India at pivotal moment, let contentious issues not distract us: President

In his address to the nation on the eve of the 72nd Independence Day, President Ram Nath Kovind said today's India stood at the cusp of achieving many of its long-awaited goals, and appealed to citizensnot to allow “contentious issues and extraneous debates” to “distract us”.

Without referring directly to the Narendra Modi government’s various social welfare schemes, Kovind said on Tuesday India was now at a juncture that was very different from any period “we have experienced so far”.

The President said such “long-awaited goals” as “universal access to electricity, the elimination of open defecation, the elimination of homelessness, the very elimination of extreme poverty is achievable and attainable”.

“We are at a pivotal moment. Let contentious issues and extraneous debates not distract us,” Kovind said. The Modi government has launched ambitious schemes to achieve each of the goals the President mentioned.

The President also appealed to his fellow Indians to mark the 150th birth anniversary celebrations of Mahatma Gandhi by devoting themselves to the ideals that the Father of the Nation lived by – swacchta (cleanliness), swadeshi and ahimsa (non-violence). The yearlong celebrations will begin on October 2.

Last year’s Independence Day eve speech by the President, his first after assuming office, had mentioned Gandhi and several other freedom fighters and national builders. This year's speech didn’t mention any other than Gandhi – indicative of the Modi government’s plan to celebrate the 150 birth anniversary celebrations of the Mahatma with much fanfare. The PM has constituted a committee to coordinate the celebrations.

In his last year’s speech, the President had acknowledged the contributions of Rani Chennamma of Kittur, Rani Lakshmibai of Jhansi, Matangini Hazra, Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad, Ram Prasad Bismil, Ashfaqullah Khan, Birsa Munda, Subhas Chandra Bose, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel and B R Ambedkar, and had also alluded to the civilizational influence of the teachings of Gautam Buddha.

As in his last year’s speech, Kovind spoke of the contributions of farmers, armed forces, police and paramilitary personnel in upholding India’s freedom. The President said the expansion of freedom in India “in many senses amounts to the expansion of freedom for women in our country.” Kovind said the government facilitated credit for women-run enterprises and start-ups, and by the easier availability of LPG to millions of kitchens and millions of homes.

The President said in four years, India will be marking the 75th anniversary of Independence. In his Independence Day addresses, the PM had also spoken of building a ‘new India’ by 2022, the 75th anniversary of Independence.

Kovind said in less than 30 years, Indians will celebrate the 100th anniversary of India as a free nation. “The decisions we take today, the foundations we lay today, the projects we undertake today, the social and economic investments we make today – whether for the immediate future or for the medium term – will determine where we stand,” the President said.

Kovind spoke at some length about the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan that he said was taking seven flagship programmes to the very doorstep of the poorest and the most deprived among our fellow citizens. “These services include access to electricity, access to the formal banking system, access to welfare and insurance programmes, and access to immunisation in hitherto hard-to-reach areas,” the President said, highlighting the Modi government’s recent focus on ensuring that its schemes reach rural areas, particularly Dalit and tribal communities.

The President said the Gram Swaraj Abhiyan had been extended to 117 "aspirational districts where, seven decades after Independence, we still have stark gaps in the development narrative”. Kovind said “not surprisingly there is a significant overlap between the populations of these districts and historically weaker communities, such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes”.

The President described Gandhi not just as the leader of India’s freedom struggle, but someone who is “still is our moral compass”. “He is the embodiment of India,” Kovind said. The President said many were “puzzled” when Gandhi advocated cleanliness. Kovind said for the Mahatma the freedom struggle was not just for political power but for empowering the poorest of the poor, educating the uneducated, ensuring the right to a dignified life and a feasible livelihood for every village, for every neighbourhood, for every family – and for every individual.

Kovind said Gandhi spoke of swadeshi with “an uncommon zeal”. He said Gandhi’s concept of swadeshi “is still relevant to us as we engage with the world – whether for our economy, our health, education and social aspirations, or our policy choices.”

The President said Gandhi’s most noble mantra was of ahimsa, or non-violence. “The power to stay your hand is far greater than the power to strike with your hand and hinsa (violence) has no place in the society,” Kovind said. The President appealed to the people to follow "Gandhi’s ideas and maxims, in whatever manner we can, in our everyday work and conduct". “I can think of no better way to celebrate our freedom. I can think of no better way to celebrate Indianness,” he said.

The President also urged students to spend a few days – maybe four or five days in a year – in a village. “Undertaken as part of what may be termed “University Social Responsibility”, this will help students understand our country,” Kovind said.

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