Modi's Interview: Slippery on Communalism, Sharp on Swamy, Sober on China

As soon as Times Now's interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi ended on Monday night, two of The Wire's founding editors, M.K. Venu and Siddharth Varadarajan went live on Facebook to critically analyse what was said and left unsaid in the 90 minute broadcast. An edited transcript.

modi interview

Siddharth Varadarajan: Welcome to this instant dissection by The Wire of Narendra Modi’s first full-fledged television interview since he became prime minister. [The transcript can be found here] He came to office in May 2014. Since then he has given one print interview – it actually seemed like a written interview – to the Hindustan Times. In the past two years, he has answered a couple of questions at a press conference when Obama was in Delhi and I think few written interviews with the Japanese and Chinese media before his bilateral visits. Other than that, there hasn’t been an occasion since he became prime minister where a journalist has been able to put questions to Modi so today’s a landmark. It’s a great scoop for Times Now and Arnab Goswami, who landed the interview that probably everyone was chasing. They covered a lot of ground in the hour and a half but Venu what’s the big headline from this interview for you? He said a lot of things – he spoke on foreign policy, economics, domestic politics. What would you say was the one thing that surprised you.

M.K. Venu: Let me say that there has been a lot of criticism about the prime minister that he only believes in one-way communication. This is what he has been doing, I mean he has not given any interviews. Here he breaks that trend.

SV: But only partially. We don’t know if he is going to be giving more interviews –  or less friendly ones, because this was quite a tame interview!

Growth but no jobs

MKV: Yes, it was not very – by Arnab’s standards, it was a bit soft. He treats other leaders rather harshly we see but the big headline for me in this interview is that Modi reinforced the promise made after he became prime minister in 2014 that the government – all its efforts, all its funds, money and spending – is meant for the poor, meant for the farmers.  And I feel the reason why he has reinforced this point so emphatically is because somewhere at the back of his mind, he realises that there is a perception that he has not delivered. Things like employment, I think he was asked the question about the labour ministry statistics which shows employment growth has indeed fallen by 60% compared to previous years.

SV: Yes, I think he was his weakest on jobs. In the sense that Arnab gave him credit for  7.5% GDP growth – one can argue whether that’s a valid number or not – but he made the point that this is not being seen on the ground in terms of employment generation. And the prime minister’s response was that we need to have time for infrastructure, investments etc to kick in. But he made another point which left me a little cold, maybe you follow this more closely than me but he said that we have released a lot of money. I think he said the MUDRA Yojana where we have given a lot of money to newspaper vendors, shopkeepers and so on and so forth and these small businesses are creating jobs. He then said that because these jobs are there in the small-scale, virtually invisible sector, they are not being captured by labour statistics. Have you heard this argument before? Could he be right – that jobs are being created which the data is not reflecting?

MKV:  You know,  as prime minister from the very beginning he was focused on the unorganized sector theoretically, and they came up with a lot of schemes for the sector like MUDRA. Jan Dhan Yojana is also aimed in some ways as bringing a large number of the self employed into the banking stream or into various banking services. So he is on that path but the theme that he is continuing with and the big promise he made was housing for all by 2022. Now, in my view that is a big thing. I don’t know where he will get his funding from. I have been looking at the budget numbers. All these schemes that he has come up with,  they need massive funding. I mean housing for all. There are some 30 million families who need this.

SV: So he spoke of housing for all by 2022 and he linked job creation to that, and its not clear where the money for that is going to come from.

MKV: We don’t know where the money is going to come from and that’s a bit of a gap. In a lot of these issues, he spoke about railways, if you remember and a lot of these big infrastructure projects, there is an implicit understanding that states will contribute. If you remember, he kept talking about states – that states will also contribute. In fact, I spoke to the agriculture minister of Karnataka few weeks ago and he said that the Pradhan Mantri Bima Surakhsha Yojana, or farmers’ insurance scheme, 50% of the funding is actually coming from the states. The agriculture minister told me that if we are having to shell out 50%, why is it named after the pradhan mantri!

