The last day of last year was definitive in many ways of Narendra Modi’s stay at the helm as Prime Minister of India. In the renaming of Havelock island as Swaraj in the Andaman and Nicobar littoral, the last of the vestiges of the British raj were consigned to history. The same day, Congress leader Sajjan Kumar went to jail, bringing an element of closure to the 1984 Sikh carnage. The clean break provided by the two events was not lost on Modi perhaps, for, he has kickstarted the new year with an exhaustive interview. The Prime Minister has spoken in detail on every question thrown at him by ANI Editor Smita Prakash. All through the 95-minutes session, the PM was a picture of calm and composure, despite Prakash's no-quarters-given questioning.
The response to surgical strikes and Imran Khan questions gave the clearest insight yet on Modi government's Pakistan policy - that India is unwilling to let the Pakistani deep state guide the agenda using the facade of a puppet government. The PM spoke with candour on farm distress, calling Congress loan waivers as lollipops and no solution to the vexed issue. According to him, the waivers have not worked since Devi Lal and that his government had the better understanding of how to tackle the crisis in agriculture.
But if one was left wondering whether the exercise would have satisfied any of his constituents, proof came pronto with the RSS coming out with its statement on the Ram temple remark in the interview. The recent restlessness of the extended saffron brotherhood at the pace of Supreme Court proceedings in the Ayodhya case notwithstanding, PM made it clear nothing would happen till the apex court delivers a verdict. But the RSS reaction was more a couched nudge that aimed at pinning the Modi government with a deadline on the sub judice matter. Similarly, on GST and demonetisation, it would be interesting to watch if the trading and middle classes – both seen as traditional BJP backers – would find the answers soothing enough to an encore in 2019 for the ruling party.
The Prime Minister spoke with the restraint of a statesman all through the interview. To the extent that his reading of the opposition alliance - the Mahagathbandhan - was more professorial than political. While the PM is right in projecting a picture of statesmanly calm, given the real dangers from the alliance in Uttar Pradesh for example, even his cadres would have wanted to see a little more combative leader.
In election time, politicians have no option but to be ‘be-all-and-end-all’ for an ever aspirational and never satisfied electorate. If the interview is the beginning of a 100-day sprint to the 2019 general election then the PM has hit the ground running for sure. But his campaign cannot lose sight of the strongest USP of Narendra Modi, which is the image of a strong leader who bats on the front foot. Or may be that is kept for the stump speeches.