Much has been made of Narendra Modi’s reference to a puppy caught under the wheels of a car he wasn’t driving in answer to a question on 2002. It was a godsend to his detractors, who used it to suggest what a crass man he is. But it is worth decoding Modi’s words in the Reuters interview (given below) in a more neutral way.
Given below are Modi’s replies to Reuters’ questions, and our interpretation of what they mean, or could have meant, and what they certainly could not mean. Our comments are in itals after Modi’s replies.
Q: Is it frustrating that many people still define you by 2002?
Modi’s reply: People have a right to be critical. We are a democratic country. Everyone has their own view. I would feel guilty if I did something wrong. Frustration comes when you think “I got caught. I was stealing and I got caught.” That’s not my case.
Wonder why his critics did not latch on to this opening paragraph where he makes a reference to getting caught after stealing. Though Modi is obviously saying that he had done nothing wrong in 2002, the reference to getting caught while stealing has an import of its own. Is he trying to say frustration can result only from getting caught? Or that he did not steal and hence is frustrated when people blame him?
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Do you regret what happened?
I’ll tell you. India’s Supreme Court is considered a good court today in the world. The Supreme Court created a special investigative team (SIT) and, top-most, very bright officers who oversee the SIT. That report came. In that report, I was given a thoroughly clean chit, a thoroughly clean chit.
Another thing, any person if we are driving a car, we are a driver, and someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is. If I’m a chief minister or not, I’m a human being. If something bad happens anywhere, it is natural to be sad.
This puppy statement has been deemed most controversial by the commentariat. Was this a reference to Muslims killed in 2002? If it was, the comment was disastrous. If by this he meant he would be sad even if a puppy was caught under his car, it’s not so bad. But Modi’s surely was asking for it with this analogy. Nobody will give him the benefit of doubt.
The clean chit from the SIT is also a figleaf. It doesn’t help him since the courts have still not closed the matter.
Should your government have responded differently?
Up till now, we feel that we used our full strength to set out to do the right thing.
Nothing of note here. He has always said he did what was his duty. If people died, it could not be blamed on him.
But do you think you did the right thing in 2002?
Absolutely. However much brainpower the Supreme Being has given us, however much experience I’ve got, and whatever I had available in that situation, and this is what the SIT had investigated.
The key phrases to note are “however much experience I’ve got” and “whatever I had available in that situation” – these are essentially Modi’s codewords for saying that if anything went wrong, it could have been due to his inexperience in handling riots at that time, but he can’t say it too loudly since it would destroy his good governance plank. Hence the need to add “whatever I had available” – probably a reference to the fact that the army took its time coming to help, by which time many deaths had occurred in communal rioting. Modi’s critics has been pointing out that the word “sorry” never escapes his lips, but Modi probably sees the apology demand as a trap, and an acceptance of complicity.
Do you believe India should have a secular leader?
We do believe that … But what is the definition of secularism? For me, my secularism is, India first. I say, the philosophy of my party is ‘Justice to all. Appeasement to none.’ This is our secularism.
This is Modi’s standard line: it sends out a message both to his Hindutva fans (no appeasement of Muslims) without giving his so-called secular detractors another thing to criticise (justice to all surely cannot exclude Muslims.)
Critics say you are an authoritarian, supporters say you are a decisive leader. Who is the real Modi?
If you call yourself a leader, then you have to be decisive. If you’re decisive then you have the chance to be a leader. These are two sides to the same coin … People want him to make decisions. Only then they accept the person as a leader. That is a quality, it’s not a negative. The other thing is, if someone was an authoritarian then how would he be able to run a government for so many years? … Without a team effort how can you get success? And that’s why I say Gujarat’s success is not Modi’s success. This is the success of Team Gujarat.
Here, Modi is defining a leader as someone who can take decisions – in contrast to the UPA, which cannot take bold decisions. By implication he is saying that bold decisions may sometimes seem authoritarian. Modi prefers dealing with bureaucrats rather than empowering fellow politicians. The reference to Team Gujarat is probably a reference to his comfort with commanding bureaucrats – who don’t have problems with his authority. Only rival politicians do.
