If the prime minister were given to self-congratulation, he will remember the week Friday, January 19 to January 26 with quiet satisfaction. It’s been an impressive seven days: He has given two assured television interviews, invited the world to India (and done some serious hand-holding if not hugging at Davos), hosted 10 leaders from the ASEAN and will stand by their side when they are the chief guests at tomorrow’s Republic Day parade — in itself an unprecedented occurrence.
However, we have it on the best authority, the PM himself, that a) he’s too busy working to think about himself, and b) “Modi is not important — I am the representative of 1.25 crore people” (Zee News interview). This was a constant refrain in his interviews to Zee News and Times Now. More than six weeks after the hurly-burly of election campaigning is over, during which he was “Modi, the BJP’s chief campaigner” going so far — most would say, too far — as to question the patriotic credentials of former PM Manmohan Singh and Vice President Hamid Ansari (during polls, “blame games are bound to happen, mudslinging will happen,” he explained to Times Now), Modi is currently the “prime minister as statesman”. Calmly, patiently — and at great length — with a few laughs but without revelations or missteps, he was lofty, even when attacking the Opposition.
Is this how he will project himself for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?
In fact, his replies during the weekend interviews resembled an election manifesto: In both, he listed out his government’s many achievements from Swachh Bharat and Jan Dhan Yojana announced in his first year, through LPG for rural women and neem-coated urea, right up to demonetisation and GST last autumn. He spoke of (un)employment, agriculture, his own “ease of doing business” with foreign leaders — “no matter whom I stand next to, every moment I remember that I am the representative of 1.25 crore people” — and, in the words of Zee anchor Sudhir Chaudhary, “PMT”. Not to be confused with GMT, that stands for the “Putin-Modi-Trump”, a “new world order”. Terrorism and global warming were other themes he addressed — and repeated in his plenary address at Davos.
On the recent Supreme Court imbroglio, and the national anthem (“Why should someone question standing up for and singing the national anthem?” asked Times Now’s Rahul Shivshankar, disingenuously), the PM played eminence grise, saying all politicians should stay out of the first, and the second should be addressed to those “who question them”. As for triple talaq, well, his heart bled for the “poor Muslim woman” and he admonished the Congress for opposing the Bill in its “thirst for power”. Ouch.
This was a master class from the PM — in more ways than one. At times, during both interviews, it was as if he was holding a tutorial or contributing to the “Explained” page of The Indian Express where issues, often complex, are made intelligible for the average reader. This became necessary due to the nature of the questions from Chaudhary and Shivshankar, especially, and Navika Kumar, to a lesser degree. There was an almost childlike wondering aloud by these seasoned editors which belied their vast experience.
The leading questions were more like requests — is that the only way to ask questions of this PM?
For instance, Chaudhary: “We have seen that before this, at summits, it seemed like a diplomatic exercise… (With you) it seems like friendship. You hug them, put your hand on their shoulder. Take Netanyahu, the friendship between you was like we were watching a film in which two friends have a pukka friendship… how do you connect so quickly (with a person) who probably has not known you for too long?” Or, Kumar: “…There is a certain criticism and I am talking about the opposition here. Sometimes they say you introduced the Gabbar Singh Tax, they say that there is unemployment…? They also say that there is no job creation, there is agriculture distress and farmers are dying, what will you say to them?” As it happens, plenty — on GST, farmers, agriculture and the “pakoda” shop outside the Zee offices (Chaudhary had an employment question too). Ditto the case for simultaneous elections — one of his best argued replies — and Congress “culture”-mukt Bharat.
The PM played guru, and used the occasion to present himself as a humble servant of the people: “What else am I here for but to be of use to the country?… I cannot live for myself… I wish I could work more and more.” (Zee). In the film The Post, Benjamin Bradlee, Executive Editor, The Washington Post says to the proprietor, Katherine Graham, before publishing the Pentagon Papers: “We (the media) have to be a check on their (politicians’) power; if we don’t hold them accountable who will?… We have to choose”.