On Bended Knee: This Is No Way to Interview a Prime Minister

arnab modi guffawWhen India’s most aggressive anchor meets India’s most aggressive politician, one expects sparks to fly. Instead, Arnab Goswami looked like a favourite nephew lobbing the ball gently to a benign elderly uncle. More “noora-kushti” and less a sharp interview, there were many questions that ought to have been asked. And many answers that sounded more fixed than spontaneous.

After flattering the prime minister by saying, “thank you very much”, then again, “thank you very much”, the interviewer thanks Modi a third time, and adds that he is “very grateful”, repeats he is “very grateful”, and goes on that his viewers are also “very grateful” before he even begins asking his questions. All this within his first one hundred words! Such abject grovelling and obsequiousness become the hallmark of the next hour and a half. Hard questions are assiduously avoided. Follow-up questions are put mildly and deferentially. In a word, professionalism is thrown to the winds. The underlying adulation smacks of a job application by an undeserving supplicant.

Soft lobs

The first substantive question seeks to know, “How much have you achieved of your own targets?” Modi goes on at great, uninterrupted length about his having pledged that his government “would be committed to the poor”, but totally avoids answering how much he has achieved of his own targets. Instead of saying anything at all about the gap between his electoral promises and his actual achievements, Modi shifts the ground to seeking a “comparison with the immediate past” in order to discover “a bright future”. Back to his old game of flaying the UPA (without adducing any reasons for his assertion) he completely evades the question that sought his assessment of his own performance vis-à-vis his own pledges. Extraordinarily, the interviewer, who rarely lets anyone he disagrees with complete a minute of his argument, lets the prime minister go.

He then turns to foreign policy. Again, he introduces his question with an abject   compliment that tips off the interviewee on how he should answer: “You have balanced different powers and different interests”. Why not, “Have you balanced different powers and different interests?” Modi resorts to his old game with a manifest untruth: “For 30 years, in our country, the government was unstable.” He is not immediately asked to substantiate this claim. Incidentally, his “30 years” include the Rajiv government that ruled with the largest majority ever, much larger than the BJP’s wafer-thin majority; the Rao government that completed its term; the Vajpayee government that also completed its term; and the UPA governments that completed not one full term but all of two.

NSG flubbed

To the specific question, “How close are we to getting the NSG seat?” Modi simply does not answer. He flies off in the direction of saying that the world needs to know him – as if anyone asked – and takes at a swipe at the Gandhis (his favourite obsession) by claiming that “as I am not from a political family” he had “never had the opportunity to meet world leaders earlier”. But did anyone ask him that? The question was about how close we were to getting NSG membership and Modi answers by not mentioning NSG at all despite being told: “on the NSG you staked a lot of personal interest, personal push, you lobbied actively” – why then was the Seoul meeting of just a day earlier such a spectacular flop? Intriguingly, the interviewer just lets him off the hook.

Instead, the interviewer helpfully adds, “You were an unknown entity in foreign policy.”  This is not even a question but Modi takes off about how his government “works as a team”. The obvious interjection should have been, “Oh, yeah, ask Sushma Swaraj”, who, despite her obvious ability, is clearly the most neglected foreign minister in the history of independent India. He goes on to blow his own trumpet and a meek Goswami just lets him get on with it. No repeating the unanswered question about the failed NSG bid, or why his “personality” left the leaders of Switzerland and Ireland so unmoved that despite the Modi team having claimed both countries had switched sides to us, at Seoul they helped blunt the Indian request for NSG membership.

True, the interviewer gently asks much later whether Modi is “disappointed that we did not make it to the end because of Chinese opposition”. Modi gives the answer that should have come before he went to Tashkent only to be brushed off by President Xi. Explains Modi, “Everything has rules” – which is exactly what the Chinese and a dozen others have been consistently telling us for years. Instead of such belated wisdom, the Modi team spread the hype that the courteous hearing the Chinese foreign office had earlier given our foreign secretary was about to be transformed by Modi’s persuasive powers into a firm Chinese vote in our favour. The Chinese were not taken in. Instead of gracefully accepting this, Modi typically attributed his failure in Tashkent to his Washington speech (Goswami, at his courtierly best, exclaiming, “By the way, Prime Minister, it was a fantastic speech”) claiming that his “Government is being criticized not for any mishandling of the NSG issue but because we were so successful over there (in the USA).” Haha, as they say on WhatsApp these days!