Swamy vs Raghuram Rajan

SV: To my mind, one hot button item was when Arnab Goswami asks the prime minister about the criticism – he didn’t name Subramanian Swamy, he should have named Swamy but he didn’t – against RBI governor Raghuram Rajan, the questioning of his patriotism. And the PM had pretty sharp things to say about that.

MKV: Yes, he clearly said that he doesn’t appreciate somebody who doesn’t respect the system. “Vyavastha se upar kissi ko bolne ka haq nahi hai.” Essentially, he is saying that Swamy should shut up. He shouldn’t speak up.

SV: And people shouldn’t question the patriotism of somebody like Raghuram Rajan..

MKV: He was all praise for Raghuram Rajan. He said he was a patriot and wherever he is he would continue to work for the country. The prime minister heaped praise on him. I don’t know why, with so much praise, he didn’t get a second term!

SV: Throughout this interview I was trying to compile what are the questions Arnab should have asked but didn’t. And I think the obvious question here after the prime minister went through how great Raghuram Rajan is – as a patriot, how he is running the economy well, so why did he not get a second term the way every other RBI governor has got over the past 20 years? This is the question that should have been put to him.

MKV: Absolutely, I think Arnab just stopped short of posing that counter question. It was the most obvious question to ask. And the other big takeaway for me was this – Modi was asked why the opposition was not being consulted in running parliament, basically in governance, on all big issues. He kept on saying that there was only one party, didn’t name Congress which is kind of not cooperating and other opposition parties are on board which in my view is not right. There are many opposition parties who have problems with the way – not just the government, but the way Amit Shah., the way the party went after Mamata Banerjee, comments on Mamata, you know in the initial hype when the BJP thought they could capture the eastern states in a jiffy. The manner in which the CBI went after various close associates of the chief minister in Bengal, the chief minister in Orissa. Even Shiv Sena has been on an open revolt. Even their own allies, even the Akali Dal had complained that they were not being consulted in the initial phase. Of course, subsequently they corrected themselves.  So there has been a lot of problems in the way the BJP has managed parliament, and it’s strange that before every parliament session there has been some act of aggression which has derailed any understanding – whether it’s the Arunachal Pradesh dismissal or Uttarakhand or the raid on Arvind Kejriwal’s principal secretary’s office etc.

Corruption, defaulters, black money

SV: There is another thing if I were to share my list of questions that Arnab should have asked. The minute he raised the question on black money, I think everybody was waiting for Goswami to pin the prime minister down on his election promise of delivering 15 lakh rupees of black money to every Indian’s bank account, and this had become a big issue. Arnab put the question in a kind of half-hearted way and the prime minister simply brushed it aside and that was it.

MKV: Yes, absolutely. Arnab did not even press on.

SV: He said ‘the opposition says this, etc” to which the prime minister said, ‘Let them say, we need to give them some issue’.

But on the other hand, Modi did have a point though, when he was critical of the Manmohan Singh government’s approach towards black money. The fact is that the UPA sat on the SIT demand that the Supreme Court had made for much longer than was warranted by any procedural sort of issue. That remains kind of a strong point for the prime minister, even if he could well be accused of having misled voters in the actual campaign in 2014.

MKV: You could argue that this government has taken steps, as the PM said, to plug black money generation. I think this Mauritius thing. I would give him credit for this.

SV: For plugging the Mauritius loophole. But he didn’t express it explicitly today, surprisingly.

MKV: They are genuinely creating a larger framework through the G20 mechanism which he said.. they are signing agreements with various governments for real time information. Part of that had started during Manmohan Singh’s time but  this government has expedited things … but this again begs the question of why people like Lalit Modi and Mallya [got away] …

SV: In fact, when Arnab Goswami mentioned that though there had been a lot of scams and accusations against the previous government, but so far no allegations against your government, however, ‘your government has been accused of being soft on those wilful defaulters’ and he mentioned Lalit Modi. Or maybe he didn’t take names after that maybe but he said that he has been soft on them. They have been able to run away, what do you plan to do? And the PM sort of gave a rhetorical answer that ‘I think the people of India have faith in me’. It would have been better if Goswami had confronted Modi on the rather cosy relationship between external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Vashundhara Raje on the one hand and Lalit Modi on the other.

