New Delhi: “I was not the prime minister who was afraid of talking to the press,” said former prime minister Manmohan Singh on December 18 – an implicit jab at Narendra Modi, who has not addressed a single press conference in the four years of his term.
Speaking at the launch of a five-volume collection of his writings and speeches titled Changing India, Singh pushed back against critics who enjoyed referring to him as “Maunmohan”, or the “silent” prime minister, or even an “accidental” one.
“I used to meet the press regularly and on every foreign trip I undertook,” he said. “I would have a press conference in the plane itself or immediately after landing,”
In contrast, Modi’s contempt for the press has meant that he has only given exclusive interviews to fawning media representatives – and avoided any real, critical questioning from journalists.
Here are 15 questions The Wire would have for the prime minister, if he ever chose to hold an open presser, an unscripted engagement where questions are not screened beforehand and follow-ups are permitted:
1. Employment is one of India’s biggest challenges and during the campaign for the last Lok Sabha election, you had mocked the Congress for failing to deliver one crore (10 million) jobs. Now, four years later, multiple independent estimates say your record on job creation is just as bad if not worse – for example, only 1.4 million net jobs were added in 2017.
Why does your government continue to cite EPFO data as proof of healthy job growth, when a number of economists (including your new chief statistician Pravin Srivastava) say it reflects the formalisation of the economy and not job creation? As for loans under the Mudra scheme, which your ministers have claimed are creating millions of jobs, the actual data makes it clear that most loans are so small that they cannot create any employment, not even that of a pakoda stall.
So, Mr Modi, where are the jobs you promised your voters in 2014?
2. Your promise to double farm incomes by 2022 is also completely off target. At last count, farm incomes have grown only at 5% or less over the last four years. At this rate, doubling farm incomes could take more than 14 years.
It took you four years to even make the claim that you will deliver on your campaign promise of an MSP for farmers that is cost plus 50%. But across the country, farmers are forced to sell their crops at less than MSP. They say the crop insurance scheme you announced is a big fraud – they pay premiums but do not get the benefit.
Your government’s attitude towards the farm sector has triggered some of the largest kisan agitations we have seen in recent years. Your response?
3. The NDA-II government accused the UPA of fiscal profligacy and playing fast and loose with deficit numbers. Yet your government has used of a number of ‘creative’ accounting techniques, including rolling over subsidy payments, relying heavily on extra-budgetary resources, funding the deficit through small saving schemes and using PSUs to carry out disinvestment. How does this square with your claims of fiscally conservative, minimum-government policies?
Bank defaulters and defrauders
4. Former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan sent you in February 2015 a list of billionaire bank defaulters who had actually committed fraud and who needed to be prosecuted. What action did you take to investigate and prosecute those names? Why are you and your government reluctant to make that list – and the action you took – public? A parliamentary committee has sought that information from the PMO as have numerous RTI applicants but you have refused to divulge anything. Why?
Secondly, your ministers say the Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code (IBC) is the NDA government’s response to the NPA crisis that started during the UPA-era. But recent steps – like sparring with the RBI over the central bank’s February 12 circular, or asking Public Sector Banks to come out of the Prompt Corrective Action (PCA) framework – undermine the agenda to fix the banking system. How do you justify these two steps?
The demonetisation disaster
5. You said on November 14, 2016 that if your demonetisation decision turned out to be wrong, you would be prepared to face any punishment.
Well, the RBI itself said recently that demonetisation has had a marginal-to-low impact on extinguishing black money (99% of all the money you demonetised came back into the banking system), curbing fake notes, reducing currency in circulation and lowering the proportion of high notes in the economy. There has been some spurt in direct tax collections but this has happened in the past too. Your ministers say the money in bank accounts will now be probed by the tax authorities but the income tax department will take years to do this.
So what did demonetisation achieve and was the cost worth it? Recently, a cabinet minister told the Lok Sabha that your government has not even bothered to measure the social and economic impact of demonetisation. In a recent campaign speech you even made light of the deaths that happened during the notebandi crisis. Now, Gita Gopinath, the new IMF chief economist, has estimated that quarterly GDP growth declined by at least two percentage points because of demonetisation. Don’t you think as prime minister that you should have ordered a study of the impact? Who did you consult before you took this decision? Were you not aware of the macro disruption that would follow?
The caged parrot
6. The CBI is facing a credibility crisis. When you were in the opposition you called it a caged carrot but that is still what it is. It is very active in probing old cases against your political rivals, including Lalu Prasad or P. Chidambaram but refused to go on appeal when a lower court discharged your political ally, Amit Shah, from a murder case before the trial had even started. Similarly, no action has been taken against those who face corruption charges but are now your allies or new members of the BJP – including Mukul Roy or Narayan Rane. Is the CBI selectively pursuing cases for your political gains?
