PM Modi's interview spree: Straws in the electoral wind

All its bluster notwithstanding, there’s enough and more circumstantial evidence that the BJP is struggling in these elections

PM Modi speaks to Rubika Liyaquat  of News 18
PM Modi speaks to Rubika Liyaquat of News 18

Uttam Sengupta

It’s becoming clear that the BJP is under pressure in the ongoing elections. Even in the northern states, where barely weeks ago few would have given Opposition parties a fighting chance. His critics and admirers are both listening closely to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s words, alert to the tiniest inflections.

In his campaign speeches and in the sudden rash of interviews he has obliged various media players with. Those words, straight from the horse’s mouth, should indeed be revealing, considering all the trusty sources that provide ground-intelligence inputs to the horse.

If the bare fact of these staged interviews were not already a signal that there was a perceived need to (re)build a narrative, there are also noticeable changes in theme, tone and tenor, and those changes are revealing to all but those who make and sell all the paraphernalia of the cult of Modi.

His critics obviously wish the BJP loses this election and loses it badly. They are finding his speeches incoherent and his U-turns an indication of how rattled he is. For example, his assertion that a Congress government would take away everything from everyone else and give it to Muslims. The prime minister has obligingly provided this lot with more grist in his campaign speeches (just say 'mangalsutra' or ‘buffalo’ and watch their reaction).

His admirers focus on the prime minister’s energy, his ability to meet punishing schedules at the age of 74. For them, there is no question of Modi retiring from active politics at 75, never mind that the rule applies to lesser mortals in the BJP. He is unquestionably fit for another term, they gush, countering Arvind Kejriwal’s recent bombshell that Amit Shah, who is still in his 50s — even if he looks deceptively older — will replace Modi as prime minister next year, should the NDA win.

His devotees still expect Modi to pull a rabbit out of the hat and ensure that the NDA sails past the 400-seats mark. They still find his election speeches ‘clever’, ‘smart’, designed to grab headlines and confuse the Opposition.

The most noticeable U-turn he made in the interviews was to completely disavow that his campaign speeches had communal overtones. Doing so, he said in one such interview to a TV channel, would render him unfit for public life. For his fans in the media, this was ample proof he was not rattled, that he was now certain of victory, and didn’t have to pretend to be, in the colourful vocabulary of right-wing trolls, a ‘sickular librandu’.

However, Congress’s data analytics man Praveen Chakravarty, also now the chairman of the All India Professionals’ Congress, says nobody really knows the election score at this point in time. PM Modi and Shah, by virtue of being the PM’s confidant, are the two most likely, he says, to know the approximate numbers. They will be receiving daily progress reports from the Intelligence Bureau and friendly foreign powers, and are the best election weather vanes.

Chakravarty calculates that the prime minister delivered as many as 81 speeches between 9 March and 8 May this year. Until mid-April, his speeches were peppered with boasts of ‘abki baar, 400 paar’. The reference to ‘400 paar’ tapered off, then stopped, as the prime minister started amping up the anti-Muslim rhetoric.

He started talking of Muslims usurping national resources. He began attacking the Congress manifesto, and said a Congress government would be weak, divisive and disastrous. In a return to the BJP’s old favourite Muslim-appeasement song to berate the Congress, he said the party just wanted to appease its favourite minorities, and end all reservations for OBCs, SC and STs and give them to Muslims.

In the first week of May, he changed direction. Somewhat out of the blue, he accused the two largest business houses in the country, owned by the Adanis and Ambanis, of sending sackfuls of black money in “tempos” to the Congress. That comment set a cat among the pigeons — the stock market crashed and the Congress seized the opportunity to demand an investigation by the ED (Enforcement Directorate), the Income Tax department and the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation).

Never again, though: just as suddenly as he had lashed out, he fell completely silent on the Amabni-Adani “black money to Congress” charge. Significantly, not a single interviewer asked him to explain what he meant.

