Narendra Modi's speech at the India Economic Convention was the best such oration since Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed the nation from the Red Fort in the aftermath of Kargil, feels Shreekant Sambrani.
The 63-minute address by Narendra Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate, to a gathering of national and international business and financial elite in Delhi on February 27 was, well, prime ministerial!
This is not mere tautology; it signifies a welcome change from the hectoring and accusatory tones that has marked the election 2014 campaigns of all parties so far.
For the record, the meeting called the India Economic Convention, was organised by the India Foundation and had an opening address by Arun Jaitley and a couple of discussions on macroeconomic prospects and infrastructure preceding Modi's keynote address.
In the analysis that has followed the event so far, these preliminaries have not merited any mention despite the eminence of the speakers. The focus was solely on the Modi speech (delivered mostly extempore; we have not yet moved to the teleprompter era, it would appear) as it should have been. Who remembers the hors de oeuvres served before a marquee main course?
Modi began by lamenting the labelling of India as a poor country. He felt that the poverty had been more a result of short-sighted politics and wasted opportunities than any inherent factors. He was particularly critical of the last 10 years (the term of the United Progressive Alliance governments) when he said that 8.4 per cent growth rate had been turned into a 4.8 per cent crawl rate, leading to despair among people.
That made the task of restoring growth, which he termed as imperative for removal of poverty that much harder.
He touched all the right buttons: The need to revive agriculture with due attention to water conservation and infusion of right technology, competitive manufacturing, and continued emphasis on services, the three pillars of economy.
India, he said, needed investment in all three, not just in industry. Energy and infrastructure came in for special mention, especially with a futuristic orientation: infrastructure for better agricultural reach, creation of gas and water grids, and an optical fibre network, as well as increasing recourse to solar energy in the west, wind energy in the south and hydropower in the north-east.
Along the way, he expressed support for a general goods and services tax, much to the appreciation of the attentive audience. He highlighted the role of education in realising the potential of demographic dividend, and health, especially preventive health care, in improving the quality of life.
Ever the sloganeer, he said that India's unique endowment of democracy, demography and demand needed to be supplemented by three more d’s: direction, determination and dedication.
To some, that may represent a smorgasbord of ideas, not all original at that. But Modi's role is not that of an inventor. He should be more of an innovator, building on ideas new and old to achieve his agenda. And that agenda as yet must be somewhat amorphous, as he is still seeking a mandate to govern, and not presenting a programme of an elected administration.
Most important of all, he (or any other leader seeking high office) needs to be judged by whether he inspires hope enough for the people to repose their confidence in him.
What is even more remarkable than what Modi said was how he said it. His tone was mostly conversational, taking the audience into confidence, and making them share his vision, rather than exhorting them to go out and mobilise themselves.
He slipped into occasional phrases in English. He talked of his record in Gujarat. Earthquake rehabilitation, rural electrification, agriculture growth, pioneering efforts in harnessing solar energy, all got due mentions, but did not appear to be anything more than recounting of justifiably proud achievements.
The more important point was that these lent enormous credence to the claim that inclusive development must involve a partnership of the state and central governments and good governance was as important, if not more so, as good programmes to deliver the desired results.
Some of Modi's earlier speeches were criticised for inaccuracies and inadequate homework. This speech, by contrast, appeared to have been well-vetted. For example, he said that while Gujarat assured Rs 13 per kWh of solar power to the generating units, technological improvements and innovations had brought the cost down to Rs 7 per kWh, within shouting distance of that from coal-based units.
A very recent issue of The Economist noted that the German energy giant Siemens reckons that new solar cells have the potential to produce electricity cheaper than coal-fired generators can.
Ultimately, atmospherics matter as much as the content of political speeches -- and despite the nature of the gathering, the Modi address was just that. President Barack Obama showed that in abundance in his two campaigns, by holding out hope amidst challenges, and not just for the next term but the next generation as well.
Modi did that as well, by invoking visions of clean water and air, abundant energy and liveable cities for future generations.
I began by calling Modi's speech prime ministerial. It was the best such oration since Atal Bihari Vajpayee addressed the nation from the Red Fort in the aftermath of Kargil. Elections were announced, and that stirring oration crowned the already-soaring fortunes of the National Democratic Alliance, which had lost the confidence vote just six months prior.
The present NDA leadership must hope that Modi's latest address serves the same purpose in similar circumstances.
The lasting take-away from the speech for me is Modi's narration of how in the present day Gujarat, a smartly-uniformed aanganwadi (where children of the poor receive day care) worker greeting a visitor is the first symbol of government, and not a uniformed policeman as in the past.
I would like to believe that that conveys a lasting change of the image of the government to a caring guardian of the underprivileged from a stern enforcer of punishment to wrongdoers.
That also reminded me of what George H W Bush said in August 1988, while accepting the Republican nomination for President:
'Prosperity with a purpose means taking your idealism and making it concrete by certain acts of goodness. It means helping a child from an unhappy home learn how to read... through your presence that there's such a thing as reliable love. Some would say it's soft and insufficiently tough to care about these things. But where is it written that we must act as if we do not care, as if we are not moved? Well, I am moved. I want a kinder, gentler nation.'
Perhaps it is time to realise anew that leaders, too, evolve, as ordinary people do. That quintessential Ole Southern Gentleman, the master deal-maker nonpareil, the much vilified ogre of the Vietnam war, Lyndon Johnson, went on to become the president whose record on civil rights is next only to the Great Emancipator Abraham Lincoln. Both Ronald Reagan and our own Atal Bihari Vajpayee became respected and well-beloved leaders of their nations despite their earlier reputations as divisive, sectarian personalities.
This ancient land, lately much-tormented and agonised over leadership and trust deficits manifesting themselves in myriad ways, greatly longs for a kinder, gentler person at the helm.
Image: Narendra Modi at a retailers' convention in New Delhi on February 27, 2014. Photograph: Reuters.