A slip between the cup and the lip
President Kovind’s first Independence Day speech. PIC: PTI
By: Shanta Gokhale

The virtue of forgetting in the presidential speech

Over many years, but particularly the last three, we have grown used to our Prime Minister’s speeches — the characteristic rise and fall of the voice, the upraised finger, the outspread arms, the closed fist, the acidic verbal attacks, the ‘funny’ acronyms, the homilies and the emotional overtures. The performance still excites many but not all. However, on Monday, we were scheduled to hear a new voice, raising hopes that it would have something different to say. President Ram Nath Kovind was to make his first Independence Day speech and one wondered whether issues like education and healthcare, particularly in the context of the death of more than 70 children in Gorakhpur, would get a mention. If not that, whether there would at least be clarity about where the President stood on matters such as governments asking madrasas to videotape their Independence Day celebrations to convince our nationalism-drunk politicians that they too were patriotic. President Kalam was patriotic “despite being a Muslim”, remember? We forgot to ask how he had proved it to the politician who made the assertion.

However, all our hopes of clarity were dashed. Perhaps presidents aren’t supposed to speak of concrete matters. Perhaps they are expected to concentrate on generalisations and vague ideas for the future. One of the first guidelines given to writers by their teachers is to be precise. Strictly no fluff; no flab. But politicians don’t have the same responsibility towards words that writers do. Yet, some clarity is necessary even in speeches, in the interests of communication.

With Kovind’s speech, the first tumble comes over the term “New India”. What is new in today’s India when so much that is old is being dredged up from our political past to occupy our mental and media space? Make Hindi compulsory – old and found unfeasible. Protect the cow – old and found undemocratic in its extreme applications. Hoist the tricolour on Independence Day – old. Sing Vande Mataram – old and discarded in the interests of democracy. What’s really new, though, is central government’s diktats saying this or that MUST be done. Our mobiles beep every day with messages that begin, “Sarkari nirdeshanusar…”.

Naturally, there is a presidential must for New India too. “New India must include that integral humanist component that is in our DNA which has defined our country and our civilisation.” The intention here is clearly exhortative. What isn’t clear is who is to do what about it? Two words are meant to supply the clue: DNA and humanist. We understand DNA as a carrier of genetic information. We are being told that there is a DNA component that is common to all 125 crore people of this country; that this component is integral to us; that it defines us. The component is humanism. The President must mean something very different by the word than we do for us to agree that it defines us. Humanism is “a rationalistic outlook or system of thought attaching prime importance to human rather than divine or supernatural matters” (OED). Many of us wish this were true. But surely, we attach the greatest importance to the divine and the supernatural. In fact, Ram Madhav got it right when he defined the genius of our country as, “rooted in its religio-social institutions like state, family, caste, guru and festival.” Madhav did not mention humanism. That’s a foreign idea that people like Nehru picked up from the West and perpetuated here.

Perhaps the President used both “DNA” and “humanism” in a looser way than scientists and philosophers would. He probably only meant that we are basically good people who believe in being kind. Indeed, universal kindness seems to have pervaded the President’s world. In a happy recollection of life in his village, he said, when a girl got married, everybody contributed. The bride was not the daughter of one family alone but of the whole village, “regardless of caste and community”. Dalits in Bihar must have been very differently treated from Dalits in Maharashtra or anywhere else for that matter. A Dalit woman and her son were flogged in Anand two days ago for skinning cattle and creating a stink. Daya Pawar tells us in his autobiography, Baluta, that the Mahars, duty-bound to play music at village weddings, were so badly treated that they abused the hosts through their pipes using a code only they understood!

Perhaps the President wishes to forget. In a “compassionate society rushing towards the future”, remembering would be a hindrance. Sarkari nirdeshanusar, jo bhoola wohi sikander!