Like a boxer before a prize fight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in, well, prime condition. He’s got the footwork, punches, feints and the hunger.
And the reach. A hard-talking interview conducted by Network18 Group Editor-in-Chief Rahul Joshi has framed the fighter in fearful symmetry, catching the way Modi sets the agenda even as he weaves and sidesteps questions and issues intended to discomfit him. On the tricky ground of demonetisation, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) nationalism agenda, Ram Mandir, Congress allegations on graft and subversion of institutions and party patriarch LK Advani’s jibes, Modi kept his balance and managed to manoeuvre the narrative to a way that suits him. Most of the responses were aggressive, indicating a measure of self-confidence.
The interview also showcased Modi’s communication skills. Apart from oratorical tools such as tailoring tone, module, delivery and rhetoric in accordance with the audience, using the correct body language, language and clever use of semantics, Modi also did something that is unique to good public speakers. He uncovered hidden connections—in not too overt a manner—and let the audience reach conclusions.
For instance, take the hard, direct question on the Rafale deal, where the Opposition—read Congress—has alleged massive financial irregularities. Aware that the BJP enjoys a high degree of trust compared to the Congress when it comes to corruption, Modi went on the offensive. “I have been in public life for years. I was chief minister of a state. Even the leader of Opposition, from the Congress, said you can’t accuse Modi of corruption. So, however hard they try, the people of India will never accept lies…”
That wasn’t the half of it. Modi went on to describe the Congress’s Rafale campaign as a failed attempt to wash the Bofors stain by creating a false equivalence. “He (Rahul Gandhi) wanted to wash the Bofors stain on his father by raising Rafale. The Congress has been destroyed by defence scams. So, they try to make the same allegations against all governments.” The Bofors-Rafale connection has figured in the media before, mostly suggesting the fighter deal could be Modi’s Waterloo, but the twist lay in shifting the narrative to allegations against Rahul’s father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. The message is that a member of a family that has faced corruption allegations is in no position to take a position on it, especially against someone who enjoys a high degree of public faith. This argument is persuasive precisely because it suggests a different perspective.
On the Advani blog, where the superannuated patriarch took a potshot at Modi and warned the BJP against painting political rivals as anti-nationals, Modi referred to the Congress’s abuse of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as “traitor” to suggest that the ‘margdarshak’ chief was merely reiterating the BJP line. It wasn’t utterly convincing, but it was a deft move out of a tight corner.
Modi’s definition of “nationalism” was interesting. He sought to place his party’s poll agenda within a larger context where nationalism is a dynamic concept signifying a greater public good, and therefore the Opposition charge that the BJP is trying to “deflect from the real issues” is blunted. “If I try to deliver a clean India, isn’t that nationalism? If I put a roof over the heads of the poor, isn’t that nationalism? If the poor don’t have the money for treatment in hospital and face death, is that nationalism? What is nationalism? If I can provide opportunities to people to improve their lives, that in my view is nationalism. And if that is the definition of nationalism, then we are nationalists.”
The binary is laid out in a way that opposing this all-pervasive, dynamic concept of nationalism may well result in the Opposition walking into
the ‘anti-national’ trap.
Modi is also a master at changing the narrative while retaining credibility. In Indian politics, socialism and its ham-handed ways of bringing “equality” (that ends up doing the opposite) still sells. Modi is no Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan, and he doesn’t strive to be a PV Narasimha Rao. He is, however, a pragmatist and is aware that doles and entitlements such as Congress’s Nyay (Nyuntam Aay Yojana) scheme may be unimplementable and bad for the economy but have potential as a political tool. He challenged the very credibility of the Congress in delivering the concept of nyay, or justice, by recounting numerous incidents where the party, as the power in the Centre, failed to deliver justice. He also pointed out that Congress’s tagline ‘Ab hoga nyay’ (Now, there will be justice) is an admission that they have done injustice during the last 60 years of being in power. “When they talk about nyay, what about justice for the victims of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots? What about nyay for the victims of triple talaq? What about the farmers of Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh who were promised loan waivers?”
In his reference to victims of the Bhopal gas tragedy, space scientist Nambi Narayanan, who was framed in a false case and jailed, the Samjhauta Express blast, which saw the coinage of the term “Hindu terror”, the treatment meted out to former Prime Minister Rao, and allusions to BR Ambedkar, Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel as men who are “also seeking justice” for not being given a “proper place in history”, Modi’s punch was ready. “The call for nyay is coming from every corner of this country. I don’t believe they are capable of delivering justice.”
If this exemplifies how Modi shifts narratives, his reference to Mayawati showcases use of realpolitik. The BSP chief’s recent comments during a rally where she asked Muslims to vote for her party has raised the political temperature, but Modi went noticeably soft on Mayawati, holding his haymakers for the self-claimed narrative-setters.
“It is unsurprising that Mayawati is making such statements as she is facing defeat. She is appealing to Muslims to specifically vote for her. I am more worried about the secular brigade… Had someone made such an appeal to Hindus, they would have expressed outrage. The ‘award wapsi’ gang would have returned their awards and a signature campaign would have started. Why is this group silent? The biggest threat to India is these people who hide behind the mask of secularism…”
There are two attempts being made here. One, a window of opportunity is being kept open for a post-poll scenario should the BJP and its pre-poll allies fall short of its target. The BSP having done business with the NDA before, albeit during another era, Modi considers Behen-ji a potential ally. Two, his real ire is directed against the torchbearers of secularism in India who, he believes, have changed the meaning of the word “secular” into “appeasement” and it is time this narrative is reclaimed.
This deftness was also evident when fielding a question on a Ram temple. He avoided the commitment trap and kept it open-ended while not forgetting to take a dig at the media for repeatedly raking it up. “When we speak about it, they say, ‘You have no issue, but Hindutva’. When we stay silent on it, they say, ‘Why don’t you speak on Ram mandir’?” In this, and while defending demonetisation as a policy masterstroke instead of a ham-handed blunder, renaming of Madhya Pradesh chief minister Kamal Nath as “Bhrasht Nath” (ostensibly referring to the income tax raids) as well as raising questions against Rahul’s decision to contest from Wayanad while “running away from Amethi” (an incorrect charge), Modi showed that he retains his ability to shape the conversation.
The slugging has begun in right earnest, and Modi has shown that he will stand toe-to-toe with his opponents and trade blow for blow.