People of India on the very first morning of the New Year were pleasantly surprised when they opened TV news channels. Prime Minister Narendra Modi was the talk of the town as all major news channels without exceptions were telecasting his exclusive interview given to the owner-cum- editor of news agency Asian News International (ANI Smita Prakash was being telecast.
It was an elaborate exercise to build new chemical formulas to regain people’s confidence to make the BJP win the coming general election. It indeed was an extensive media interview covering wide range of issues. Next day it made headlines of all newspapers. In short, Modi made an excellent use of the media to undertake a massive public relations exercise.
Interview was well prepared as advance questions had reached the Prime Minister and he had prepared his replies and presumably had rehearsed it several times. Modi covered big gamut of issues but it lacked follow-up questions as they alone provide a clue to interviewee’s depth and understanding of issues.
Setting a precedent or better said breaking a well followed convention of not giving an interview while the parliament is in session, the Prime Minister chose to speak on policy issues to the ANI) representative. Demonstrating that his political instincts are still sharp, Modi chose to reach out to people by granting an interview to a news agency so that rising tide against him could be turned back. He has carefully avoided holding a press conference since he assumed power in May 2014.
The 95 minutes long media interaction created an impression that Modi can do no wrong and he alone is a leader in the true sense. “I” dominated the narrative and “We the people” need him otherwise the country is doomed, was a message that was sought to be given.
Modi, conscious that his popularity has begun to ebb as was confirmed by recent defeats of the BJP in three Hindi-speaking states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh and not doing much in Telangana and Mizoram, launched a strident attack on the grand old party, whose popularity graph is seeing an upward trend. He blamed Congress lawyers for creating hurdles in the Supreme Court for building a Ram temple in Ayodhya asked them to desist in “interest of peace, security and amity”.
“Nobody can deny that those sitting in the government is the last 70 years have tried their best to stall a solution to this (Ayodhya) issue”, Modi said trying to blame the Congress.
It is surprising that the Prime Minister chose to elaborate on the issue of Ram temple three days before the Supreme Court is going to fix a date for hearing of appeals challenging the Allahabad High Court order in the Ramjanmbhoomi-Babri Masjid title suit. Normally, the Prime Minister is expected to avoid speaking on a policy issue while parliament is in session.
Modi defended demonetisaton saying that any change would slow down growth but it was necessary for the country’s economy. He avoided the benefits that he had counted while announcing demonetisation in November 2016 but defended the move saying that there are more people in the tax net and there is an atmosphere of honesty now.
Cleverly differentiating between the BJP’s stand on Sabarimala and Triple Talaq, Modi said there are two different things. Most Islamic countries, including Pakistan, have banned Triple Talaq; he said and pronounced that it is not a matter of religion or faith because it is an issue of gender equality and social justice. In case of Sabarimala, it is an issue of custom and faith and not of gender equality.
Aimed at enthusing party cadres that are feeling demoralised after the defeat of the defeat of the BJP in three Hindi speaking states, Modi did not make a big deal saying that while 15-years long anti-incumbency was responsible in Chhattisgarh, there was a draw as there were hung results in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
In an obvious attempt to belittle unity efforts of the opposition parties to take on the BJP, Modi trained his guns on the Mahagathbandhan (Grand Alliance) saying that different political leaders are trying to save themselves only. They cannot speak on any single issue in one voice; the Prime Minister said that their agenda is Modi.
Putting up a brave face in his attempt to hide growing electoral insecurity, Modi said the Indian public would decide the course of election. “It is going to be Janata versus Gathbandhan. Modi is just a manifestation of public love and blessings”, he asserted.
For the first time, the Prime Minister chose to disapprove incidents of lynching. No such incident reflects well on a civilised society, and no voice should ever support such incidents, he said adding this is totally wrong and condemnable. At the same time, he sought to give a philosophical explanation of the incidents saying this is a result of social ills. Asking did it (lynching) start after 2014, Modi said “We should all work collectively to improve the situation”.
Reflecting his best political instincts, Modi diverted the Rafale jetfighter controversy saying that allegation was not against him personally but it was an allegation against his government. “If there is any allegation against me personally, let them dig who gave what, when and where and to whom”, he said adding, “matter has been cleared even by the Supreme Court.”
A word on the controversy that erupted after Congress chief Rahul Gandhi called the interview “staged” and said that was conducted by a “pliable journalist” is necessary to put the issue in perspective.
It is the Prime Minister’s choice to pick up any institution or a journalist for an exclusive interview. It is also perfectly in order to submit a set of questions in advance so that the interviewee is ready with facts of the issue. At the same time, it is journalist’s right to ask follow-up questions with the objective of clarifying further. In absence of probing follow-ups, the interview cannot but be called “staged”.
Possibly, “pliable” is a little too frank a description of the state of media today, Rahul Gandhi should have used “friendly” journalist. In fact, media in general today is “pliable” though there are still some exceptions. In short, Modi tried to equip party cadres and leaders with a set of arguments and answers to defend his government for convincing people that the Prime Minister is clean and his actions are in the interest of the country.
Only final tally of the BJP after the general election results are announced would offer a clue whether Modi’s chemistry with the electorate worked to overcome arithmetical superiority of the opposition or not?
Dr. Satish Misra is a Veteran Journalist & Research Associate with Observer Research Foundation.