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A RITUAL FORETOLD

Speeches on ceremonial occasions by the president or the prime minister are imbued with more optimism than reality yet warrants.

Every nation invents its own tradition. There is a contradictory ring to the phrase invention of tradition. Yet historians have shown that many of the political traditions that are considered old are of relatively recent origin. The two days that the Indian republic has endowed with an aura of ritual are Independence Day and Republic Day. These are occasions on which the head of state and the head of government speak to the people of India. It is significant that on August 15, the prime minister of the republic of India speaks to the country from the Red Fort which, if anything, is a symbol of monarchy and empire. This only illustrates the point about the invention of tradition. A royal tradition has been refashioned to meet the needs of a republic. Not surprisingly, the speech by the prime minister, Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee, this year on Independence Day had all the pious and correct statements that all previous prime ministers have expressed on a similar occasion. He spoke of the need for preserving India’s unity and integrity and called this “the most important message of independent India”. The force of this statement loses some of its edge when read together with the pre-Independence Day address of Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the president of India. The president warned against the undue attention being accorded to the building of temples and mosques. This is not only deflecting attention from vital issues of governance but also threatening the unity of India which Mr Vajpayee thinks is critical.

Mr Vajpayee spoke about a resurgence in India. The resurgence, assuming there is one, cannot be based on words and emotions alone. This is where Mr Kalam’s underlining of the nation’s core competencies are germane. The resurgence, if it is to be sustained, has to be based on substantial economic achievements. Mr Kalam rightly emphasized the goal of reaching an 8 per cent growth rate in about a year. The only path open to attain this goal is the path of increased liberalization and globalization. The government of the day, whatever be its political ideology, must make this its primary focus. The economic reforms programme, which was initiated in 1992 and carried forward by the present government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, should not be delayed or derailed because of political or populist compulsions. Both the prime minister and the president spoke of the economic performance of the country but neither recognized that the principal obstacle to economic growth is the absence of political will.

The speeches made by Messrs Kalam and Vajpayee were imbued with optimism. This perhaps cannot be avoided given the nature of the occasion. But the occasion also demands that the optimism be laced with a good dose of realism. For the millions of people in the villages who live in the shadow of under-nourishment, poverty, illiteracy and non-existent health services, there is very little to be optimistic about. Their sense of reality and their ability to cope with it is mixed with an enormous amount of fatalism which is also the bane of enterprise and initiative. Maybe it is time to invent a new style of making speeches on these ritual occasions.

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