James Crabtree in Prospect:
Narendra Modi stood on the walls of New Delhi’s Red Fort on a blustery morning last August, a man at the height of his recently-acquired powers. It was his first Independence Day speech, and also the first given by an Indian Prime Minister born after the end of colonial rule in 1947. Coming just a few short months after his thumping victory in national elections in May, it provided Modi with the most prominent stage afforded to any Indian leader to outline his plans for the nation.
Not a man known for modesty, he began humbly enough, painting himself “not as the Prime Minister, but as the Prime Servant.” Dressed in a white kurta and flamboyant, flowing red polka-dot turban, he stressed his separation from India’s establishment, too: “Brothers and sisters, I am an outsider for Delhi… I have no idea about the administration and working of this place.” His hands jabbing the air for emphasis, he even made brief nods toward harmony between India’s many religions, and the importance of the rights of women—mentions that drew modest praise from anxious liberals worried that Modi might prove to be a right-wing firebrand, in hoc to the Hindu nationalist base of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Beyond the showmanship, there were hints of substance. As wind whipped around the ramparts, Modi laid out themes that would define his early period in power: an economic revival after years of stagnation; transforming India into a Chinese-style manufacturing powerhouse; and a focus on the concerns of the poor, from building toilets to sprucing up squalid streets. Yet on one issue—indeed, perhaps the most important that lay behind his electoral landslide—Modi had surprisingly little to say: corruption.