NEW DELHI - In his maiden speech to Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi put the emphasis on consensus, calling on political parties and all Indian states to join hands and push development even though his Bharatiya Janata Party won a landslide victory in elections.
Seeking to counter sceptics, he said yesterday that his new government would spare no effort to fulfil a slew of promises to boost the economy and improve governance, in a speech aimed largely at domestic audiences.
Mr Modi also used the occasion to make his first comments on the barbaric rape and murder of two Dalit girls two weeks ago. The girls, who were only 12 and 14 years old, were hung from a tree in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh. The crime has outraged the country, and the Prime Minister sharply criticised the politicisation of such horrors.
"I appeal to the politicians of the country to stop psychoanalysing rape as it does not reflect well on us," he said, sounding agitated. "Respecting and protecting women should be the priority of the 1.25 billion people of this country."
Several politicians, including from his own party, have made insensitive and controversial remarks after the attacks.
Mr Modi's speech - his first after he was sworn in last month - came at the end of two days of discussion in Parliament of the ceremonial address by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee to the new MPs on Monday.
The President's speech was a statement of intent of the new government to fix the economy, boost investment and infrastructure, and curb inflation, among others. Although it set no clear deadlines, some opposition MPs have questioned how the government proposes to fulfil the promises, considering its term lasts only five years.
Mr Modi's government has to fight stubborn inflation, especially food prices, boost the pace of growth that has fallen below 5 per cent, revive the investment cycle, and give a major push to infrastructure in Asia's third-largest economy.
"It has been asked that you have said so many things, how will you do it? When will you do it?" Mr Modi said in Hindi. "It is natural for such questions to be raised. It is natural to doubt because this has not happened until now. But I want to assure this House that we will spare no effort to fulfil the promises made in the President's speech."
Without giving specifics, Mr Modi reaffirmed his government's vows to eliminate poverty, fight malnutrition, boost the skills of young people and create jobs for them, and to improve India's standards of cleanliness and hygiene. He added he would do it with the help of the opposition.
"Whatever numbers I may have here, I don't want to move forward without you," he said, pointing to the opposition benches. "We don't want to work on the strength of numbers, but on the strength of unity."
Referring to India's battle against corruption and the need to equip its large young population with skills, he said: "India's identity in the world right now is 'Scam India'. We need to change it to 'Skilled India'. We need to focus on skill development."
Mr B. G. Verghese, a professor at the Centre for Policy Research, said Mr Modi had made all the right noises in his maiden speech in Parliament.
"He said he is the prime minister of all the people," he said. "That he will treat the opposition with dignity and listen to all opinions. Now let us wait and see how it goes."
This article was first published on June 12, 2014.
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