Prime Minister Narendra Modi marked the beginning of an election year by answering questions on virtually all prevailing political topics on Tuesday, in a wide-ranging interview with ANI's editor Smita Prakash.
On losses in Hindi heartlands and government victories
In a 95-minute long interaction, little was left unasked or unanswered, starting with the most recent massive political development -- the BJP's humbling in 5 state elections, including three Hindi heartland states that now have Congress governments. Despite the losses, the Prime Minister maintained that 2018 had been a successful year, elaborating on a number of achievements ranging from the Ayushman Bharat yojana which has just completed 100 days with some quite stellar results, to electrifying all villages in the country, to ISRO's undertakings, and others. When pressed on the election results, he provided an analysis accepting the mandate in Chhattisgarh and citing anti-incumbency and a split verdict in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.
Adopting a position that the Modi wave of 2014 had converted into an increase in the aspirations of Indians, the Prime Minister took on the 'Mahagathbandhan' as well as the political theorists who project the BJP's downfall (less than 180 seats) in the upcoming Lok Sabha elections.
"If they do not do this sort of math and spread such things how will people join their Gathbandhan. They will have to talk big to attract people to themselves."
He was asked about his and Amit Shah's stated objective of having a Congress-mukt Bharat, at which he provided a background for the view, putting forth that the culture of the Congress - casteism, dynastic politics, being undemocratic and nepotism, as per him - were things that not only the country, but the Congress also needs to be free of. He concluded that the Congress has even failed to provide a strong opposition.
"Congress too needs to be Congress-mukt"
Coming back to the electoral defeats, however, the Prime Minister dismissed the concept behind the notion that the Modi-Shah axis had lost its invincibility, saying that it wasn't two people because of which the BJP is running. He spoke about the size of the party and concluded, "By constantly repeating that the BJP is losing doesn’t mean that we are actually losing."
"There is no question of our morale going down. BJP has been on winning spree.
No reason for morale down. We are confident and are moving ahead. In 2019, if there is one party which the country trusts and is connected with the people, it is the BJP."
On demonetisation, black money, GST and economic fugitives
In terms of the biggest issues in the lead-up to the elections, the Prime Minister was asked first about demonetisation, for which he provided a background by citing how it was common knowledge that a parallel economy was running on black money. "Those sacks full of cash have now entered the banking structure", he said, also refuting that the note-ban had entailed a 'jhatka' (shock). His reasoning for this was the myriad black money amnesty schemes that had been announced in the year preceding demonetisation.
Next up was the action on corruption, including on absconders like Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and Vijay Mallya, as well as on UPA-era scams like 2G and CWG. On the former, i.e. absconders, he said that because of his government the earlier cycle of looters looting endlessly had ended and those who felt they were at risk of being caught had to flee. He said that all possible means were being employed to bring absconders back and assured that they would.
The Prime Minister also reiterated, "We have entered into agreements with various countries. After 2019, we will get real time information from different countries. So Black Money will be brought back."
On UPA-era corruption, the Prime Minister spoke about how a number of top politicians, including from the 'first family' (a clear reference to the Gandhis) and a former Finance Minister (a reference to P Chidambaram) were either out on bail or were making rounds of courts. He dismissed those leaders' prime response to the crackdown on them -- 'political vendetta' -- expressing that when a court gives a judgment in a matter, it should be accepted.
Heading to economic matters, especially those that also have a political element ahead of the elections, the Prime Minister responded to Rahul Gandhi's criticisms of GST, particularly the various abbreviations that have been coined, including Gabbar Singh Tax. His explanation was intricate and involved the modus operandi of the GST council -- essentially about how implementing the GST was and continues to be a multi-party consultative process.
"Jiski jaisi soch, waise uske shabd", the Prime Minister said about the Congress president's various monikers for GST, while also acknowledging that the government was sensitive to those who had been impacted by the tax reform's rollout.
From GST, he moved to the middle-class -- a loyal voter base -- for which he said "we will have to change our thinking." He listed various figures highlighting how the middle-class' aspirations had been addressed, including on low inflation, the Udan Yojana, the Mudra Yojana, and others.
Social, political and religious issues- Ram Mandir to cow-vigilantism, triple talaq to Sabarimala and farmer issues
Coming to a more politico-economically controversial topic, he spoke about farmer issues, especially against the backdrop of the Congress touting farm-loan waivers as what appears to be its biggest poll plank. The Prime Minister, however, dubbed the farm-loan waivers a 'lollypop', and went into their history, accusing the Congress of not only lying about the efficacy of their farm-loan waivers, but also for not taking the requisite steps when they were in power that would have mitigated the kind of issues farmers face now. He then put forth his government's view that while state governments are at liberty to waive farmers' loans, the central government is committed to addressing their problems.
An issue over which the Prime Minister's views were heavily conjectured during the last few months is the Ayodhya dispute, which he addressed in definitive terms, stating that the government will take a lead from the Supreme Court's judgment, whenever it comes, but also beseeched the Congress to not attempt to effect a delay in the apex court's proceedings.