What about the suggestion that you don’t take criticism?
I always say the strength of democracy lies in criticism. If there is no criticism that means there is no democracy. And if you want to grow, you must invite criticism. And I want to grow, I want to invite criticism. But I’m against allegations. There is a vast difference between criticism and allegations. For criticism, you have to research, you’ll have to compare things, you’ll have to come with data, factual information, then you can criticise. Now no one is ready to do the hard work. So the simple way is to make allegations. In a democracy, allegations will never improve situations. So, I’m against allegations but I always welcome criticism.
Again, a standard Modi line. He is effectively saying he is open to criticism that is constructive – which cannot come from politicians out to carve a niche for themselves. Allegations are the result of politics.
On his popularity in opinion polls
I can say that since 2003, in however many polls have been done, people have selected me as the best chief minister. And as best chief minister, it wasn’t just people from Gujarat who liked me, not like that. People outside of Gujarat have also voted like that for me. One time, I wrote a letter to the India Today Group’s Aroon Purie. I requested him – “Every time I’m a winner, so next time please drop Gujarat, so someone else gets a chance. Or else I’m just winning. Please keep me out of the competition. And besides me, give someone else a shot at it.”
Here Modi is unable to conceal his real self and unselfconscious gall: it comes across as assertive to his fans, and as arrogant to those who dislike him. How else does one interpret the statement that he asked India Today to drop Gujarat from the comparison, or else others would not get a “chance.” This is both presumptuous and insufferable. But that is Modi, like him or not.
Allies and people within the BJP say you are too polarizing a figure
If in America, if there’s no polarization between Democrats and Republicans, then how would democracy work? It’s bound (to happen). In a democracy there will be a polarisation between Democrats and Republicans.
This is democracy’s basic nature. It’s the basic quality of democracy. If everyone moved in one direction, would you call that a democracy?
Perhaps one of his best answers in this Q&A. He has neatly deflected the idea of polarisation as essential to democracy. And why consensus is not necessary for forward movement.
But allies and partners still find you controversial
Up till now, no one from my party or the people who are allied with us, I’ve never read nor heard any official statement (about this from them). It might have been written about in the media. They write in a democracy … and if you have any name that this person is there in the BJP who said this, then I can respond.
This is neither here nor there. Modi did not answer this question, and his interviewers were not prepared to quote even LK Advani on the note he issued while sulking in his tent over Modi’s elevation as chief of campaign committee last month.
How will you persuade minorities, including Muslims, to vote for you?
First thing, to Hindustan’s citizens, to voters, Hindus and Muslims, I’m not in favour of dividing. I’m not in favour of dividing Hindus and Sikhs. I’m not in favour of dividing Hindus and Christians. All the citizens, all the voters, are my countrymen. So my basic philosophy is, I don’t address this issue like this. And that is a danger to democracy also. Religion should not be an instrument in your democratic process.
This reply is an addendum to his earlier one on “justice for all and appeasement of none.” In giving this reply, Modi is essentially side-stepping his response to minorities. So we don’t have an answer to the question: how will he deal with them?
If you become PM, which leader would you emulate?
The first thing is, my life’s philosophy is and what I follow is: I never dream of becoming anything. I dream of doing something. So to be inspired by my role models, I don’t need to become anything. If I want to learn something from Vajpayee, then I can just implement that in Gujarat. For that, I don’t have to have dreams of (higher office in) Delhi. If I like something about Sardar Patel, then I can implement that in my state. If I like something about Gandhiji, then I can implement that. Without talking about the Prime Minister’s seat, we can still discuss, that yes, from each one we have to learn the good things.
This reply puts Modi apart from widely-accepted leaders of the past, even while seeking to claim their heritage and his own space. Politically sensible.
On the goals the next government should achieve
Look, whichever new government comes to power, that government’s first goal will be to fix the confidence that is broken in people. The government tries to push a policy. Will it continue that policy or not? In two months, if they face pressure, will they change it? Will they do something like — an event happens now and they’ll change a decision from 2000? If you change decisions from the past, you will bring the policy back-effects. Who in the world will come here?
