One of the most remarkable things about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day speeches, ever since he has become PM in 2014, has been the way he has been picking up topics that are considered taboo by Indian society but need to be discussed for the sake of promoting cleanliness, hygiene and good health. In 2014, for the first time in India’s history, a Prime Minister talked about toilets and the need to maintain hygiene, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, and that marked the stepping stone to one of the most popular campaigns of his government, Swachh Bharat. In 2020 as well, the Prime Minister broke boundaries by talking about the availability of sanitary napkins in poorer and rural areas and the importance of women’s health. The topic has been picked up by the Hindi film industry earlier, but coming from the Prime Minister, it has the potential to do a lot of good in terms of awareness. What was also remarkable was the wide range of subjects covered in the 90-minute address to the nation. From the border clash to laying of optical fibre, to infrastructure building, to Atma Nirbhar Bharat, to security and neighbourhood policy—it was a case of going from local to global. In terms of neighbourhood policy in particular, there is no doubt that at a time when China is trying to encircle India by extending its tentacles to all of India’s neighbouring countries, South Asia should take one of the front seats in government’s policymaking.
This is needed not just to counter China, but also to ensure the prosperity of the region as a whole, the reason why SAARC was formed, but could not make any headway. It is in this context India extending a soft loan to Maldives last week has to be seen. This is proactive foreign policy with a humane face—this is uniquely Indian and a huge contrast to China’s debt-trap diplomacy. The neighbourhood too is realising that India is too big and too important a presence in South Asia to be ignored, and China’s sole interest in them is strategic, surrounding India, but the process entails making vassal states out of them. Hence, the Bangladesh High Commissioner’s statement on the occasion of India’s Independence Day that his country wants to participate in Atma Nirbhar Bharat programme should be welcomed. Bangladesh realises that Atma Nirbhar Bharat has the potential to be a game-changer not just for India but the whole region, especially when several companies with manufacturing bases in China are looking for alternate locations to shift to. If they select India as a venue, this in turn can create an ecosystem where the whole of South Asia can benefit—barring Pakistan, for its establishment has too much animus against India and is too deep in China’s pocket for it to extricate itself from there. But for this to happen, several steps need to be taken to clean our own Augean stables that go by the name of the “steel frame”—the bureaucracy, which is, as a rule, both unwieldy and status quoist. While under PM Modi, India’s ease of doing business ranking has been getting better, the bureaucrats still “excel” in perpetuating mediocrity and erecting hurdles in implementation of path-breaking policy—take the GST implementation, for instance. This must change. The message from the Red Fort was one of forward-looking dynamism and laid out a blueprint that must succeed on the ground to bring India out of the economic gloom that has enveloped the country in these hard times. It is incumbent on everyone involved in the system that the vision of the PM is actualised.