Jio aur Jeene Do – live and let live. That’s the only way to describe the peculiar manner in which the two most powerful men in India scratched each other’s backs last week.
If Narendra Modi did Mukesh Ambani a favour by allowing his name and image to be used in advertisements across the country selling Reliance Jio’s new mobile telephone service, the top industrialist was equally generous in giving the prime minister a platform across the TV channels he owns to speak at length about his accomplishments. Modi’s 75-minute interview – broadcast across Ambani’s Network18, including the widely-watched multi-language ETV channel – was classic soft-soap, with plenty of questions that played to the prime minister’s agenda with no follow-ups and none that were in the least probing.
This is the third interview Modi has given to the Indian media since he became prime minister and the pattern that has emerged is now clear. Either the PMO has been setting very restrictive ground rules on what can and can’t be asked, or Indian journalism simply ain’t what it ought to be. No one expects Hard Talk-style combativeness from editors interviewing the prime minister but the failure to ask Modi proper questions on subjects that have animated public discourse and been the topic of controversy for the past two years is simply inexcusable.
So here goes my list, in random order, of the ten questions Network18 should have asked but didn’t. These are obvious questions Indians up and down the country have been asking themselves, even as the prime minister has remained silent on the subjects they concern.
- You recently made a speech where you said more Indian cows died from consuming plastic than from slaughter. So why did you raise cow slaughter and beef as an issue in the 2014 general election and again in the Bihar assembly election? Why did the BJP governments in Maharashtra and Haryana rush to pass cow slaughter laws if this is not a priority for your party? Are you prepared to act against the plastic lobby in an effort to save cows from this menace?
- You have said you believe in vikas and not votebank politics but senior leaders of your party in UP have openly tried to generate political support on the basis of mobilizing the Hindu community. In an earlier interview you criticised the media for treating these leaders as spokespersons of the party “when I haven’t even seen their faces.” But three of them – Sanjeev Balyan, Niranjan Jyoti and Ramshankar Katheria – were made ministers by you. Yogi Adityanath was put in charge of the BJP’s election campaign for 11 assembly seats in September 2014. These are all faces you have seen and personally promoted. So isn’t this evidence that your party very much believes in and practices votebank politics and communal polarization?
- In the aftermath of Una, where four Dalit men were beaten by gau rakshaks, you have gone out of your way to reassure the Dalit community that the BJP is not against them in anyway and that strict action will be taken against those who use violence against them. But gau rakshaks have mainly targeted Muslims and as many as five Muslim men have been murdered in different incidents in UP, Jammu, Himachal and Jharkhand. Many more Muslims have been physically attacked by gau rakshaks. Why have you, as prime minister, not sought to address the fears of Muslim citizens in the same way as you have for Dalit citizens?
- Despite the Supreme Court repeatedly clarifying that the crime of sedition applies only to those who incite violence, the police across the country – including in Delhi, which is directly controlled by your government – have tried to invoke this serious offence against those who criticise the government, or raise slogans or are present when certain slogans are raised. You and your ministers have said there can be no freedom to shout “anti-national slogans”. Last year, the Delhi high court pulled up your government for stopping a Greenpeace India activist from going abroad because she was going to criticise official policy. Do you concede your government has been over-reacting to such things? Or do you think it is time the courts reviewed their views on sedition and related matters so that stricter limits are placed on free speech?
- While presenting the draft surrogacy bill cleared by the Cabinet, Sushma Swaraj said homosexuality is not part of the Indian ethos. When it reinstated Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, the Supreme Court said it was up to parliament to pass a law legalizing homosexuality. Where does Narendra Modi stand on this issue? Do you agree with Sushma Swaraj that homosexuality is against the Indian ethos? Or do you agree with Arun Jaitley and even Ram Madhav, who have said that homosexuality should be decriminalized?
- At the height of the Anna Hazare movement, the BJP had supported the demand for an independent Lokpal. However, a Lokpal has not yet been appointed because the selection committee includes the leader of the opposition in the Lok Sabha and you decided the Congress leader would not be given that formal status. To get around this provision, your government had said it would amend the Lokpal Act to include the ‘leader of the largest opposition party’ in the selection committee but even though the law was recently changed to include some other provisions, this aspect was left untouched. So is Narendra Modi really interested in operationalizing the Lokpal Act?
- The Lokpal issue came to prominence because of public anger at the way the Manmohan Singh government misused the CBI to favour certain politicians. But today too the CBI seems to be doing the same thing. When the court in the Kauser Bi-Sohrabuddin murder case took the unusual step of discharging BJP president Amit Shah before the trial had even started, the CBI – which had filed a detailed chargesheet under the supervision of the Supreme Court – refused to appeal, thus letting Shah off the hook. Is this not an example of favouritism towards your own people?
- The home ministry during your tenure has opened cases against some of your critics like Teesta Setalvad and Indira Jaising, accusing their NGOs of violating the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act. But when it comes to the BJP’s own violation of the law in accepting illegal contributions from foreign companies – as the Delhi high court concluded in April 2014 – you have simply amended the FCRA with retrospective effect to legalise those contributions. Why do you have one standard for your critics and one standard for your own party?
- Mohan Bhagwat, who heads the RSS – an organization you belong to and which you have described as a nationalist organization – recently joined those in the BJP and RSS who have been calling on Hindu women to have more children so that the share of non-Hindus in India’s population does not grow. As the prime minister of India, what is your advice to people who make these kinds of statements? Can we really call them nationalist?
- You have rightly been lauded worldwide for your Swachh Bharat initiative of building toilets across the country but Bezwada Wilson, winner of the Magsaysay Award this year, recently asked who will clean those toilets, the vast majority of which will not be connected to any sewerage system. “Who will clean the septic tanks in the absence of suction pumps? India can build cryogenic engines and send rockets to the moon but we don’t want to invest in technology that removes the need for humans to clean toilets manually,” he said. What concrete commitments are you prepared to make as prime minister – in terms of public investment and expenditure – to rid the country of manual scavenging, as the courts have ordered but no government has done so far?
Perhaps some day, some journalist will get a chance to ask Modi one or more of these questions. But don’t hold your breath.