The CNN News18 interview of Narendra Modi, telecast on 2 September, did not tell us anything new about the Prime Minister’s known positions on issues, including anti-Dalit violence, communalism in the run up the Uttar Pradesh elections, or other social issues.
Watch the full interview here or catch it on CNN-News18 on Saturday at 2 pm and 9 pm.
What it did confirm was Modi’s clear positioning in the national scene as a leader above-the-battle, someone truly prime ministerial and beyond nit-picking disputes. It is now clear that Modi has carved out a stature that is far above that of even Atal Behari Vajpayee. Thus, he can afford to speak from a lofty perch. Modi clearly soars far above his party and opposition politics – something that was never in any doubt after May 2014.
When a political leader achieves this exalted status, what you need to do is parse his statements for deeper meaning, for such leaders will not make controversial statements intended to make waves or push anyone’s buttons.
Nowhere was this clearer than when he was asked about Jammu and Kashmir. After adopting the Vajpayee line of “Insaniyat, Jamhooriyat and Kashmiriyat” Modi added his own nuance: he said he wanted not only vikas (development) for J&K but also vishwas (trust). This is significant, for it underlines the government’s realisation that the Centre has lost some degree of trust with the population of the Valley. This is indicative of a subtle shift in the BJP’s recent position of seeing Kashmir as purely a Pakistan-created problem, and instead one where trust had to be rebuilt.
Significantly, he also did not reduce his observations only to the turmoil in the Valley; he talked of other stakeholders, including Jammu and Ladakh. One can expect a new approach to Kashmir that goes beyond the old BJP position where its one-point agenda was the abolition of Article 370.
The second insight we got from the interview relates to his approach to economic reforms. We have always known that Modi is not a Thatcher or a Reagan or even a Lee Kuan Yew-type of right-wing ideologue, even though the media and opposition parties have gone hell-for-leather trying to paint him thus. Modi is a centrist, someone who believes in evolutionary change.
In the context of the quick passage of the goods and service tax (GST) constitutional amendment – which has now been passed by more than half the states – one can’t even say he is not in favour of big-bang reforms. But he will back such reforms only when the time is right. As Modi himself pointed out, GST is as big as it gets. He called it the biggest tax reform since independence, which will improve the willingness of people to pay tax.
While the pain in GST will come during its implementation, Modi’s real approach to reform is clear from the things he mentioned as reform: the little things that have been done in several areas. He talked about 1,700 outdated laws that were abolished; the freeing of 10 government and 10 private universities from UGC interference; the direct benefits transfer (DBT) scheme in LPG (which eliminated fake users); the gradual replacement of kerosene – source of the maximum corruption and adulteration due to its low price – with LPG; and the scheme to coat urea with neem, which ensures that underpriced fertiliser is not diverted to chemical factories for unintended uses.
Clearly, he is in no hurry to eliminate subsidies, but he sure wants to eliminate the corruption that comes with an unreformed system of giving out subsidies
Modi’s approach to reform is to change the system not by bold strokes that vow the markets, but to slowly tinker with things one by one, and on many fronts. The net result will be a systemic change without anyone noticing it. Modi is the ultimate incrementalist, who believes that the direction of change is more important than its decibel level in media.
Corruption is another theme that has acquired pronounced emphasis under Modi. He mentioned the tough new anti-black money law and the ongoing voluntary disclosure scheme for tax evaders with a stiff tax penalty attached, as key moves for reform. Everyone acknowledges that corruption at the top has reduced under Modi, but he wants this message to go deeper. But in stages.
Another Modi approach is the shift in the government’s approach from entitlement to empowerment when it comes to helping the poor. In this, he obviously reckons that no amount of subsidies and largesse to the poor will help, but enabling them to help themselves is the key to creating jobs and incomes. In this context, he mentioned the Mudra loans, under which more than Rs 1,25,000 crore has been disbursed to small entrepreneurs and the self-employed. He also talked of allowing shops to stay open as long as they want, thus increasing business and possibly employment.
The significance of this statement is: Modi does not seem to think that the government has all the answers to the problem of job-creation. What it is trying to do is to enable the individual, especially the poor, by making access to loans and bank accounts universal.
The one statement that did not ring true was his claim that he had no problems with the judiciary, and that the relationship was not what was being speculated about in the media. In the context of Justice J Chelameswar’s forceful dissent against the Collegium system and the government’s own tough stand on reserving to itself the right to reject collegium-cleared candidates for the higher judiciary, it is clear that the relations between the government and judiciary are not hunky-dory. One can only presume that the PM made his “all-is-well” statement to avoid sparking another controversy. Any statement, even to the extent of saying that “government and judiciary have some differences” would have made newspaper headlines.
Perhaps the most interesting and original insights from the interview came from the last few questions by Rahul Joshi, Group Editor of Network 18, about who the real Modi was beyond the public image.
Modi’s clever answer: if you take away your political lens, you will see the real Modi.
Any Indian seeking psychic tips from Modi on how to achieve success and happiness would not have been disappointed
Modi admitted to being a workaholic, but the key insight from this was not his long hours, but his attitude to work: you can work long hours if you are happy working. Thus work becomes relaxation since it is a source of joy. This is the exact opposite of those who seek work-life balance, on the assumption that work and life are two different things. Tiredness is more a “psychological” issue than about long hours.
Another point that came across well was Modi’s attitude of listening carefully when people speak. Not for him the distractedness of a Rahul Gandhi, who is asked something and he answers something else. The attitude of listening is a key strength in Modi, and this is how he gives “quality time” to the people he meets. This is absolutely vital to success. He listens, and thus he learns. Listening is the key to personal change too.
Lastly, he emphasised that he lives in the present, not the past or the future. Asked how he saw his place in history, he replied that one who lives in the present need not worry about his place in history.
He could say that again.
Watch the full interview here or catch it on CNN-News18 today at 2 pm and 9 pm.