Narendra Modi's interview to ANI shows he's positioning himself as the insurgent once again in 2019
Narendra Modi coolly handled all questions, stayed factual, and took enough time to detail his ideological moorings
On 28 July, 2013, Narendra Modi, then not yet the official prime minister candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, gave an interview to the news agency ANI. Modi spoke about how social media was playing a big role in the BJP surge in national politics. This was widely considered the launch of Modi’s own campaign towards 2014, of which he formally took charge in September that year.
When Prime Minister Modi spoke to ANI on 1 January, 2019, it was only natural for the vocal social media base of the party to take it as a signal to kickstart the campaign for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. As an incumbent, Modi is far more constrained in building up a campaign fever pitch. So, the fact that he addressed every issue concerning his prime ministerial term in the 95-minute interview, enthused BJP social media supporters.
There were two distinct parts to the interview which stood out: Firstly, the breadth of the discussion. ANI editor Smita Prakash touched upon every topic important to Modi supporters and detractors alike. The prime minister answered all the questions in sufficient detail. Secondly, the calm demeanour of the prime minister. He did not sound agitated or flustered, despite the interview coming in the wake of state election losses for the BJP.
Modi coolly handled all questions, stayed factual, and took enough time to detail his ideological moorings, even if the policy choices have not yet overlapped with them. Both points seem to have rattled the people Modi proudly disassociated with: those in the mainstream media in New Delhi, who Modi accused of favouring the Gandhi family.
The usual media lobby was out scoring and ranking the interview, blaming Modi for unsatisfactory answers. This should be good news for those who voted for Modi because he wasn't a Delhi insider. If the Lutyens lobby isn’t yet satisfied with the slant of what the prime minister speaks, it can only be good news for those who expect the cleanup in New Delhi to continue.
From the answers the prime minister gave, there were three critical takeaways for his supporters. First, the prime minister made it clear that the government will do what it takes to build the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya. However, the ordinance route if necessary, will come after the Supreme Court verdict. Real time media reporting phrased the prime minister statement as “there will be no ordinance for the temple”.
He said exactly the opposite — the ordinance will come after the court proceedings are over — perhaps so that there is no residual ground for any further judicial intervention. Second, the prime minister strongly condemned the violence in the name of the cow. He also made the other side clear: the violence did not start with his term and that everyone needs to understand the ethos of the country.
On Sabarimala entry debate, Modi was clear in saying that traditions must be respected and suggested reading the dissenting judgment of Justice Indu Malhotra from the Supreme Court verdict. Although his government chose not to intervene judicially in the Kerala temple issue, Modi made his personal stance clear.
All these issues have been a matter of intense speculation, more of his own support base, than the opponents. Clearly spelling out his views, the doubts in the mind of those who voted for the BJP should be dispelled as the campaign long haul starts.
However, the single most critical message from the interview was exactly what the Congress has been trying to do: make this election about Modi. He clearly signaled his intent to position himself as the representative of the people, taking on the powerful and the mighty, led by the First Family. This is not very different from his 2013 pitch, and this narrative gives Modi a chance to play the insurgent yet again. Pitting himself as the underdog will take away some of the handicaps of incumbency and move the campaign away from smaller issues which may have left a few voters dissatisfied or disillusioned.
With no major Opposition party backing Rahul Gandhi yet as the prime ministerial candidate of a grand alliance, Modi used this interview to position himself as the only stabilising face in Delhi with a vision. He took the allegations made by Congress head on and tried to further cement his position as the blemish-less leader, in direct contrast to the corruption-tainted Congress.
While Congress continues to use the Rafale stick to beat the government, it appears that the party is following the path of diminishing marginal utility. The prime minister isn’t complaining: he made it clear that the First Family was out on bail and the finance minister from the Congress regime was stuck in legal battles. He nudged the judiciary towards an early closure on corruption cases, clearly saying that people were running out of patience.
The ANI interview was effective for the BJP because it covered a lot of ground across all relevant national issues. It also set the tone for media discussions, allowing BJP the control of the eyeball battle for the initial days of the campaign. The prime minister will surely want to control the discourse rather than being reactive. Will ‘well begun’ be ‘half done’?
The author writes on public policy, politics, and current affairs. He is based in Pune.
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