On the communal issue of cow-vigilantism, lynchings and on crimes against minorities, the Prime Minister expressed his stand that such incidents don't reflect well on any civilised society. He said that these things hadn't started in 2014 and that everyone needed to work collectively towards improving the situation. On a related topic of political violence, he took on other parties, speaking about how BJP workers had been killed in West Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka, and warned: "some people may be enjoying protection but some day the truth will come out. Political parties should train their cadres how to behave in a democracy."
Addressing another contentious issue, the Prime Minister made a distinction between the Triple Talaq ordinance and the Sabarimala issue, citing the former as not being a matter of religion or faith.
Coming to matters that very directly affect the 2019 elections, the Prime Minister was asked about the various permutations and combinations relating to alliances, and the Mahagathbandhan. He refuted Chandrababu Naidu's claims that he was a part of the 'KCR-gathbandhan' and als hit out at the grand alliance, opening that their single-point agenda was to get rid of him, rather than having a vision for the country.
On whether the 2019 elections will be 'Presidential style' between him and Rahul Gandhi, he said: "This elections is going to be fought on who fulfils and takes forward the aspirations of the people and who stops these. Public is the decider." He also gave a message to the Shiv Sena, whose chief Uddhav Thackeray has recently attacked him, saying that unlike the Congress which usurps whoever it allies with, the BJP aims to grow with its allies. As an example he cited the various NDA constituents who are a part of the ruling coalition despite the BJP having won a majority on its own.
He also answered on the BJP's efforts in south India, and left the door open for alliances, including with actors-turned-politicians Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth.
Independent Institutions- CBI, RBI and ED
A topic that has been discussed heavily in the last few months has been the allegation that the BJP has weakened institutions in the country, especially given the recent goings-on at the very top of the CBI and the RBI. On this, he claimed that the Congress has no right to speak, highlighting how during the UPA-1, the 'National Advisory Council (NAC)' had been formed that undermined the then PMO. He cited Congress-era attacks on the RBI and planning commission, and also revealed that Urjit Patel resigned as RBI Governor after having wanted to leave for a number of months. Modi added that Patel had done a good job as RBI Governor and that there was no political pressure on him. Coming to the ED, he pointed out to the recent Sohrabuddin judgment, highlighting, "see how institutions were misused." He segued from this to the recent extradition of Agusta middleman Christian Michel, and focused on how the Congress was sending lawyers from its fold to defend him.
Rafale deal controversy
On the hot topic of the Rafale deal, the Prime Minister went on the offensive, making clear that on various fora the Congress party had got its response, whether it be in Parliament, from the French government, or the Supreme Court. He turned up the heat, asking where the Congress got its evidence from, and also attacked the past culture of having a middlemen in defence deals.
"My crime is that I am trying to Make In India. My crime is that whatever our defence forces need, that should be made in India, so that dealings outside the country end. I am trying to get technology transfer.
Those people who want to weaken the Army, levelling allegations, should I worry that they are making personal attacks on me, or whether my country’s needs should be met?"
Pakistan, terrorism and surgical strike
On a similar note, he spoke in detail about politicisation of the Surgical Strike, effectively offering that while it was understandable for Pakistan to tailor its response to suit its geopolitical narrative, it didn't make sense why opposition parties in India would also adopt the same line.
"To lend weight to their views, they were citing Pakistani line. Politicisation started from that point. You spoke rubbish about the Army. I feel that those who raised doubts over the Army action were wrong and such politicisation should not have happened."
He then narrated his experience from the Surgical Strike, revealing how his foremost concern had been the safety of the forces who were part of the operation, and that the date for the strike had to be changed twice to ensure this. Ensuingly, he spoke about Pakistan, reiterating that his government, as well as its predecessors, have always been open to discussing any and all issues with Pakistan, the only caveat being:
"We only say one thing that amid the noise of bombs and guns, the dialogue cannot be heard. Cross-border terrorism must end. And we are persistently maintaining pressure on this."
He left open the possibility of meeting Pak PM Imran Khan in the future.
Moving from Pakistan to another neighbour, China, PM Modi put forth that contrary to what was being pushed in political circles, nothing had happened with India in Doklam that could be considered deceitful.
PM Modi’s foreign visits and re-elections plans for 2019
Towards the end of the interview, the Prime Minister also offered a spirited defence of his foreign visits, over which there has been consistent opposition harping. Part of his answer was about the various forums that the Prime Minister of India has to partake in, and the other part was about how he had made his visits much more visible than his predecessors.
"My visits are noticed because I interact with people and take decisions."
An area where the Prime Minister admitted more work was needed was in cleaning up the Ganga, giving a history of pre-2014 money having been spent on the endeavour being wasted necessitating a more studied approach to tackle the problem. He resolved to be successful in this undertaking.
On his own re-election plans for the 2019, the Prime Minister remained non-committal whether he'll contest once more from Varanasi, in light of Puri being touted as a prospective alternative.
He opined on the state of discourse within Parliament, answering a question on Rahul Gandhi's hug during the 2018 no-confidence motion, and also offered one final conclusion from his term as Prime Minister:
"I could neither make the Lutyens world a part of me or me a part of them. I did not want them to be a part of me as my background is different. I am a representative of the non-elite world."