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From keeping quiet on China to mentioning Chhath: The politics of PM Modi’s speech decoded

Using the element of surprise PM Narendra Modi fired a pro-poor move with an electoral spin on a day the opposition was busy attempting to corner him on the border stand-off with China and plight of the masses due to Covid-19 and economic distress.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi started his 16-minute speech, one day before Unlock 2.0 guidelines would kick in, by asking people not to go easy on social distancing and hygiene measures as lockdown restrictions are being eased across the country.

He next asked authorities to emulate Bulgaria where PM Boyko Borissov was fined Rs 13,000 for failing to wear a mask during a church visit on June 23.

Then came the main announcement of PM Modi’s address — he said that the government has decided to extend the free ration scheme for 80 crore people for five more months till the end of November.

The PM’s shortest address since lockdown 1.0 was on air exactly when a meeting of core commanders of the Indian and Chinese armies was on and Congress ex-president Rahul Gandhi was on Twitter posting couplets and video statements asking the prime minister to explain his failures, advising him to deposit Rs 7,500 in every poor man’s account and check fuel prices.

SPEECH ANNOUNCEMENT CAUSES RIPPLE OF SPECULATION

Since last night when the PMO declared PM Modi was going to address the nation at 4 pm on Tuesday, speculation was rife — will he take on China with a rousing speech or announce a tightening of screws against Chinese business interests in India or even announce a coronavirus-related measure.

Respecting the delicate nature of negotiations-cum-coercive diplomatic and military policy, PM Modi didn’t touch upon China or the high on visibility news of blocking 59 Chinese apps in India. While he mentioned the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, there was no Sabre rattling.

PM MODI EXTENDS FREE RATION SCHEME

Announcing the extension of the free foodgrain scheme for the needy till November, PM Modi said, “July marks the beginning of the festive season which increases necessities as well as expenditure. Keeping all these things in mind, it has been decided to extend the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana up to Diwali and Chhath Puja i.e. till November-end.”

He added,” The government will provide free ration to 80 crore poor brothers and sisters for five months. Every member of the family will get five kilograms of wheat or rice. Also, every family will get one-kilogram whole chana dal per month, free of cost. Rs 90,000 crore will be spent on this extension. If we add expenditure of the past three months on this scheme, then it comes to around Rs 1.5 lakh crore.”

The move according to the government will add a layer of economic security for jobless migrants and the poor who are enlisting under the MGNREGA scheme or those migrants who are heading back to economic centres but are yet to get a job.

The free foodgrain under the PMGKAY will be over and above the five kilograms of grain per month under the NFSA scheme. PM Modi emphasised that the number of people who would benefit from the announcements is over 2.5 times the population of the United States and 12 times the population of the United Kingdom.

To keep the large middle-class segment and farmers engaged he also said, “If the government is able to provide free ration to the needy and poor, then credit for it goes to two categories. One, the hard-working farmers of our country. Second, the honest taxpayers of our country.”

OPPOSITION SAYS ADDRESS HAD NO SUBSTANCE

On the other hand, the opposition wanted the prime minister to put on record facts on the stand-off with China. “The prime minister is too afraid to talk about China in his national address,” charged the Congress after the speech.

Targeting PM Modi, the Congress on Tuesday said his address lacked substance and could just “have been another government notification”.

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi took a jibe at the prime minister with an Urdu couplet — “Tu idhar udhar ki na baat kar, ye bataa ki kaafila kaise lutaa” — for not mentioning China in his address.

Congress spokesperson Supriya Shrinate accused PM Modi of doing headline management and said Modi did not look the “enemy” in the eye, which was expected of him after a bloody standoff with China in Ladakh on June 15.

“Our biggest expectation was that the PM will gather the courage and the will to look at China in the eye and reply to the enemy. Take the enemy head-on and make a very strong statement against what China is doing. But the PM once again shied away,” she said.

Bowing to people’s protests, the Modi government has extended the provision of 5 kg grains free for 80 crore people for the next five months. This falls far short of the required 10 kg per month for 6 months to all needy to prevent hunger deaths,” CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury said.

West Bengal MP and All India Trinamool Congress leader Mahua Moitra also criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 16-minute long speech, saying that he ‘walked around the Panda in the room’ and did not talk about anything useful.

PM MODI DANGLES BIHAR ELECTIONS BAIT

But the prime minister did offer a political bait. He in his speech listed the festivals that fall between July and November. He said, ”July 5 is Guru Purnima, then the month of Saawan is starting. Then August 15 is coming, Raksha Bandhan, Sri Krishna Janmashtami, Ganesh Chaturthi and Onam will follow. Further, Kati Bihu, Navratri, Durga Puja is coming, then Dussera, Diwali and Chhath Puja.”

The introduction of Chhath festival was a deliberate subtle addition that underlined that the extension of the free foodgrain scheme was a signal to over 50 lakh migrant workers, who pushed by the lack of jobs and Covid-19 fears, had undertaken long and arduous journeys back to their native places in Bihar.

Bihar goes to elections later this year and the BJP has received reports from the ground about migrant workers’ displeasure over the Centre and Bihar government’s failure to mitigate the crisis they faced.

Then his list of festivals also pushed leaders like Asaduddin Owaisi of the AIMIM to charge that the prime minister deliberately didn’t mention Eid-ul-Adha, a Muslim festival in late July.

The prime minister’s mention of the ‘One Nation, One Ration Card’ scheme which will make a ration card eligible anywhere in the country also came under fire.

Congress spokesperson Adil Singh Boparai told India Today TV, “The government has announced this scheme four times in the last three months. What’s the point of the PM mentioning a scheme which is not ready in his address to the nation?”

WHY DID THE GOVT EXTEND THE FREE RATION SCHEME?

While the government hopes that the free food grain scheme may make good politics, it does also make good economic sense.

India currently is sitting on top of a huge stockpile of foodgrains.
The nation’s granaries on the first day of June this year had about 100 million tonnes of food grain. With the Kharif crop flowing in large quantities, the government is short of space to store the essentials.

Only 40 million tonnes need to be kept as buffer stock as per government guidelines, so the redistribution of foodgrains to the needy allows the produce to be utilised optimally.

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