Prime Minister Narendra Modi tends to speak. A lot. So it can be hard to keep track of everything that he is saying. When Modi is out on the campaign trail, as he was over the last weeks leading up to assembly elections in four states, he can be reasonably predictable: attack, joke, offer an acronym or two and then promise acche din (without using that phrase any more). Every once in a while, though he will deliver a speech with more substance to it.
His talk on Saturday at the Simhasth Kumbh in Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, is one such address. It may not have made headlines because it features no reference to news traders, Jawaharlal Nehru or Somalia. But the speech is interesting in particular for a couple of points that tell us plenty about Modi's approach to governance, or at least the narrative he would prefer to build.
The prime minister was speaking at the Ujjain Kumbh, a spiritual gathering that occurs every 12 years on the banks of Kshipra, with millions of people flocking to take a dip in the river. The Madhya Pradesh government has sought to use this year's Kumbh to revive the concept of a shastrarth, where important social issues of the day are discussed and debated.
Modi chose to focus his talk on Indian traditions and culture, and how these evolve. For a politician who has seen a lot of violence and ideological battles over the course of his career, Modi made an interesting assertion about India.
"We are such a society, full of variations, and sometimes for outsiders that may look like conflict. But this conflict management that the world conducts so many seminars on, it still hasn't found a way out. We have been taught inherent conflict management. That's why we don't think of going to either of the extremes. We pray to lord Ram, who did exactly as his father told him, and to Prahlad, who treated his father's instructions with contempt...
This is how we are, and it is because we are not bound by stubbornness. We are a people with philosophy and a vision."
Some of this is classic Modi. Question the jargon of the outside world, talking of conflict management here, while insisting that Indian traditions offer the solution for these problems. Modi's assertion that Indians have been taught "inherent conflict management" might come as a bit of a shock to anyone who lived through a riot or has experience state abuse, not to mention the daily conflict you can witness on Twitter or our TV screens.
The prime minister followed this up by talking of values, and here his speech is a little more interesting.
"Call it ignorance or an inferiority complex, but whenever there is a big crisis or controversy, we run away from the matter saying this is our tradition. Today, the world no longer accepts such an explanation.
We will have to present our ways to the world in a scientific manner."
Modi gave specific examples of how Indian culture has adapted to the times in the past, and called on the people at the Kumbh to continue being a part of that process. He spoke of how the people who fall back on tradition in the past would say that it is wrong for rishis or saints to cross the seas, and that Indians should avoid going abroad.
That was also our tradition, but times have changed. Today, if a saint wants to spread his gospel, he crosses all the seas to do so. Traditions are not an obstacle for him, and if that is the case, why should traditions become an obstacles on other matters?
It is all of our duty to ensure that, as times change and society changes, we do not allow unscientific ways to remain only in the name of tradition. And if we perform this duty, I believe we can find solutions to our problems.
Modi blamed a "holier than thou" attitude for preventing the world from being able to solve the major international concerns of global warming and terrorism, and said expansionist thinking leads people nowhere. Some of this may of course be aimed at an international audience, especially considering Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena was present at the speech.
But the examples given, specifically of rishis not traveling abroad in the past, suggest Modi's audience is closer home as well. In this time of debate about whether women should be allowed into temples, a speech at the Kumbh calling on the people to present their approaches in a scientific manner that doesn't use tradition as an excuse is an inherently interesting message.
What follow is again classic Modi. The prime minister says that Indians don't know how to market themselves, allowing the world to focus only on the naga sadhus at the Kumbh, when the real story is of the stupendous logistical and infrastructural organisation that goes into such an event.
"We need to present ourselves to the world in the language that it understands. This is the need of the hour. If we only talk about India to ourselves, then the world will not embrace us. In whatever language the world will understand, through whatever arguments and reasoning they will understand, we must make efforts to present ourselves.
Branding, as always with Modi, is front and center. Yet to use the branding argument to make the case that tradition is not an excuse for unscientific approaches and, moreover, to make that case at the Kumbh's shastrarth is an interesting choice from a prime minister, whose party and supporters don't exactly conform to the same approach.
The full speech can be read here (Hindi only).