Earlier this week, in the face of video evidence to the contrary — quickly brought to public attention by fact-checker Mohammed Zubair — the prime minister denied ever describing Muslims as infiltrators and people who breed like mice.

With Amish Devgan (News18)
With Chitra Tripathi (Aaj Tak)
With Arnab Goswami (Republic TV)

“I have never spoken of a Hindu-Muslim divide; if I do, I will no longer be fit for public life,” he told Rubika Liyaquat of News18, when she asked if it was necessary for him to speak of Muslims in those terms. “Main hairan hoon ji… kisne aapko kah diya…Musalmaan ki baat kyun karte hain… gareebon ke bacche zyada hote hain… maine na Hindu kaha, aur na Musalmaan kaha (I'm astonished, why do they bring up Muslims, poor people have more children, I mentioned neither nor Muslim),” he said with righteous indignation.

A few days earlier, in an interview with Navika Kumar of Times Now, he was asked the same question. The prime minister presented a picture of injured innocence. He grew up among Muslims, he said; he had several Muslim friends, and on Eid, Muslim neighbours sent food to his family. How could he possibly “do Hindu-Muslim”?

He was merely stating facts and exposing the Congress manifesto, he said. To a third interviewer from another channel, he claimed he grew up participating in Muharram processions.

“There is a point to this backtracking — the BJP is getting word from the ground that the Yadavs, OBCs and Muslims are consolidating behind the INDIA bloc. Modi does not give a flying fish for Muslims, but he cannot afford that kind of consolidation. So, damage control,” posted political analyst and commentator Prem Panicker.

The flurry of media interviews in the first fortnight of May, upwards of 20 by some estimates, have by themselves set tongues wagging. It is unlike Modi to offer clarifications and justifications. Why, then, is he giving so many interviews, sometimes more than once to the same channel in one week? On questions doubtless prompted by the PMO in advance.

Paid PR? None of these scrupulous TV interviewers, from media companies that claim to bring you the unvarnished truth, has interviewed Rahul Gandhi even once.

Some say the prime minister wants to create a more personable persona for himself, that he may even be preparing for a graceful exit, just in case... Elections are farthest from his mind, he told Times Now. Yeah, right!


After the fourth round of polling, Amit Shah blurted out that by his reckoning, the NDA was set to win 190 of 380 seats where voting had concluded. The inscrutable mask was back on the next day: “Modiji has already won 270 seats and secured a majority”; the target now is ‘400 paar’.

Asked by CNBC to comment on the stock market crash, Shah advised investors, with an all-knowing smile, to buy now because on counting day (4 June), the markets would surely shoot up again. He could be bluffing to keep up the morale of party workers or scheming behind the scenes to engineer a victory or he may know for certain. Who can tell?

Shah’s reputation as a cunning, know-it-all Chanakya was dented, however, in his home state of Gujarat. The party appears to be in turmoil, even after polling got over in the state on 7 May. Newspaper headlines screaming ‘BJP ma babaal (turmoil in the BJP)' are hard to miss.

A bigger blow to Shah’s reputation was his failure to prevent a BJP legislator from withdrawing in favour of his nominee for the post of IFFCO (Indian Farmers Fertiliser Cooperative) director. Shah himself called on the rebel MLA, Jayesh Radadiya, but Radadiya was defiant and defeated Shah’s candidate Bipin Patel. Is the hold of the Modi-Shah duo weakening in their home state?

There are other signs of churn. Uttar Pradesh, where the BJP had appeared invincible, especially after the consecration of the Ram Mandir, looks far more vulnerable now, especially in eastern Uttar Pradesh, where polling is due in the next three phases. Priyanka Gandhi’s presence in Amethi and Rae Bareli has brought the election alive even in adjoining constituencies. Mayawati has tried to arrest the drift of Dalit voters from the BJP to the INDIA bloc, and the BJP will hope she succeeds.

