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What Vajpayee & Manmohan Singh said in the last Independence Day speeches of their terms

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Modi’s two predecessors stressed on foreign policy, infrastructure and rural welfare.

New Delhi: As Prime Minister Narendra Modi gives finishing touches to the last Independence Day of his current term — crucial coming just months ahead of the next Lok Sabha polls — he would want to make sure it effectively summarises what his government believes to be its achievements, while making a pitch for re-election.

The term’s last Independence Day speeches have been key platforms for successive prime ministers to lay out the defining political, social and strategic thrusts of their governments, and set the campaign tone for their parties.

Modi’s two predecessors — Bharatiya Janata Party’s Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress’ Manmohan Singh (who served two consecutive terms) — used the final Independence Day speeches of their terms to underline their respective legacies as PM.

Vajpayee’s foreign policy, domestic infrastructure focus

Vajpayee, who managed to complete a full term in 2004 after two previous failed attempts, defined his tenure with key strategic affairs high-points like the Pokharan nuclear test, the Kargil war and the peace process with Pakistan. On the domestic front, his focus was on building infrastructure, particularly roads.

It was no surprise, therefore, that his 2003 Red Fort speech — coming just months ahead of the 2004 Lok Sabha polls which his government chose to advance — was a narrative with built on foreign policy and domestic infrastructure.

Also read: What would Vajpayee have thought of Narendra Modi’s ‘muscular’ policy?

In his speech, Vajpayee spent significant time on national security and foreign policy.

“Our frequent initiatives to normalise relations with Pakistan are not a sign of our weakness; rather, they are an indication of our commitment to peace. In recent months, there has been some progress in normalising relations with Pakistan. Nevertheless, terrorist activities are still continuing. The test of our neighbour’s sincerity lies in whether he is prepared to stop cross-border terrorism totally,” he said.

On Kashmir, the former PM took the hardline his party has always advocated.

“Those people who, while talking about Kashmir, advocate the right to self-determination, wish to divide India on communal lines for the second time. They will not be allowed to succeed in this,” he said.

Vajpayee made a fervent pitch for his government’s infrastructure creation, talking about increased telephone, gas, and mobile connections. He laid special emphasis on roads, his primary focus, as he talked about his government’s flagship rural roads programme Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana (PMGSY) as well as the National Highway Development Project.

“We are all aware of the poor condition of our roads. Even fifty years after Independence, there were nearly two lakh villages, which were unconnected by proper roads. For the first time, the Centre has started the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana to connect them with good roads… In the first five decades of Independence, only 550 kilometers of four-lane highways were built. In other words, only 11 kilometers a year. Now, we will build 24,000 kilometers of highways at the rate of 11 kilometers a day,” Vajpayee said.

Launch of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan and the Mid-Day Meal programme’s expansion were also integral parts of his speech as was the focus on ‘Young India’, understanding their dreams and giving them guidance.

The Vajpayee government fought the 2004 elections on the slogan of ‘India Shining’, hoping to ride on the back of their infrastructure push and youth emphasis. The campaign, however, backfired and the BJP had to face defeat in the polls.

Vajpayee’s term as PM also saw the violent Gujarat riots under a BJP government in the state. To balance out the hardline Hindutva agenda of his party, Vajpayee attempted to project himself as a moderate and a statesman as PM.

“India is a multi-religious nation. It is against both its nature and culture to practice discrimination or to do injustice to anybody on the grounds of faith. We should always care for the minorities and be attentive towards their welfare,” he said in his speech.

Known for his love for poetry, Vajpayee ended his speech in his trademark style — with a poem.

Manmohan Singh’s 2008 rural push

“We have given a new deal to rural India,” Singh said, minutes into his 2008 speech, summing up his government’s tenure.

The Congress-led UPA-I under Singh was sharply defined by its pro-rural, pro-welfare image. With the Left as an ally and a heavy civil society influence, UPA- I drafted some marquee welfare policies.

Singh spoke at length about his government’s rural initiatives — Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (debt relief to farmers), National Food Security Mission (investments in agriculture), Bharat Nirman (to build rural infrastructure), the National Rural Health Mission (health scheme), Aam Aadmi Bima Yojana (to insure landless rural families), and most importantly, his government’s rural employment flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA). He also mentioned his government was working on a restructured rehabilitation and resettlement policy for land acquisition, which it eventually brought in during its second term in 2011.

Also read: Doubling farmers’ income is another Modi jumla, it would need 12% growth: Manmohan Singh

“Every child belonging to a family of SC, ST, OBC and all minorities, every single child, boy or girl, must have access to modern education,” Singh said, reiterating his government’s social welfare focus, while also talking about governance reforms like the Right to Information Act.

Singh’s pet agenda was the Indo-US nuclear deal over which his government even had to face a no-confidence vote in Parliament after the Left parties withdrew support in protest. The former PM made it a point to underscore the benefits of the nuclear agreement his government was “negotiating with developed countries”.

On Kashmir, Singh took his party’s signature measured stance.

“The recent incidents in the state of Jammu and Kashmir are a cause for concern. In this hour of crisis, divisive politics will lead us nowhere. I appeal to all political parties to keep the long term interests of Jammu and Kashmir in view and come together to find a permanent solution to the problems of the state,” he said.

On foreign relations, Singh emphasised his government’s objective of a peaceful, stable neighbourhood.

Singh’s 2013 last-ditch attempt

Singh’s UPA-II government was vastly different from UPA-I. Even as the government tried to project a pro-welfare image, allegations of massive corruption through different scams and crony capitalism dented it significantly leading to a rout for the Congress in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

His party’s vulnerability in the face of widespread criticism of the government’s policy paralysis and rampant corruption could be sensed in the defensive stance Singh took in his last Independence Day address as PM. He began his speech by denoting significant time to laying out the contribution of the Congress party to the country’s development over the decades. He listed out decade-wise achievements of Congress regimes under former PMs Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and even P.V. Narasimha Rao, while claiming the last decade had been a “decade of major changes”.

Also read: Millennials’ wishlist for PM Modi on Independence Day – Act more, speak less

“In no other decade has our economic development increased as much as in this decade. Democratic forces have been strengthened and many sections of our society have joined the mainstream of development for the first time. The common man has been given new rights which have led to his social and economic empowerment,” Singh said, laying out his party’s vision to “build a progressive and modern India,” thus summarising what the Congress hoped to go to the voters with for its two-term record.

Talking about the food security law, enhanced support prices for various crops, MGNREGA, Right to Education and the Rashtriya Swasthya Bima Yojana, Singh reiterated his party’s pro-welfare inclination.

Drowning under allegations of corruption and poor governance, Singh made a last-ditch attempt to portray his party as being pro-transparency, talking about RTI and the Lokpal bill.

“This legislation (Lokpal bill) will be a major step towards making our political system clean… We have recently taken many steps to speed up the process of government clearances for industry, build an environment more conducive to trade and industry and increase investment in the economy,” he said.

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