Although it was intended to signal the end of Modi’s silence on critical issues, the interview with Arnab Goswami has only served to create a denser fog around the government.
New Delhi: Two years after assuming power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi gave his first television interview to Times Now. The interview marked the first time the prime minister was addressing the apprehensions of the public, amidst rising criticisms against the government over soaring food prices, rising unemployment and a failure to act upon his poll-time promises.
The interview also comes at a time when a kind of despair against his government is palpable on the ground. Many of Modi’s ministers and party members have addressed the growing concerns of the aam aadmi for a while now, but the prime minister, who is known to be a vocal leader, had chosen to remain silent. His decision to do a closed-room interview with a friendly channel instead of holding a press conference is therefore being considered as the last defensive tactic and a sign of nervousness by many political observers.
Despite the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) winning the 2014 general election with a comprehensive majority, its vote shares have dropped steeply in all state elections since, except Kerala. The losses in Bihar and Delhi have not gone down well in the party ranks. It is in this political context that Modi’s interview is being seen as the BJP’s biggest defensive move in the past two years and as a clear departure from its aggressive stances.
However, at the end of a 90-minute chat with Arnab Goswami, editor of Times Now, Modi left many with a sense of dissatisfaction, especially on socio-economic matters. Modi touched upon a range of issues but could not provide a convincing answer to many pertinent problems that plague the country at present.
Modi repeatedly stressed on one aspect of his government – vikas (development) – and likely expected this to flatten the socio-economic tensions that are gradually taking shape on the ground. For almost every question on communalism, unemployment, inflation and action against bank defaulters, the prime minister did not have a direct and a clear-cut answer. He decided to rely on his usual rhetorical style to skirt the issues. While Modi gave the impression that he was aware of the criticisms, he never really accepted there was a problem even as he chose to address them in his own way.
Consider this: to a question on his experience as the prime minister, Modi talked about his government’s commitment to the poor, but with an unprecedented caution. “The Delhi environment was new to me. The work of the government of India was also new for me. But despite that, in such a short time, the pace at which the country has moved forward, and it’s not on one subject. You can pick up any aspect of the government’s functioning, and if you make a comparison with the past governments, then you will realise that no issue has been ignored…The big challenge was to inject new trust into the system and create confidence among the citizens. It is very difficult to evaluate this from the outside but I have gone through it”.
Clearly, the prime minister is aware of the growing disillusionment against him among the poor – the majority in the electorate. Modi refrained from making a big claim and answered with some degree of accountability, perhaps for the first time.
Whether this was a sign of being apologetic or another tactic of realpolitik is subject to interpretation. But Modi’s answers clearly reflect the fact that the government needs to do much more than what it has so far.
Many answers, but silence reigned
In the present-day game of political perceptions, five central criticisms against Modi have been heard often. One, that Modi has too little time to focus on domestic problems as he is frequently travelling abroad; two, his poll promise of depositing Rs 15 lakh in every bank account by bringing back the huge sums of black money stashed away in foreign lands remains unfulfilled. BJP president Amit Shah has already dismissed the promise as an election jumla; three, the government is seen as ill-equipped to handle rising food and oil prices; Four, many of his ministers and party members have openly flouted constitutional norms to make derogatory remarks against minorities, especially Muslims; and five, job generation has been stagnant over the past two years. Modi, who has maintained a silence on this issues, was expected to clarify his position during the interview.
Let us see how Modi chose to answer these apprehensions.
Despite there being hardly any direct questions regarding these issues, Modi addressed them whenever he could. On his frequent foreign trips, he said, “The world didn’t know me. The world wants to know who the head of the state is. If someone would want to know Modi through the eyes of the media, then he would be disillusioned on which modi is the real Modi. If this happens, the country will be at a loss. Modi’s personality shouldn’t be a hindrance for the world to have faith in India. But for that unless I meet all those leaders and engage them them one to one, unless I speak to them frankly, they wouldn’t know about India’s head of state, so it was very important for me as I am not from a political family. I never had the opportunity to meet the world leaders earlier”. His justification was hinged on an indirect attack on the Gandhi family, clearly trying to score a point against a dysfunctional Congress.
On the issues of black money and wilful defaulters, Modi once again gave a convoluted reply, pointing to the malfunctioning of the previous UPA regime. “How did the black money issue arise and how did it become such a serious issue? We have to look at the background. It is an established fact in the minds of the common man those who steal money park their money overseas. It’s a common perception. Even if I look at it from the common man’s perspective, I also wonder where does this money go? This issue was always stalled in the parliament. When the matter reached the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court ordered Special Investigation Team to look into it, even then the previous government stalled it for three years, from 2011-2014.”
