Prime minister Narendra Modi warned last Saturday (15) that corruption was eating away at India “like a termite” as he used an independence day speech to pledge his commitment to eradicating graft and poverty.
In an address from Delhi’s Red Fort, Modi sought to silence growing doubts about his leadership after key reforms stalled in a rancorous parliament session dogged by allegations of corruption involving some of his top lieutenants.
Modi also warned against the “poison” of communalism in a wide-ranging speech that lasted for more than an hour.
But it was his comments on the dangers posed by corruption that drew most attention, including his admission that the problem went right to the top.
“I want to reaffirm that this nation will get rid of corruption. We can rid the country of corruption, we have to start from the top,” said Modi.
“Corruption is like a termite, it spreads slowly, reaches everywhere, but it can be beaten with timely injections.”
Modi’s speech comes after some of the most senior figures in his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) became embroiled in corruption scandals, including foreign minister Sushma Swaraj and the chief ministers of Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh states.
The scandals have been particularly embarrassing as Modi’s election win last year was built in part on a pledge to clean up government after a series of scams under the previous Congress administration.
Modi said there had been no cases of money being siphoned off on his watch and that a new law on declaring income had led to the disclosure of around one billion dollars in hitherto hidden assets which will now be liable to tax.
Other economic reforms, however, have snagged in parliament, including a national sales tax that the government sees as crucial to firing up growth.
While the economy is growing at around 7.5 per cent, it still needs to pick up pace to elevate the hundreds of millions of people still mired in poverty in the world’s second most populous nation.
The prime minister, who has been accused of being too close to big business, portrayed himself as a champion of the poor by promising to help farmers and lower-caste dalits, formerly known as untouchables.
Modi set a 1,000-day deadline for every village in India to get electricity, urging state governments which are responsible for power to ensure every community is finally linked to the national grid.
“Even after so many decades of independence there are 18,500 villages in India which do not have electricity,” he said.
“I appeal to the states and all other stakeholders to connect these villages with electricity system within 1,000 days.”
Modi said he had striven to enable 170 million people to open bank accounts for the first time under a government-run scheme.
“The poor are at bottom of the pyramid of development and we have to strengthen the base of the pyramid. If they are empowered, no one can stop us,” said Modi who came to power in May last year.
Modi’s first August 15 address from the fort’s ramparts drew praise from across the political spectrum as he tackled issues such as sexual violence and a lack of toilets.
But 12 months on, problems are mounting up for the usually bullish prime minister and his opponents were in no mood to be generous this time round.
Manish Tewari, information minister in the Congress government, said Modi failed to address the corruption allegations raised in parliament, accusing him of lacking the “moral authority” to tell his lieutenants to quit.
“He didn’t tell the country in his lengthy speech why the entire session of parliament was wasted,” Tewari told reporters.
Mohan Guruswamy, who heads the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Alternatives think tank, said Modi had set himself an impossible task in pledging to completely eradicate corruption as it was endemic at every level of officialdom.
“The common man doesn’t care so much about people at the top gobbling up millions but they are concerned about whether a policeman or another government official is taking bribes from them,” Guruswamy said.
“If that doesn’t stop, nothing is going to change.”
According to a new poll conducted for the private ABP television network, 59 per cent of respondents feel Modi has not kept his promise of a corruption-free government.