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Modi disappoints as he keeps mum on economic plan

Publication Date : 16-08-2014


Delivering his first Independence Day speech, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi pledged to do more to help the poor and clean up the country's bloated bureaucracy, but disappointed observers by not outlining bold, new economic reforms.

Dressed in white and wearing a bright, saffron-coloured turban, Modi broke with tradition by speaking without a script and in Hindi instead of a mix of English and Hindi as used by previous prime ministers. The event, usually reserved for VIPs, was yesterday also thrown open to thousands of members of the public. He did keep with a tradition by speaking from the ramparts of the mediaeval Red Fort, but did not have a bulletproof glass enclosure as previous prime ministers had.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong yesterday sent a congratulatory message to Modi on India's 68th Independence Day, saying he is confident the country would achieve new heights under Modi's leadership. President Tony Tan Keng Yam also sent a note of congratulations to his counterpart, Pranab Mukherjee.

In his speech yesterday, Modi said the government would open bank accounts and provide 100,000 rupees' (US$1,600) worth of accident insurance for poor Indian families under a new scheme.

He also announced the scrapping of the 64-year-old Planning Commission, a remnant of India's socialist past that draws up five-year plans and allocates funds to different sectors, to be replaced by a new body. He said the new body would have greater representation from the states and include private-public partnerships.

"The machine called government or establishment is to be made sharper and swifter for fulfilling aspirations of the people," he said.

Modi came to power in May with a strong mandate, on the back of promises to take quick decisions to solve India's economic problems, including creating new infrastructure and employment.

But after over two months in government, criticism has been growing that he has not taken any concrete steps or revealed a road map to fix the problems of a slowing economy.

Public opinion has also turned negative as prices of fruits and vegetables have soared, hurting the budget of poor and middle-class Indians.

Though he did not announce any big bang reforms as had been expected, he noted that India had to integrate with the rest of the world, hinting at a further opening up of the Indian economy.

"The world has changed. We can't think about our development journey isolated from the world," said Modi. So far, his government has announced plans and moved to open up the defence and insurance sectors.

In his speech yesterday, Modi also alluded to his modest roots as a tea seller and touched on a myriad issues, from the need of the poor to have toilets to "get dignity", to women's safety, to promoting the manufacturing sector with a "come and manufacture in India" slogan.

Addressing growing concerns about sexual violence in India, he said a recent spate of rapes was a source of shame for the country.

Political analysts said the big disappointment was that Modi failed to reveal an economic blueprint in his speech.

"The most important thing is that he has reoriented the focus towards rural India but the disappointment is that he has kept the suspense on the economic path," said Uttar Pradesh-based political analyst Sudhis Panwar. "This is not a policy speech but a more populist speech."

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