A Tale of Two Speeches
I have spent every 15th August that I can remember, waking up to the live telecast of the Prime Minister’s speech from the ramparts of the Red Fort in the morning and listening to patriotic Bollywood songs on loop throughout the day. This time there was a challenge to the regular routine— his widespread popularity and seemingly realistic prime ministerial ambitions meant that I was curious to listen to Narendra Modi, who was addressing an audience in Gujarat. Listening to Singh and Modi celebrate India’s glories, vent frustration at her failures, sound warnings to difficult neighbours, salute her martyrs and articulate their visions for her future, I was struck, despite the wide differences between the two, by the parallels that existed between each of their speeches and particular sentiments that certain Bollywood songs that I heard in the course of the day, were intended to arouse. The parallels do not lay any claims to objective truths, but instead are subjective mediums to convey my deep disappointment at both speeches and a ruing of the other parallels with Bollywood that could have emerged today but didn’t.
Singh’s address evoked no feeling whatsoever— the complete lack of inspiration is mirrored by my identical reactions to the hugely popular ‘Mere desh ki dharti’ from Upkar. The song is a simplistic representation of patriotism in a simplistic film that pits good brother against bad brother, noble, hard-working village India against the deceiving and traitorous urbane classes. Though sung evocatively, the song presents a romanticised, unbelievable and entirely imaginary account of rural India where everyone harvests crops rhythmically and has a permanent smile plastered on their faces. Cinematic license aside, the leitmotif of this song is an unabashed celebration of the nation, specifically the village, deliberately oblivious to its caste-ridden, faction-dominant, poverty-stricken nature. At the same time, its antara reads like a celebratory roll call of great Indians several of whom did not see eye-to-eye, a box-checking exercise to ensure that every audience member has a famous Indian to identify with and perhaps shed a tear for. In its conceptualisation and execution, the song is vapid, espousing support for a superficial and trite nationalism.
Singh’s speech was a similarly vacuous exercise. Its overriding theme was a celebration of his government’s achievement in the last decade and the Congress party’s since independence. All the tallest leaders were named, their virtues extolled, their shortcomings glossed over. Hearing his speech made me believe that all is, and has always been well in India and the little that is not will be made well through the oft-cited but seldom-found resolve, dedication and courage. Regarding the gargantuan problems that India faces today—corruption, debasement of public office, lack of respect for rights, abject poverty, there was only the briefest of token acknowledgements. Singh was like Manoj Kumar in ‘Mere desh ki dharti’ hoping to inspire the nation by mouthing trivialities. And unlike Kumar he didn’t even have either cinematic license to offer as an excuse or Mahendra Kapoor’s rich voice to spare him the blushes.
If Singh was banal, Modi was bluster. In my school-going days, the song ‘Suno gaur se duniyawalo… sabse aage hoge Hindustani’ from Dus was a massive rage. It captured the dominant mood of the nation at a time when the early fruits of liberalisation were beginning to manifest themselves—a country which was flexing its muscles on the world stage while recoiling to play victim at the slightest instigation. In its jingoism, the song was crass, urging flag-bearing Indians to repeat after the singers, an unfounded assertion of Indian superiority. Its constant frame of reference was the undefined other, who, so the song went, ought to be afraid of India and its growing might.
An analogous jingoism and crassness formed the two dominant themes of Modi’s speech. He unilaterally turned an annual Independence Day address into a slanging match with Singh, nit-picking deficiencies in the latter’s speech earlier in the day. Modi’s statements were undignified, repeatedly offering unsolicited advice to Singh on what his speech ought to have contained. In part they were also false, accusing Singh of pandering only to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty in recounting great leaders of the past, when he had very pointedly praised Narasimha Rao, the Prime Minister whose name has seemingly been airbrushed by the Congress party from its own and India’s history. His jingoism was evident in his choice of location, which he said meant that his words could be heard in Pakistan before they could be heard in Delhi, a clear indication of the aggressive brand of nationalism feeding on antipathy towards the other that he wishes to propagate. At the same time, he constantly harped on the need for fellow feeling, not because it was per se necessary for a nation, but so that the world knows of India’s strength. If Singh’s speech left me wholly uninspired about the future of India, Modi along with the regular raucous applause he drew, gave rise to grave concern about what such a future portends.
Caught between a vapid Scylla and a blustering Charybdis, I turned mid-morning to Bollywood for succour. Bollywood’s pool of patriotic songs ranges from the sublime to the mediocre, the heart-rending to the sloganeering— an eclectic mix of odes of love to the nation especially when threatened by external forces, tributes to martyrs in films made in the aftermath of, or commemorating war, jingoistic ditties when a war has been resoundingly won or the mood in the nation is upbeat, and contemporary reinterpretations of freedom struggle classics. But there is another rarely acknowledged brand of patriotic Bollywood song that does not celebrate the nation, but rues its traits, does not praise its collectivity but demonises it, does not hide its weakness but exposes it. Through a criticism of the nation and its dominant mores, it presents a competing version of nationalism, one that manifests itself not in a raucous celebration of India’s might or a vainglorious recounting of its history but rather in a deep anguish born out of an unsurpassed love for the motherland.
Sahir Ludhianvi’s ‘Jinhe naaz hai Hind par, woh kahaan hai’ from Pyaasa is, for me, the epitome of such anguished love. Though written in the 1950s, Sahir’s musings about the complete erosion of values, sheer disrespect for women and the pervasion of an unabashed immorality in a bazaar replete with brothels, have a striking resonance in India today. Akin to a gigantic cesspool of immorality, in contemporary India, the chief aspiration is material wealth, deal-making and corruption are favourite pastimes and values are an antiquated annoyance. In such a situation, nationalism can neither remain a trite appeal to solidarity against an external enemy nor can it simply re-invoke the glories of the past. Nationalism in such times of straitened values must answer Sahir’s call—those who are proud of India and what it stands for must themselves stand up against injustice and refuse to be part of the blind pursuit of wealth and fame. They must themselves realise the fundamental truth—the threat to India today arises not from without but from within.
It is disappointing, but unsurprising that neither Singh nor Modi adopted anything close to such a poignant understanding of nationalism, identifying instead with the superficialities Bollywood offers. Harking to the successes of the past and holding them out as promises for the future as Singh did is to remain deliberately blinkered to the miasma that engulfs India today. At the same time, Modi’s appeal to the baser urges of Indians, urging them to come together against the external other, provides a palliative only to the lazy, unthinking individual. Neither bluster nor banality can be an excuse for a steadfast refusal to confront the true enemy to Indianness, which lies not across the border, but in ourselves. Sahir realised this with his beautifully iconoclastic words in the heady days of post-independence India. But in the India of today his words have survived only as poetry to be heard once a year on 15th August and then forgotten.