This Article is From May 14, 2019

Modi Interviews Should Be PR Disasters. Instead, He's On A Roll

Narendra Modi, who most believe is a few weeks away from being re-elected as India's Prime Minister, is not known for giving too many interviews. And those he permits are not exactly arduous. An advertising executive who crafted his 2014 campaign slogan asked him why he was such a "fakir", an ascetic. A Canadian (honorary) movie star asked him whether he ate mangoes. And some people from some TV channel called News Nation bravely asked him if he carries a wallet. (The Prime Minister no doubt wanted to imply that he is from such a humble background that he doesn't. Oddly, the only other person who famously does not carry a wallet is the Queen of England.)

It seems extraordinary that faced with this barrage of difficult questions, the Prime Minister would (a) manage to answer any of them controversially and (b) need to be told in advance what they are.


Prime Minister Narendra Modi during his "non-political interview" with actor Akshay Kumar

Yet it appears that both of these may be true. Certainly, the video of the News Nation interview is instructive. At one point, when asked by the brave and intrepid newsman if he's written any poetry recently, the Prime Minister calls for his file, and rummages through it. Sharp-eyed viewers say that on the paper he eventually settles on, that precise question is written, just above the text of a poem. That's the best sort of interview of a powerful leader, really. One where he knows that you're going to ask him about his poetry. Lesser leaders would be flummoxed and have no way to answer it. You need to have the foresight of Modi to anticipate that question in exactly those words and have a printout ready. Truly remarkable!

But that isn't the most controversial part of the News Nation interview. At one point, the PM, when asked a tough and probing question about how and why he likes gadgets - no ordinary person could answer that sort of thing, Rahul or Mamata or Lalu would struggle to come up with a reply! - the PM manages to get into a spot of trouble with his answer. He always loves technology, Modi explains: in 1987 or 1988, he had taken LK Advani's photograph with a digital camera and emailed it to Delhi, astounding Advani when it was printed in colour the next day.


After PM Modi's claim, many pointed out that the first digital camera was sold in 1987 (File photo)

Advani-ji is truly a man of the people, because his astonishment is mirrored among the public at large. If Modi in fact had access to a digital camera in 1987, then it was a tremendous achievement, and not just because barely a handful of people had heard of them. The first such cameras had only just come on the market in the United States, where they would have cost thousands of dollars. Importing them into India would have been prohibitively expensive in those pre-liberalisation days. But then, Modi is a fakir, right? He told The Indian Express he had undergone decades of tapasya. Really expensive digital cameras that nobody else in the entire country has are pretty much the definition of "tapasya". All the best rishis used to Instagram with them. Only way to gather followers.

Modi's use of e-mail in 1987-88 to send the photo is also, by any measure, a notable feat. After all, there was no commercial e-mail in India until 1995. In fact, there was no real commercial e-mail at all at that point. Indian universities had ERNet, but I can assure you that sending a photo on that would have taken a few days, it was so slow. Only Western defence and scientific establishments had really useful internet. One can only assume that Modi flew to New York, somehow got onto the US defence internet network ARPAnet, used it to e-mail the US embassy in Delhi, and got them to deliver the photo to the national papers. A man has to be truly committed to media coverage to do things like that - but then if any such man exists, it is Narendra Modi.


In the interview to News Nation, PM Modi talks about using e-mail for the first time in 1987-88 (File photo)

It is true that both these claims are somewhat open to question, especially from biased liberal types who believe in "facts". But I suppose all Modi has to say is that he misspoke and that he meant 1997 and not 1987. From other leaders, like say Rahul Gandhi, this would be a grievous error demonstrating his complete unfitness to rule or even draw breath, but from the Prime Minister, it's an amusing slip of the tongue.

The truth is, however, that even the email question is not the most controversial thing the Prime Minister might have said in this interview. That prize belongs to his claim that he overruled experts who wanted to postpone the Balakot airstrikes because it was a rainy day. But the Prime Minister's "raw wisdom" - his own modest words - was that clouds would help the Indian Air Force evade detection by Pakistani radar.

This shows an almost unique insight into radar technology on the behalf of our Prime Minister. So unique, in fact, that almost nobody in the field seems to share it.


PM Modi's comment that he suggested that clouds and rain could prevent Pakistani radars from detecting Indian fighter jets during the Balakot air strike has stirred a huge debate

But then this is the Prime Minister's approach to all major decisions. Why do you need expertise when you have "raw wisdom"? This is, after all, the instinct that gave us other great and unique hits like demonetization. After all, "experts" would have told you it was useless, but the PM's raw wisdom said otherwise. And now, more than two years later, we have no black money in the country! That's the power of "raw wisdom".

Some foolish anti-nationals might say that the country's national interest is best served by the politicians taking strategic decisions and letting defence professionals decide how and when they should be implemented. People who say this are obviously in the pay of Pakistan which has no radar that can penetrate cloud cover. Only weak countries allow their professionals to take military decisions. The really strong ones have amateurs deciding everything. The BJP is the national security party, after all - I feel much safer now that I know the security experts will be overruled whenever the Prime Minister has a bit of "raw wisdom" to impart.

All in all, it has been an interesting few days for Modi. He has the election all wrapped up, according to conventional wisdom, so he is presumably giving interviews now because he has nothing else to do before the results come in but to read a bit of poetry aloud and discuss mangoes. After all, nothing that he could ever say will shake his followers' faith in him. That's what "bhakt" means, right?

Except perhaps there is a minor difference this time. Modi can say what he likes about history or economics - his core social media supporters know nothing about those things anyway, and are never likely to. Good Indian boys all think these are "arts" subjects, best left to girls and Quora. But things like radar and digital technology are different. That some of them may actually care about. Modi had best go back to discussing myth and legend. Perhaps he can tell us how Ancient India already had e-mail. India even more ancient than 1987, that is.

(Mihir Swarup Sharma is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation.)

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