The hate factor
7. In your first Independence Day speech, you said there should be a 10 year moratorium on communalism but various estimates conclude that hate crimes have increased, and at least 314 people have been victims of mob assaults, during your tenure. Thirty-nine people have been reportedly killed in incidents of lynching and attacks on Dalits and Adivasis have increased by almost 25%.
Your own party leaders, MPs, ministers and Sangh Parivar associates make communal speeches on a daily basis. A group of 80 retired civil servants have called on your handpicked UP chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, to resign for his “agenda of bigotry and majoritarian supremacy”. Why have you been silent in the face of the communal campaign of your party colleagues, and violent attacks on Indian citizens? When Dalits in Una were attacked, you spoke out, perhaps because the BJP sees Dalits as a potential vote bank. But you have not uttered a word about the way Muslims have been targeted. Doesn’t ‘sabka saath’ include them?
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The Rafale mystery
8. You announced the purchase of 36 Rafale aircraft during your visit to Paris on April 10, 2015. Under the Defence Procurement Guidelines, a formal process should have been followed within the IAF and the Defence Ministry before you made your announcement but your government did not provide any information to the Supreme Court about this, focussing only on what happened after you returned. So could you please tell us what formal steps were taken within the government before you made the announcement, why you scrapped the Make in India and transfer-of-technology component of the original deal and ended up paying three times as much per aircraft?
Babri and Ayodhya
9. You and your party are committed to the construction of a Ram temple at the site where the Babri Masjid stood before it was demolished in 1992. Do you believe the demolition of the Babri Masjid was a serious crime for which the vandals and those who hatched the conspiracy should be punished? Can you give an assurance that (i) your government will not try and subvert the process by passing a law or ordinance and that (ii) you will accept the Supreme Court’s verdict on the title suit regardless of the outcome, even if it decides the disputed land belongs to the Muslim litigants?
10. Most experts say that the Kashmir Valley has never felt as alienated as it has in recent years. You have ruled the state for four years, first as a coalition partner and now directly. The number of civilian casualties has gone up. The number of young Kashmiri men joining militant organisations has gone up. You have taken no serious political initiative to resolve grievances within the state. Instead, you have allowed tensions to build up over Article 35A of the constitution. How do you intend to proceed in the state?
Neglect of science
11. Many scientists and science academies have protested that lawmakers’ words and actions – including your own – are damaging the scientific temper in Indian society. Your government has increased spending for ‘conventional’ science, but also for research on gaumutra. Government-funded research on these projects presents neither accessible evidence nor sources of data and their experiments follow no protocols. Yet your government frames India as a ‘giver’ of science and expects scientists to win Nobel Prizes.
Spending on R&D remains an abysmal 0.7% of GDP. Science departments received more money in the latest Union budget – but while the AYUSH ministry got a 13% hike, postdocs around the country have protested at least twice for better stipends. How do you address these contradictions?
The war on RTI and Lokpal
12. While your party claims to promote transparency, your government has proposed multiple amendments in the RTI Act. Transparency advocates say the proposed changes are dilutions in the law, removing accountability of many departments. You have also weakened the Central Information Commission by keeping vacancies pending. Is there a gap between your preaching and practice?
The Lokpal Act was passed in 2014. Why has the government still not appointed a Lokpal? And before you say the selection committee includes the Leader of the Opposition, and that there is none at present, nothing prevented you from amending the law, as you already did once, to bridge this problem.
The US and Asia
13. In the early days of the Trump presidency, you seemed to have had high hopes of a close relationship with him and with the United States. But in recent months, India appears to be hedging its bets, and attempting a rapprochement with China and a deepening of ties with Russia. Are you worried that Trump’s policies in the region, particularly towards Iran, Saudi Arabia, Israel and Palestine will cause greater instability and violence, affecting not just India’s energy security but also millions of Indian workers in West Asia?
14. You first spoke about your BA degree from Delhi University via external exam and also an MA in an interview in 2000, before you even became chief minister of Gujarat. Why then are you – or your government – reluctant to release your original documentation from Delhi University? RTI applications have been made, the CIC has ruled and DU has taken the matter to court citing your privacy. Then Amit Shah and Arun Jaitley held up a copy of your degree from Gujarat University but it said “MA in Entire Political Science”. You could end this controversy immediately by simply requesting DU and Gujarat University to make your records public. Why don’t you?
15. You recently referred to Sonia Gandhi as a “Congress widow”. You have attacked not only Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, who are your current rivals, and Rajiv and Indira Gandhi, whose rule you experienced, but also Jawaharlal Nehru. One of the BJP’s national spokespersons has called Nehru ‘thug of Hindustan’. You once called the fiancé of Shashi Tharoor “50 crore ki girlfriend”. Should you and your party be talking like this? Does it uphold the dignity of the office of the prime minister? On Twitter, your official handle follows some individuals who use abusive, communal and anti-women language. Why do you follow these people?