Modi Interview: Defensive Orator Starts Smarter 2019 Election Bid

In most interviews given by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, before as well as after assuming office, both questions and answers were found wanting. The interview with ANI editor, Smita Prakash, removes one deficiency -- questions are the most robust ever put to him. Unfortunately, there was not a single supplementary question foreclosing the option of the interaction being more interrogatory.

That said, the language in the questions -- ''war monger", "BJP will not get more than 180 seats", "shouldn’t the leadership take responsibility for these losses" -- shows that the interview, conducted before the past year was rung out, was cleared without pre-whetting of what the interviewer would ask. Or even if they were submitted, the interviewer took the risk of straying beyond the script post indications that this was permissible.

For a regime which has specialised in the art of email interviews followed occasionally by a short chat over a cuppa, this willingness to face questions directly marks a strategic shift in how Modi presents himself in the run-up to elections.

Scribe of Choice

Of course, many would say that Modi simply does not have the nerves to face journalists in the mould of Oriana Fallaci, famed for her persistent questioning of world leaders (Henry Kissnger wrote his interview with her was "the single most disastrous conversation" he ever had with any journalist). Modi also doesn't open himself for questioning from media persons like the pugnacious interviewer, Karan Thapar, from whose interview he walked away in October 2007.

Consequently, he chose a scribe who while being a credible face for not being an overt Bhakt, is not so unsympathetic towards Modi. But then, a Modi interview becomes important not for its deficiencies, but for what it contains and what he says, especially this one. After all, this interview saw him on the move on the year's first day and attempting to set the tone and tenor of political discourse in a year, which besides being one of the parliamentary polls, is also most important for the nation and his political career.

Criticised with increasing gusto by Rahul Gandhi, and now even Manmohan Singh, for evading the press, Modi has responded by taking some questions albeit while knowing that the Lakshman Rekha would not be crossed. Truth be told, Mr Modi has never been appreciative of a free press and has built binaries around the media, the English/Delhi press was always painted as being opposed to him ("the poor outsider") and in cahoots with the Congress party, other opposition leaders and also of anti-national forces.

A Smart, Defensive, and Evasive Modi

The Modi persona in this interview does not have the swagger of 2014 and is instead defensive. His decision to agree to be queried demonstrates that he has a lot of explaining to do and he does a professional job of it, evading the more uncomfortable of the two-pronged questions (Do you see any sincerity in Imran Khan’s statements, will you head to the SAARC summit if invited by Imran? - he replied to the latter but not the first).

Being an accomplished public communicator, Modi took the entire gamut of questions ranging from the defeat in the recent assembly elections to, his government's dissimilar stance on triple

talaq and Sabrimala, surgical strikes against Pakistan, the thorny Ram temple issue and issues on which his government is on the backfoot -- demonetisation, GST, rural distress and the connected farm loan waivers and the controversy over continued public lynching, which has recently taken the life of a policeman.

On the tricky matter of Ram temple, the statement issued by the RSS after interview is significant and points to duality within sangh parivar on the issue. On one level, the RSS stated that Modi's statement on Ayodhya "is a positive step in the direction of temple construction." On the other hand, the executive head of the organisation, Bhayyaji Joshi, used much stronger words at a Vishwa Hindu Parishad rally last month, especially in his criticism of the Supreme Court: "There are circumstances in which people begin to be doubtful about the judiciary... duty of Parliament to pave way for the construction of Ram Temple...We are not begging." Many other BJP leaders, including Uttar Pradesh chief minister, Yogi Adityanath, have made similar noises.

Treat or Trick?

The tactic is obvious, Modi and the RSS will formally profess sticking to the constitutional process yet permit individual leaders and programmes of various affiliates which vitiate social harmony. This indicates openness to polarise society in the hundred odd days available before we are into the middle of the poll season.

Same is the case with lynching, the question on which is replied by whataboutery -- "Did it start after 2014?" Modi in fact repeats what he and Mohan Bhagwat have said previously, "No such incident reflects well on a civilised society. No voices ever should support such incidents. This is totally wrong and totally condemnable." But then, what has the government done after repeated incidents? There was silence on this, suggesting that the tactic is to condemn these incidents actions but take no action because perpetuators are part of the political clan.

Launching Mission 2019

Significantly, Modi makes a special effort to regain support of the middle classes, perceived to have drifted away for a variety of reasons: lack of jobs, demonetisation and GST roll out. Modi asserts: "middle class never lives on someone’s mercy (but) with dignity and make immense contribution towards running the country... It is our responsibility to think about the middle class, not only that they vote for us, but in the interest of the country." This is possibly nothing short of holding an olive branch to a disgruntled loyalist and committing to take care of special needs. There is need to watch this flank that Modi has opened up for possible sops before the model code of conduct kicks in.

It is evident Modi is now not the leader who was in full control of situations in 2014 and who dictated others to respond to issues raised. The ball is in the other court now. The very fact that Modi has opened himself than ever before demonstrates his slipping grip on the narrative. With this interview, Modi does not set the tone and tenor of the campaign narrative but remains in a responsive state.

At the end of the interview, Modi comes across as a leader still trying to fine-tune his plank for 2019 who is pulled back by the self-perception that disenchantment has to be erased. His gain is that he has projected a more empathetic face while not any way diluting his ideological core. One can visualise several interview requests being sympathetically considered.

(The writer is an author and journalist based in Delhi. He has authored the book ‘The Demolition: India at the Crossroads’ and ‘Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times’. He can be reached @NilanjanUdwin. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quintneither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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