India | Modi's exclusive interview to private channel fails to impress

Modi’s exclusive interview to private channel fails to impress

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first interview to a TV channel after assuming the post raised more questions than answers. It appeared to be more a public relations exercise on behalf of the ruling BJP. The questions and answers seemed to have been prepared in advance to avoid crucial issues. It, therefore, lacked credibility and failed to convince millions of viewers.

On June 27, 2016, the editor-in-chief of a much-watched Indian channel was privileged to interview the Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi.

Narendra Modi
Narendra Modi

After watching the show, many felt that the interview was fixed, an exercise to blow the ruling party’s trumpet while giving an impression of being objective.

It was in sharp contrast to Al Jazeera TV’s flagship one-on-one program of interviews with global celebrities in which the anchors do a marvellous job of taking down these celebrities.

Particularly impressive was Mehdi Hasan’s hard talk with Ram Madhav, general secretary of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. As Hasan kept asking questions, Madhav looked increasingly uncomfortable to defend his party against charges of its alleged fascist tendencies.

The editor-in-chief who interviewed Modi, on the other hand, damaged his own reputation somewhat as a tough interlocutor by turning the interview into a tame affair. It looked as if Modi was interviewing an aspiring journalist for the job of his media advisor.

India’s failure to effectively present its case of admission to Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) at the body’s meeting in Seoul (June 23-24) was a major foreign policy fiasco. The interviewer failed to draw out Modi on this issue.

Modi and his Foreign Service bureaucracy are to be blame for their foolish perseverance in trying to get India admitted to the exclusive club without doing adequate homework and despite opposition from many countries including Pakistan and China.

While the foreign minister was busy making phone calls from her office to NSG members, the Prime Minister traveled across the world to gather support for India’s application for NSG membership. But those travels proved costly and unnecessary. The Pakistanis were reportedly gleeful at India’s discomfiture at Seoul.

Were the Indian Foreign Service officials too scared of the Prime Minister to express their frank views on India’s NSG chances?

No questions were asked by the channel editor on information deficiency that is affecting the functioning of the ministry of external affairs. The Prime Minister was allowed to remain silent on his own colossal lack of diplomatic finesse.

Since Modi became Prime Minister, India’s diplomatic relations with its neighbors Pakistan and China had gone from bad to worse. Back-channel diplomacy with Pakistan had taken place during the mid-2000 to find a solution to the Kashmir dispute. A four-point formula was also evolved during the Manmohan Singh regime with then Pakistan president Parvez Musharraf.

If Modi had been serious enough, he could have easily revived the four-point formula for further dialogue with Pakistan. His misdirected policies, however, led to aggravation of tensions with Pakistan on the border and elsewhere. The interviewer should have asked the Prime Minister to spell out his peace formula, if any, with Pakistan instead of castigating that country during the talk.

Similarly, on China, there is scope for peaceful settlement of the border dispute as explicated by Dorothy Woodman, a noted authority. She had stated that the Sino-Indian border dispute is the easiest to resolve and there is scope for serious negotiations, not just interminable talks, to find a compromise solution.

During the Raisina Dialogue in New Delhi (early March 2016), fellow South Asian leaders urged India to take advantage of the funds available with China’s International Investment Bank for projects in India and allow other South Asian countries to act likewise instead of persecuting them on security grounds.  India has remained uncooperative on this.

India’s attitude to China’s One Belt One Road development initiative too needs closer analysis. The interviewer just sidestepped these issues.

Relations with the U.S. have been placed on a higher pedestal by the Modi government. Modi needs to explain the historical compulsions behind India’s emerging military relationship with the US especially in relation to rising tensions in the South China Sea. He needs to place the matter before the Parliament. The interviewer failed to articulate this public concern with the Prime Minister.

On the domestic front, the interviewer played down crucial issues such as Modi’s failure to impose restraint on the political maverick Subramanian Swamy who launched reckless attacks on India’s central bank governor Raghuram Rajan. No question was asked on why Modi spoke against Swamy only after Rajan decided to exit India.

Surprisingly, during the interview, Modi made an unconvincing argument that violent language and actions by his party and cohorts would stop when ‘vikas’ (development) takes place. The interviewer did not ask him to elaborate on ‘development’ and how it is linked to violent language or actions by his party members.

Modi’s response to the killing of dissenting intellectuals by his party sympathisers did not figure in this so called exclusive interview.

No questions were asked on two important aspects of ‘governance: the role of village councils for local self-government at the district, block and village levels and administrative reforms.

The role of village councils is crucial for India and it needs elaboration.

Massive budget cuts in 2015 led to attempts to wind up the Ministry of Panchayati Raj (village councils) and merge it with the Ministry of Rural Development.

There are 58,000 village panchayats (councils) in India and they have no office facilities. The 73rd Constitutional Amendment, 1992 provides that village councils are the joint responsibility of the state and central governments.

The Amendment was intended to radically reorganize last-mile delivery of public goods and services to the village councils as ‘institutions of self-government’ and equip them with functions, finances and functionaries (the three ‘F’s). With a 33% reservation for women, it was a massive empowering mechanism for rural women at the local level.

This meant a revolution in political relations between elected local government authorities and the State political set-up. Village councils remain on the state list of the Constitution but the Centre is responsible to work with the states to fulfil the spirit of the constitutional amendment.  For this task, an independent ministry under an influential minister is essential.

The interviewer failed to raise questions on this important issue.

One looked forward to the views and plan of action of the Prime Minister on the complex and fundamental issue of administrative reforms in India reported at length in the 15 volumes produced by the Second Administrative Reforms Commission of India (2005).

The interviewer did not raise any question on this issue too.

The author is former senior official of the Union Home Ministry in New Delhi. He is the author of several books especially the latest ‘State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India’ Routledge, 2016

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Kadayam Subramanian
Kadayam Subramanian is former Director, Research and Policy Division, Union Home Ministry, Government of India, and former Director General of Police in Northeast India. He is the author, among others, of Political Violence and the Police in India, Sage, 2007, and State, Policy and Conflicts in Northeast India, Routledge, 2016
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