Even a few weeks ago, close contests seemed unlikely in Uttar Pradesh, but the BJP no longer looks invincible, not even in its strongholds. Akhilesh Yadav’s decision to contest from Kannauj, which the BJP had won in 2019, is seen as a game-changer in the region, and may well affect the outcome in Kanpur as well.

Controversial former WFI (Wrestling Federation of India) chief Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh, dropped by the BJP in favour of his son, embarrassed the party by saying that he did not agree with Yogi Adityanath’s ‘bulldozer raj’. Another Rajput don close to the BJP, Raja Bhaiyya, a.k.a. ‘Kunda ka gunda’ (so named by former UP chief minister Kalyan Singh), declared that his supporters were free to vote for whoever they liked.

Reports that Shah was camping in Uttar Pradesh and was closeted with senior government officials strengthened speculation that chief minister Yogi Adityanath was being sidelined and would be replaced after the election.

In Bihar, Tejashwi Yadav is on a roll. He caused a flutter when he said Nitish Kumar may be in the NDA physically, but he was spiritually with the INDIA bloc. Nitish gave prime minister Modi’s nomination in Varanasi a miss on grounds of illness, providing further grist for the rumour mills.

In West Bengal, Left voters who had swelled the BJP’s vote percentage in 2019 are said to be returning to the Left, a possibility the BJP had not foreseen.

Despite the deployment of CAPF (Central Armed Police Forces) personnel in large numbers at the request of the BJP, at least three BJP candidates in Bengal — Jagannath Sarkar in Ranaghat, Dilip Ghosh in East Bardhaman-Durgapur and 'rajmata' Amrita Roy, who is taking on Mahua Moitra of Trinamool Congress (TMC) in Krishnanagar — have accused the CAPF of helping the TMC.

Sandeshkhali and the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act), issues the BJP was banking on to corner Mamata Banerjee’s TMC, seem to have fizzled out.

Even in BJP-ruled Uttar Pradesh, sitting BJP MP from Kannauj Subrat Pathak fumed at security forces in a polling booth and warned that he would initiate vigilance inquiries against them all. At the very least, these are signs that the ruling party’s grip is slackening. Samajwadi Party chief Akhilesh, who is taking on Pathak and is widely expected to win, also complained that the police were not allowing voters to reach booths to cast their votes.

Two hundred kilometres from Kannauj, in Bareilly, also in UP, a video went viral of two home guards assaulting a man and berating him for accepting free rations from the government and yet voting against the government. The victim was reportedly a Dalit watchman and had objected to the home guards mouthing obscenities at people voting against the BJP.

Political scientist Suhas Palshikar articulated what may be on the minds of many citizens. ‘A worrying thought: if, after numerous machinations and system takeovers, the ruling party is cut to size, what sabotage and mayhem will it unleash?’ A voter in Bengaluru last month warned that voters must ensure that the person inking their finger actually releases the control unit before they cast their vote.

Some polling personnel are in cahoots with political parties, he said, warning that they may try to dupe gullible voters into thinking that they had cast their votes when, in fact, the control unit has not been released to record the next vote. In Ujjain, Madhya Pradesh, voters accused a presiding officer of influencing voters with her chant of ‘Modi-Modi’ inside the booth. She was later seen apologising for her mistake.

At the end of the fourth round of polling, Yogendra Yadav, co-founder of political party Swaraj India and a well-regarded psephologist in his earlier career, reasoned, with a state-wise break-up at the ready, that the BJP and NDA were struggling to reach the half-way mark. He said they would end up well below their 2019 tally, but he also agreed with Pradeep Gupta of polling agency Axis My India in ruling out a 1977-like scenario.

He still does not see the BJP plunging below 200 seats or the INDI alliance securing 300 seats. So much for which way the wind is blowing. Go figure!

Follow us on: Facebook, Twitter, Google News, Instagram 

Join our official telegram channel (@nationalherald) and stay updated with the latest headlines