completely cut journalists from the information dissemination process, choosing instead to address the nation directly or connect with citizens through social media.
While criticism of the government is an absolute necessity, it becomes harder to digest or take seriously when every single step is labelled as ‘death of democracy’, ‘rising intolerance’ and ‘curtailing of freedom of expression’. On the other hand, similar issues in non-BJP states gets less attention than a book on online trolls.
As per use, Modi’s speech was immediately followed by criticisms like Narendra Modi Just Dug Himself a Great Big Hole, This speech after note ban? PM must be made to pay for a cruel joke on people and Modi’s speech an admission of defeat.
While PM Modi’s speech certainly was sober rather than bombastic, one is hard-pressed to understand how so many luminaries in the media fail to understand that PM Modi continues to retain the trust of the masses.
As Manu Joseph wrote in his article for TOI: “The ideological foes of Modi, who have named themselves liberals, perceived the policy through the filter of their immense hatred for him, and have refused to see the collateral benefits of millions of Indians joining the formal banking system. Even though they claim to worship objectivity, they often demonstrate that they are not capable of it.”
Throughout the demonetization process, a section of the process has gone out of its way to paint demonetization as the dance of the devil, and like their counterparts in USA who were guilty of ignorance, might be completely out of touch with reality.