MKV: Arnab had done a full campaign on that issue.

SV: Exactly, in fact, Times Now was one of the channels that was really going after the government, just about a year ago. Since than, Arnab has dropped that issue and the question wasn’t posed to the PM. And the fact is that more than a year has lapsed after that controversy, we are nowhere closer to getting Lalit Modi to cooperate with the Enforcement Directorate  or answer any of the charges that he faces.

MKV: Also on the issue of black money, while the government is ostensibly taking all the right steps, Modi yesterday in his ‘Mann Ki Baat’ [radio show] warned that people better pay taxes and the government has currently opened a window in September and he said it’s a warning. He clearly said it’s a warning that people pay their taxes but I find that the big guys are still outside the radar because there are reports of big industrial groups who fund all the parties – BJP, Congress both – there are reports of their over-invoicing.

SV: We keep reading about cases, preliminary investigations, cases reaching a certain level and then nothing happens.

MKV: They are reports of them having taken money out, bank money out. By the way Arnab did not ask him about the biggest crisis that this government is facing which is about the big non-performing assets problem. The bank NPA problem was not talked about.

SV: And the very obvious link between that and the big businesses.

MKV: Yes

Evasive on Sangh’s communal politics

SV: Turning away from economics, my sense is that the one area where the prime minister was the most slippery was on the communal campaigning of the BJP and Sangh Parivar in Uttar Pradesh.

The prime minister made two points – he said as far as I’m concerned vikas is our mantra, the BJP stands by vikas, development is the way which will resolve all tensions in society including the communal problem. The second point was, why does the media give people – Arnab called them ‘hot headed people’ – publicity, why do you turn them into heroes. Arnab tried to feebly suggest that the media treats them as villains. But even then Modi dodged the issue and said that you shouldn’t give them coverage. The reason I think this is a slippery answer by the prime minister is because he is trying to put distance between himself and these individuals. At one point he said “bahut saare aise chehere TV pe aate hain jinko mai pehechanta bhi nahi hoon aur ye spokesmen ban jaate hain” (many faces come on TV whom I don’t even recognise and then they become spokesmen). However, the fact is that many of these people who have made these remarks – some of them are members of his cabinet, some are senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party in UP, you have the CM of Haryana who made the atrocious remark about ‘Musalman rahein, lekin hindustan me beef khana chhod dein’. You have the culture minister Mahesh Sharma, who referred to APJ Abdul Kalam, the respected former president, that ‘musalman hote hue bhi itne desh bhakt thhey’, that despite being Muslim he was a patriot!

MKV: And the party made Yogi Adityanath open the discussion in parliament on communal violence where he made the controversial statement that hindus should fight back.

SV: So these are not unknown faces, these are not unknown names, they are very much part of the BJP and sangh parivar’s political campaign machinery in Uttar Pradesh and other states and I wish that Arnab had pushed him on that. Instead, he pulled his punches and allowed the PM to get away with a very wishy-washy answer that really didn’t address the problem at hand. Similarly there was no question on the killing of Akhlaq, the BJP’s beef politics. The fact is that this is the first interview the PM has given in 2 years.

MKV: And there was a lot of time. It was more than an hour and maybe 15 minutes. There was enough time to ask these questions.

SV: Also what I want our viewers and readers to to reflect on is when the PM says ‘aap inke baare me likhte kyun hain inko publicity kyun dete ho’, suggesting that the media is somehow at fault when we cover statements made by BJP or sangh parivar leaders, particularly when they advocate or push a communal line in UP or elsewhere. The suggestion that media publicity is the problem is fundamentally misplaced.  The fact is that if the media were not to talk about it, it isn’t as if the communal campaigning would stop. This stuff is happening in mofussil areas in UP it is happening in corner meetings. This is the basis on which the BJP appears to be campaigning, so by not talking about it, essentially this would allow the Sangh parivar to carry on with that mode of campaigning without drawing attention to it nationally and without then forcing them to stop it.

MKV: In fact if you remember recently, there was a camp of the Bajrang Dal in UP and the Indian Express carried a photo of Bajrang Dal activists training with guns. You could argue that by his logic that photo should not have been carried!