He also dismissed the opposition’s criticisms of his promise to deposit Rs 15 lakh in every account in a single sentence. “That is something the opposition raises during elections. Let them have some issue to talk about,” he said, with an utter disregard for parliamentary democracy in which the government has to mandatorily address the concerns of the opposition.
But the worst was yet to come. Modi blamed the two-year drought and the inaction of the state governments for the rising food prices, completely ignoring the fact that his government acknowledged the drought only after sustained pressure from civil society. “You see the fast pace at which prices were rising under the previous government, today that speed has decelerated a lot. You can see the statistics; you will find it there. Second, the country has gone through two consecutive years of severe drought. Drought has a direct impact on the price of vegetables, food and pulses because all these things are produced from the soil. Now when there is such a big drought, it’s not in anybody’s hands. The second option in such a situation is imports. The Indian government has imported pulses in huge quantities. Third, it is the joint responsibility of the state and Central governments. It is not exclusively the state’s responsibility. It is not exclusively the Centre’s responsibility. It is the joint responsibility of both the state and Central governments.”
On the question of his ministers making communal remarks, Modi had this to say: “I would like to tell the media not to make heroes out of those people who make such comments…Don’t make them heroes, they will stop.” Completely evading the question, Modi extended his silence on the issue of communalism, and instead put forward the idea of vikas as the solution to this problem.
The most round-about answer he gave was on the issue of employment.
“The first thing is that are 800 million people below the age of 35 in our country. We have to accept that the demand for jobs is very high. But where will they get employment? Investment will come in. It will be used in the infrastructure sector, manufacturing and services sector. Now like the initiative we have taken, we have started the Mudra Yojna. More than three crore people in the country comprise washermen, barbers, milkman, newspaper vendors, cart vendors. We have given them nearly 1.25 lakh crore rupees without any guarantee. Now why have these people taken the money? To expand their work. When he expands his work, if he is currently employing one person, now he has to employ two people. If there were two employed earlier, now there are three. Now just think, when three crore of these small businesses have got access to finance, they must have expanded their work. Now all this is not in the Labour Department’s registration. Three crore people have expanded their work. We took another small decision. The big malls in the country run 365 days a year but the smaller shops have to close on holidays. We announced in the budget that even a small shopkeeper can operate his shop till late night and that too on all the seven days of the week. If the malls don’t have restrictions, then why should the small shopkeepers have restrictions. So now if a shopkeeper operates his shop till late and on all seven days, if he earlier employed one person, now he will have to employ two people. So won’t the employment increase?”
“Now we are saying that by 2022 we want to ensure that everyone has a house. Housing sector has the maximum potential for creating employment. Houses will be built in such huge numbers; how many people will get employment? You must have seen that last year we brought in a textile policy. Under this textile policy, there will be income tax benefits for those who create employment. The more employment one creates, the more tax benefits they will get. For the first time, employment generation and tax has been linked. These are the things that boost employment and our central focus is creating employment for the ordinary citizen,” he added.
Stressing that his government has been focusing on encouraging entrepreneurship, Modi made it clear that the government could only facilitate the creation of jobs by attracting foreign investment and could not directly generate jobs. His plan for employment generation depends crucially on the economy growing. The irony is that while his method of generating employment is speculative, his doles to the big corporates, such as tax holidays, concessions and land distribution, is direct and concrete.
Where is the middle ground Modi advocated so fiercely in his criticism of UPA policies during his election campaign? While most of his defence revolved around the deep pit of problems that the Congress government has created for him, Modi failed to illustrate clearly and concretely the positive impact schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, Skill India campaign and the Smart Cities Initiatives have had in the last two years.
When he could not lay the blame at the Congress’s feet, Modi blamed natural calamities and the limitations of the federal structure for his government’s inaction on many issues. And where he decided to showcase his government’s achievements, it was, at best, half-hearted and unconvincing. The government, as Modi’s interview reflected, refuses to take full accountability of the existing problems. Some would say it is still in campaign mode while being in power – exactly the same criticism that the BJP has mounted against the Aam Aadmi Party.
If Modi believes in communal harmony, why did he not crack the whip against ministers like Mahesh Sharma, BJP parliamentarians like Yogi Adityanath and sundry Sangh parivar hatemongers like Sadhvi Prachi? Why have the prices of food not come down despite the import of food commodities, as Modi claims? Why has the government failed to provide relief to farmers affected by drought? Why, despite the hype around his schemes, are there negative statistical reports floating around?
These are only some questions the interviewer could have asked but did not. Although meant to break Modi’s silence on critical issues, the interview only served to create a denser fog around the government. The usually hostile Goswami let Modi have the last say. In all likelihood, the interview themes were probably vetted by the prime minister’s office. Whatever the case, in the end, it was unclear whether the interviewer was representing the public or the PMO and if Modi was genuinely seeking to address the people’s concerns or score political points against the opposition.