The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Nothing more remarkable is expected of the Indian president in ceremonial speeches than a recital of ideals and encouraging noises. Mr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam’s Republic Day eve address to the nation, his first, was perfect copybook material from this point of view. He had good things to say about both people and politicians, and was particularly complimentary towards the Election Commission and the state and Central governments for having conducted free and fair elections in the states of Jammu and Kashmir and Gujarat. That voters braved hostile circumstances created by cross-border terrorism to keep in place democratic traditions he found especially laudable. The media and independent groups too came in for praise for making this kind of democratic functioning possible. In the case of Gujarat at least, such a bland celebration of democracy is hardly the whole of the story. But then, the president’s version necessarily upholds the executive’s. Apart from this feel-good picture of politics, the emphasis in the speech was on science and economics. A presidential address should present the official image of the nation that the government of the day aspires to. Hence the compliments to defence scientists and information technologists are indications of the face that the Bharat of the new millennium wishes to display to the world.

Mr Kalam’s distress at the condition of poor and drought-affected rural areas has translated into the idea of a “mega mission” to reach urban amenities to the countryside. This is only possible with better physical infrastructure, such as roads and communication networks. Such improvement, presumably, would also be needed to attract more investment, although the president’s concern was purely for the uplift of the rural poor. The inspiring talk of another “green revolution”, however, seemed a little strange. With tonnes of foodgrain and other crops rotting in storage, and farmers committing suicide on the one hand and large sections of the poor barely able to eat on the other, another 100 million tonnes of food seems rather superfluous. The Supreme Court has been urging the states to rationalize distribution of food for quite some time now, and the results are yet to show. The president has also reminded the nation and agricultural scientists that arable land will have to be reduced at the same time, suggesting that higher yielding varieties, intensive crop rotation and more effective fertilizers must be evolved. It is not clear whether the combination of better roads and overworked soil will make for a happier rural population.

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