SV: And the fact is that the Bajrang Dal is a wing of the sangh parivar –  to which the prime minister owes allegiance.

Now we have a few questions from viewers, Aneek Dutta asks: “Do you think Arnab could have raised some issues brought up Rana Ayyub book?” Now that’s a bit of a stretch! But I do feel that we had the Gulberg society verdict which came recently and it was a reminder of the prime minister’s rather poor administrative record when he was [Gujarat] CM. It certainly merited a question but I don’t think either of us were surprised when it wasn’t asked.

MKV: There’s one question which should have been asked which is a clear miss, – the entire country is witness the manner in which certain types of cases are getting brushed under the carpet, for example the Hindutva terror cases.

SV: That entire subject was kept off the books completely!

MKV: The manner in which NIA, CBI are overturning their own investigations of the past – completely kept off the books.

SV: We have a question from Ravi Joshi, “Did you also get the impression that the questions were pre approved?”

MKV: Definitely the questions were discussed and I’m convinced many questions which the Times Now office may have forwarded I think the PM’s office would have been reluctant to discuss them. As I said, the Hindutva terror cases would form a part of that.

SV: My sense is that even if all the questions weren’t pre-approved – Arnab smuggled one or two extra questions at the end –  I think he was probably in no doubt about what are the questions he shouldn’t touch. And it’s clear that includes Gujarat-related questions. The prime minister hasn’t entertained questions on the 2002 riots for many years. One could argue that he has never entertained those questions at all! But certainly he has made it clear he will not answer those questions. Even in the interview that Arnab got before the election, there were very clear no-go areas and it wouldn’t surprise me if these were part of the ground rules.

Farmers’ crisis

Now, Tarun Gidwani has a question and I think this is perfect for you Venu, “Were you satisfied with the prime minister’s answer regarding the farmers crisis? He merely listed a series of schemes each of which has serious shortcomings and did not address the major macro policy issues confronting the country.”

MKV: Absolutely, in fact to begin with the question on farmers came at the very fag end, it wasn’t asked in the beginning. It is the worst crisis that this country is facing, back-to-back drought, probably the fifth in the last 70 years, and the promise to farmers that this government gave in the manifesto, repeated ad nauseam during the campaign, that farmers would get  50% over their cost of production as average minimum support price. Farmers have suffered, they’ve hardly got, some analysts say about 4 or 5% average if you take various products over and above their costs, and in many products they’ve actually suffered losses. I was surprised that this was not discussed in detail, the farmers’s distress. And the insurance scheme Modi talked about is actually for the future, I would have asked him what happened to the loss of incomes in the last past years of your government, you’re talking about the future. The data shows that rural wage growth is negative now, there is so much distress in the farm sector now, which the supreme court actually, both the drought problem and the farm distress, was taken up by the Supreme Court.

SV: The Swaraj Abhiyan went to the court.

MKV:  It’s only after the SC flagged the issue that the government got active.

China and Pakistan

SV: The first 20 mins of the interview dealt with a subject which is close to the prime minister’s heart which is foreign policy. Arnab Goswami asked him the usual questions about China, Pakistan, the US, the Nuclear Suppliers Group which has just been in the news. He began with a soft lob, as it were, asking the prime minister how easy or difficult is it for him to balance the different powers against each other, he mentioned the US, he mentioned Iran. Of course the prime minister then held forth on his personal philosophy and the fact that how he was a relatively unknown quantity and had to rapidly make the world’s leaders familiar with who he was as an individual, hence he’s been proactive.

MKV: So was he justifying his personality oriented style in doing that?

SV: I think he was giving an explanation for it and a fairly decent explanation I thought, because the fact is that if you were to ask how is his foreign policy different from Manmohan Singh’s, certainly the style is different, he’s far more active, engaged, involved.

MKV: Far more energy.

SV: Certainly, travelling to places that Manmohan Singh never did. I think the explanation he offered – that this is not some ego trip, he didn’t put it that way but to the extent to which people in India have been criticising him for spending time abroad, he’s the butt of jokes – his argument was that the world outside didn’t know who Modi was and if they were to simply go by the media they would get a misleading account, which is probably true.

