Bang in the middle of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, when citizens would rightly assume that any interaction with the Prime Minister would delve into the issues confronting the country, came the “freewheeling conversation” on ANI, with the shocker of an interviewer, Bollywood star Akshay Kumar. Watching them, a viewer could be forgiven for wondering if Mr Modi was hiding a superhero cape somewhere; this is someone who thrives on four hours sleep, works till midnight, and avoids medication for illness.
All the same, in journalism parlance this was a soft, back-of-the-book interview and it would be churlish not to see any value in it. The accusation may be entirely justified that the PM has never held a press conference or answered any tough questions on policy. But that doesn’t mean Kumar’s interview wasn’t interesting anyway. It is worth remembering the real journalists conducting political discussions don’t exactly endear themselves to audiences. Their primetime shouting matches are unwatchable and have contributed to Netflix’s meteoric rise in India. In fact, Kumar’s respectful demeanour was a welcome change, a reminder of what a civilised conversation on TV used to sound like. People are curious to know about Mr. Modi’s personal life and what makes him tick. There Kumar scored, with repartee and by drawing out anecdotes on other politicians.
One question in particular was something we’ve all been asked at some stage — and as children contemplated deeply upon — what would the PM ask for if he were to get his hands on Aladdin’s lamp and be granted three wishes? Mr. Modi, who, if not his prejudices has certainly shed all fanciful illusions, responded a tad sternly, “I’d ask educationists to stop narrating the story of ‘Aladdin ka Chirag’. Hearing this, if a shape shifting genie had sprung out of my teapot, I might have impulsively wished that politicians stop hedging and speak in definitive absolutes. Alas, the world of politics is dour and joyless, with no room for hypothetical flights of imagination.
What Kumar was seeking to do by arranging the mythical tale with the present is to establish the narrative thoughts of the PM. Reactions to timeless parables reveal what’s going on in someone’s head, whether riches and power matter more, or compassion.
It holds true mostly for everyone that no matter how successful life turns out, there are always situations you wish you’d handled differently — basically, there’s always something to wish for. By not answering, one may speculate that the PM, like all pragmatists, took the question of the three wishes too literally, and hence not seriously enough. When has magic changed anything anyway? We may wish for earth to return to its former glory when thousands of species weren’t shoved into extinction by humans. Even if it came true, it would revert back to devastation unless people change their attitude to the environment. That’s the inherent problem with the three wishes, they’re unlikely to have lasting impact.
For someone whose life story reads like the quintessential rags to riches fairy tale, one would imagine the PM would be more accommodating of the ancient metaphors within Aladdin, that re-emphasise the possibility of transformation. In the Arabic version that’s come down generations, Aladdin, the poor boy found himself captive after trusting a stranger and learns terrifyingly early that caves of gold are usually too good to be true. Deconstruct the folk story for our times and the theme feels eerily prescient. It spurs our collective imagination towards wondering if those who have successfully built an aura of magic around them, will ever have a strong enough wand to fix anything.