So whichever government comes to power, it would need to give people confidence, it should build the trust in people, “yes, in policies there will be consistency”, if they promise people something, they will honor that promise, they will fulfil. Then you can position yourself globally.
This should have been Modi’s key message – his focus on economic growth and governance. He has managed to suggest that the UPA is indecisive, but he has not managed to convey the suggestion that he is the answer. A missed chance, despite being given the opportunity.
Modi’s spin doctors have a lot of coaching to do in future one-on-ones. Modi’s spin doctors have a lot of coaching to do in future one-on-ones.
People say economic development in Gujarat is hyped up
In a democracy, who is the final judge? The final judge is the voter. If this was just hype, if this was all noise, then the public would see it every day. “Modi said he would deliver water.” But then he would say “Modi is lying. The water hasn’t reached.” Then why would he like Modi? In India’s vibrant democracy system, and in the presence of vibrant political parties, if someone chooses him for the third time, and he gets close to a two-third majority then people feel what is being said is true. Yes, the road is being paved, yes, work is being done, children are being educated. There are new things coming for health. 108 (emergency number) service is available. They see it all. So that’s why someone might say hype or talk, but the public won’t believe them. The public will reject it. And the public has a lot of strength, a lot.
A good reply, politically correct.
Should you be doing more for inclusive economic growth?
Gujarat is a state that people have a lot of expectations from. We’re doing a good job, that’s why the expectations are high. As they should be. Nothing is wrong.
Nothing controversial here.
On indicators like malnutrition, infant mortality
Infant mortality has improved tremendously in Gujarat, tremendously. Compared to every other state in Hindustan, we are a better performing state. Second thing, malnutrition, in Hindustan today, real-time data is not available. When you don’t have real time data, how are you going to analyse?
We do believe in inclusive growth, we do believe that the benefits of this development must reach to the last person and they must be the beneficiary. So this is what we’re doing.
Blaming delayed data for malnutrition is not going to help Modi. But claiming that Gujarat is a better performing state blandly won’t help. If he has the data showing significant improvement, he should have produced it.
People want to know who is the real Modi – Hindu nationalist leader or pro-business chief minister?
I’m nationalist. I’m patriotic. Nothing is wrong. I’m a born Hindu. Nothing is wrong. So, I’m a Hindu nationalist so yes, you can say I’m a Hindu nationalist because I’m a born Hindu. I’m patriotic so nothing is wrong in it. As far as progressive, development-oriented, workaholic, whatever they say, this is what they are saying. So there’s no contradiction between the two. It’s one and the same image.
Another controversial – but clever reply. Modi is not calling himself a Hindu nationalist, but he does not deny the tag either. He gives it a different spin, pointing out that he is a nationalist (not anything anyone can take exception to), and born a Hindu. Hence he is saying he is a nationalist Hindu, not a Hindu nationalist (a Hindu fanatic). The statement can mean different things to different people, which is probably what Modi intended anyway.
On Brand Modi and people behind the PR strategy
The western world and India – there’s a huge difference between them. Here, India is such a country that a PR agency will not be able to make a person into anything. Media can’t make anything of a person. If someone tries to project a false face in India, then my country reacts badly to it. Here, people’s thinking is different. People won’t tolerate hypocrisy for very long. If you project yourself the way you actually are, then people will accept even your shortcomings. Man’s weaknesses are accepted. And they’ll say, yes, okay, he’s genuine, he works hard. So our country’s thinking is different. As far as a PR agency is concerned, I have never looked at or listened to or met a PR agency. Modi does not have a PR agency. Never have I kept one.
This is a surprise answer, since the widespread belief is that APCO manages his PR. Unless his denial means the PR is for the government, not him personally.
Bottomline: Modi’s real strength is mass communication and public speaking. In direct one-on-ones, he can sometimes goof up – as he did in this case. This is why Congress president Sonia and her son never give interviews.
In any Q&A, 2002 will always figure among the questions, as every reporter worth his salt feels compelled to raise it. And Modi’s explanations often end up making him look worse that he is.
Modi’s spin doctors have a lot of coaching to do in future one-on-ones.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group