MKV: Arnab asked him a direct question on whether India is on its way to becoming an ally of the US, which is a big issue here. So, he got around this question by saying that we are not an ally of this country or that power, there is no bipolar arrangement today in the world. Then he said that we want to practice, in Hindi he said, multi alignment.

SV: He said we want to be friends with everybody.

MKV: Does that mean he’s saying India will follow a kind of multi-alignment or nonalignment?

SV: I think these ideas were not properly discussed, the questions were not squarely put. On the US, the prime minister should have been asked about his willingness to sign some of these military agreements that the US is very keen on, the fact that India has been speaking out quite a lot on the South China Sea and on various Asian geopolitical issues. So I think on the US and the fact that he’s drawn closer, we didn’t unfortunately get many insights, either from the questions or the answers.

MKV: And on China.

SV: There were questions on China. I found the prime minister’s answers on China to be more open and refreshing than what we have been seeing from the Ministry of External Affairs over the past two days. In the aftermath of the NSG, there’s been a rather petulant reaction from the MEA, which has spoken about highlighting how ‘one country’ sabotaged and scuttled India’s membership, and Arnab kept pushing the PM on this ‘one country’ business and China. Instead, the PM made interesting comments on how the purpose of diplomacy is not to change somebody’s mindset but to find common meeting ground.

MKV: He said we continue to cooperate with China and China also continues to cooperate with us.

SV: So that despite there being areas of difference we work together and I thought that was quite forward looking in terms of the language on China, certainly it will undo some of the one sided perceptions that may have come about in the aftermath of the Seoul NSG meeting.

MKV: Does it allay fears created by some people who are close to the government in the past two days that India might take tough action against China because we were blocked at the NSG by them?

SV: The fact is that India doesn’t have the kind of options that people may think that we do and anyway in diplomacy that’s not the way you proceed, but I think that the extent to which there was a danger of the Indian discourse on China going off the rails, the prime minister has brought things back, I think its a very sensible thing he’s done, he’s dialled down the temperature.

On Pakistan I found again the questions confusing and the answers not very enlightening. The prime minister emphasised the importance of being engaged and he also introduced this interesting idea, when he was asked about India’s red lines, “ki Pakistan me ye lakshman rekha kiske saath taya karein, the elected government or other stakeholders. He meant the military perhaps, it’s not clear. But he did not specify or give an account of the flip flops in his Pakistan  policy. Ever since Nawaz Sharif came for his inauguration, it’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride and the prime minister has been accused of inconsistency. The questions weren’t squarely put nor did the prime minister have to answer some of those questions.

A new beginning?

Well, all told, the interview went on for an hour and a half, and it is hard for us to conclude on any one note other than to say that what stuck out for me were his comments on Raghuram Rajan – which of course begged the question of why he didn’t want to give him a second term – but there certainly was a put down of what Subramanian Swamy has been saying. The prime minister’s comments on China were interesting. His comments on the communal statements of the sangh parivar, as I said, I found slippery and unconvincing. But at the end of the day, it’s good that the PM gave this interview. And that there should be many more, it should be more of a free for all, where on a regular basis the media is able to put questions to the prime minister, wouldn’t that be hugely helpful for public discourse in this country?

MKV: Absolutely, if this marks the beginning of a two way communication of the prime minister with the media, I think it’d be a great development.

SV: We have to end this because we’ve done half an hour, but we have this one question which is slightly mischievous which we will end on, Aneek Dutta asks, “Why did Arnab get this interview and not some other media house?” Any theories?

MKV: Well there is a perception that Times Now, which was ferocious and which was seen as very anti-establishment during the UPA days, has kind of diluted their anti-establishment stance in the last one year or so with this government. This perception is shared by a lot of people and especially during the JNU incident and after, it became very sharp.

SV: As they say in Hindi, ‘kuch paane ke liye kuch khona padta hai’ – to gain something you have to give up something! On that note, we will have to end this discussion, this review of the prime minister’s first TV interview. Thank you very much for joining us.