More stunning than what he said was the fact he said it in front of Modi himself. None of this implies there is a groundswell of discontent grumbling through the party ranks. But it also shows that while Modi’s grip over the party is iron-clad, it does not mean there are no chinks in the armor.
Meanwhile abroad, Modi has had to deal with more stories about perceptions of attacks on Christians and church vandalisation than about India Shining. Whether the perceptions are fact-based or not is moot. For a while the narrative was India is no country for women. Now it looked like it was changing to India is no country for Christians. Shashi Tharoor claimed that when a church in an outer suburb of Delhi is vandalized and it makes it to the front page of the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine, a German investor wrote to him to ask “Is this the kind of India in which you want us to invest?”
It’s all a perception game. And Modi understands he needs to quickly step in and fix the perception. In short, it’s good time for Time.
He gave its editors two hours. And he gave the portrait photographer a full hour. The photographer Peter Hapak himself said it was “very unusual because most of the time I only have 10 minutes for a portrait session.”
Perhaps Modi enjoys having his portrait done. But more likely he understands the opportunity the Time interview presents to correct a picture.
How well does he correct it? Reading the full-length interview on Time’s website you can see that Modi has learned a few things in the past year.
Checking the Gujarat Reflex
When Modi was on the campaign trail and in the few interviews he has done as Prime Minister, he had the habit of falling back on Gujarat every time he needed to cite an example to make a point. It was his comfort zone, his area of expertise. He’s realized he has to stop sounding like the Chief Minister of Gujarat anymore. In the entire Time interview he only brings up Gujarat twice. Tellingly neither made it into the print edition. There’s another word missing on all sides that should warm Indian hearts. Nobody says Pakistan ever in the whole interview. India is well and truly out of that bracket in international eyes.
Forget the Cheesy Acronyms
Nobody loves an acronym as much as Modi and it seemed every other speech introduced a new Modi acronym. P2G2. 3Ds. 5Ts. Perhaps someone told him it’s starting to sound like he is running a government of Star Wars robots but he’s understood that the acronyms do not add to his Prime Ministerial gravitas and while they might excite a graduating MBA class, Time’s editors would probably be nonplussed. Acronyms have been junked for now.
Reassure, Reassure, Reassure
Modi was clearly determined to reassure any nervous India-watchers that the country was in safe hands. No sudden jhatka moves were in the works. The PM sounds perfectly zen about everything. India-China tensions? He talks about a “framework of peace and tranquility.” Does the power of dictatorship seem alluring? Don’t worry, democracy is in India’s DNA. US-Russian tensions putting India in a spot? Not at all. “Whatever is agreed within the framework of United Nations, the international community should follow it.” What about those party members saying “unkind things” about minorities? Instead of bristling defensively, he smoothly insists “wherever an individual view might have been expressed with regard to a particular minority religion, we have immediately negated that.” “Immediately” sometimes has taken weeks, if at all, but Time did not press Modi on that. Interestingly, in the excerpted interview it also chose to omit his quote about there being no place for “imaginary apprehensions with regards to the rights of minorities in India.”
Sab Ka Saath, Sab Ka Vikaas.
The framing of the interview, at least according to the cover, is “the world needs India to step up as a global power” and whether Narendra Modi can deliver. But few of the questions actually probed Modi on what India might do as a global power. And Modi made everything sound like peace, love and friendship for all. It’s not about US or India but about “what India and the US can together do for the world.” While hardliners in his party commonly say every Muslim is not a terrorist but every terrorist is a Muslim, Modi talks reassuringly about the need to “delink terrorism from religion.” And unlike the US Axis of Evil, he presents the idea of an Axis of Good where all countries that believe in human values come together and fight this evil force. Very Star Wars. Let’s all sign the United Nations Comprehensive Convention on International Terrorism, let’s all be partners in cleaning the Ganga. The interview should be music to Ban-ki Moon’s ears. It’s as if Modi has taken his domestic mantra of “sab ka saath, sab ka vikaas” and globalized it. “All should be happy, all should be healthy, all should live life to the fullest.”
There’s No Yes-No Question.
Does India support international sanctions against Russia? Will India specify a cap on its emissions. Modi has learned yes-no questions don’t need yes-no answers. He refuses adroitly to be pinned down on anything. And he’s also figured out that when in doubt, tell a story. Ask him about climate change and he’s happy to tell stories about how Indians call the moon Chandamama. This close bonding with Nature, as he describes it, does not mean his government has not slashed the budget of the environment ministry but Modi has perfected the politician’s art of serving everything sunnyside up.
India Über Alles
The PM loses no opportunity to gently remind the world that India did it first. Asked about climate change he said the India in particular has historically pursued economic growth in co-existence with Nature and Mother Earth. Asked about worries about freedom of speech he pointed out that while the West imprisoned Galileo, Charvaka was accommodated and equated to a sage despite his theory of “extreme hedonism.” That of course did not prevent Indian politicians from passing or defending 66A but the larger message Modi is getting out, with a smile, is that he’s not going to take any finger-wagging morality from the West.
Don’t Worry, Be Happy
If anyone was worried about pace of reforms and change, Modi was there to reassure them that the “world is excited and enthusiastic about India,” that he’d put the I back in BRIC, lifted Moody’s mood and that he not only had in his mind “a very clear outline of the framework of what we are going to do in the next five years” but the last year had gone “precisely as per that plan” from GST to FDI. Sure, getting used to the Federal government structure was a bit of a challenge, but not to worry, because “within a very short time” he had “bridged the gap through very focused and concentrated actions” and created “a smooth, seamless working mechanism within the Federal structure.” That might be Modi-speak for bypassing ministers and empowering the bureaucrats to directly work with the Cabinet Secretariat and the PMO.
Yet for all his suaveness and panache, Modi still betrays some areas where he just cannot go. When asked about minorities he reaches deep into his bag and offers up the Parsees as a micro-minority that has thrived in India. It’s wonderful that there’s been a Parsi chief of army staff and a Parsi Chief Justice but the only time anyone mentions the Muslim word in the interview, it’s the Time editors. For all his reassurance, Modi talks about minorities and ignores the elephant in the room just like he once ignored that skull cap.
But in general he should be happy with the interview. His slew of foreign trips might have made him fodder for snide jokes about a visiting prime minister in India but it’s certainly helped him establish his profile abroad. If prior to the election, he had a bit of a Darth Vader image in the world, now he is presenting a far more wise Yoda the Jedi master persona. And if the Time interview had any objective it was to reassure the world that the force was very much with him.