Moreover, there was no attempt made by the interviewer to underline the obvious contradiction between Modi’s assertion with respect to China that “even when the views are contradictory, talks are the only way forward and problems should be resolved through dialogue” and his repeated blocking of the dialogue with Pakistan. Another glaring lacuna in the interview was the failure to raise our relations with Nepal, that have hit rock bottom ever since the Modi government began bullying that country over its near-unanimous constitution.

Nor was any attempt made by the interviewer to pin down the prime minister on the military dimensions of our growing relations with the US, especially in the context of the dangerous beginnings of a Cold War between the US and China.

What he didn’t ask

It was on the economy that the questioning was at is weakest and most vapid. Nothing on the dodgy statistics of growth rates we have been regaled with. Not a single question asked on the non-performing assets crisis enveloping our banking industry, with over one lakh crore owed with no signs of forthcoming payment by a handful of our wealthiest. Nothing on Vijay Mallya’s Great Escape. Nothing on Lalit Modi. No retort to Modi deflecting a relevant question on the promise of Rs. 15 lakhs of black money for every Indian pocket by saying “that is something the opposition raises during elections”. Should not Goswami have promptly interrupted, “Sorry, Sir, that is something you raised during elections”.

And would not that have been the right juncture to have grilled Modi on the deceptions with which he has wrapped up the humongous Rs.20,000 crore scam at Gujarat State Petroleum Corporation when he was CM? Instead, Goswami let him get away with unsubstantiated insinuations about Augusta and “the amount of dirt that exists”.

On the worst agrarian crisis in decades, Goswami swallows every cliché that Modi feeds him. Not one question on why his government tried pull the wool over the nation’s eyes by transferring thousands of crore from the finance to the agriculture ministry’s budget and then claiming they had massively increased public investment in agriculture! No searching questions on whether the promise of “doubling” farmer incomes was of real income or nominal income. Nothing on the failure to implement the electoral promise of jacking up procurement prices, especially in this period of precipitately falling farm incomes. Allowing Modi to get away with crocodile tears on food inflation when he should have been shown the contrast between the doubling of oilseeds output in the eighties and the surge in pulses then as critical government policy to combat the last comparable drought. When Modi weakly pointed to dal imports, he not asked why the previous year’s import figure of a little over 5 million tonnes was not being substantially surpassed this year when prices have topped Rs.200 a kilo?

Nothing on industrial stagnation or investment famine or stultifying infrastructure. Nothing on exports collapsing every month in succession for the last 18 months (that is, two-thirds of Modi’s term thus far). Meaningless questions and meaningless answers on jobless growth. Platitudes for the suffering of our people. And praise for the RBI governor he is just kicking out! Subramaniam Swamy is not mentioned but some general remarks are made about “no one being above the party”. Yet, Swamy himself has boasted that he talks only to the PM. Then what has Modi been saying to him? Why nominate a renegade to the Rajya Sabha? On none of these key matters does the interviewer challenge the interviewee.

And the same Modi who does nothing to reprimand and rein in his colleagues in parliament and the council of ministers, not to mention sundry other Sangh parivar types who spread communal poison, actually asks the media not to report on them as if it is media publicity that is encouraging them on, not the fundamentals of the Hindutva philosophy that the prime minister shares with his ilk.

Gujarat 2002 is off bounds. The outrages of intolerance are off bounds. Gulberg Society is not mentioned. Encounter killings are bypassed.

Then why this interview?

Mani Shankar Aiyar is a member of the Congress party. He served as a member of the cabinet in the Manmohan Singh government.