Listening to 41 Modi interviews: Few tough questions, no rebuttals, no fact checks

“The day I do Hindu-Muslim, I will be unworthy of public life,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told the News18 India news channel on Tuesday. He made this statement shortly after he had been asked to explain why he had let out a dog whistle at a rally in Rajasthan by mentioning “infiltrators” and “those who have more children” – an unsubtle reference to India’s Muslims.

However, Modi claimed to News18 India’s Rubika Liaquat that he was surprised that Muslims were seen to be the target of his remark in Rajasthan’s Banswara about those who have more children. “Why this injustice with Muslims?” he asked. “This is the state of [all] poor families here. They are not able to educate their children. Irrespective of the community, wherever there is poverty, you will find more children.”

Liaquat asked Modi if he had not meant to insinuate that Muslims have more children than members of other communities. “I have neither said Hindus, nor Muslims,” he insisted.

The interviewer did not ask Modi to explain what he had meant by “infiltrators”. Modi did not care to clarify. The interview carried on.

This conversation was the template by which Modi has conducted himself during the spate of interviews he has given during the campaign for the 2024 Lok Sabha elections.

Between March 31 and May 14, when Modi filed his nomination for the Varanasi Lok Sabha seat, the prime minister gave 41 interviews. Watching all these interviews, it is clear that Modi faced very few tough questions. For example, the News18 interview was the first time Modi was directly questioned on his comments at the Banswara rally – 24 days after the event.

As with the News18 interview, even when questions were posed to Modi about contentious matters, the journalists did not ask counter questions nor challenge misleading claims by Modi. The prime minister was rarely asked questions on the failure of his government to deliver on its promises.

Here are the broad themes that emerged during Modi’s interviews.

Tough questions missing

In most of these media interactions, Modi spoke at length not just about his third term, but the Bharatiya Janata Party’s vision for India 2047. However, the journalists simply did not ask him enough tough questions about his regime’s track record.

In the 41 interviews, Scroll was unable to find a single question about the Modi government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. None of the interviewers posed questions about the violence against Muslims in India.

Just one interview, by the The Assam Tribune, featured a question about the civil war in Manipur. That interview by The Assam Tribune and one other by Newsweek were the only time Modi was asked about the border tensions with China.

Only four news outlets – Thanthi TV, ANI, Rajasthan Patrika and Divya Bhaskar – questioned the prime minister on the electoral bonds controversy that broke out right before the elections started.

When the Modi government introduced the electoral bonds scheme in 2018, it claimed that the instruments would help clean up political finance in India by allowing donors to contribute money to parties anonymously. However, the Supreme Court struck them down as illegal on February 15, pointing out that they offered immense scope for quid pro quos.

Meanwhile, since April 27, when allegations surfaced of sexual exploitation by Prajwal Revanna, an MP of the Janata Dal (Secular), Modi was questioned on the matter in just three of the 29 interviews he sat down for. Only news channel Times Now, Hindi daily Hindustan and English daily Hindustan Times asked him about the accusations against an important member of a party that is the BJP’s ally.

Regional outlets failed to raise matters relevant to their states. In two interviews focused on Uttarakhand, the state editions of the Hindi dailies Amar Ujala and Hindustan did not ask questions on the controversial Agnipath scheme for short-term military recruitment even though the hill state has traditionally sent a large number of young recruits to the forces.

In addition, the interviews to The Assam Tribune and Bengali daily Anandabazar Patrika did not have any questions about the Citizenship Amendment Act. The act, which offers a fast track to Indian citizenship for undocumented non-Muslim migrants from three countries, including neighbouring Bangladesh, is a key electoral issue in Assam and Bengal.

In six interviews to Gujarati news organisations – Akila News, Gujarat Samachar, Divya Bhaskar, Phoolchhab, Sandesh, Kutchmitra, Janmabhumi and Phoolchhab – Modi was not questioned about reports of internal squabbles in the the BJP’s state unit.

No follow-up questions, no fact checks

Even when Modi was asked tough questions, the journalists did not follow up on his replies or counter the prime minister when he made factually incorrect claims.

For example, in the Hindustan Times interview, Modi was asked if voters would be distracted from “real poll issues” by the allegations against Revanna or the prime minister’s claim that the Congress wanted to seize the mangalsutras of Hindu women. Modi has claimed that if the Congress came to power, it would seize the necklaces as part of its plan to redistribute private wealth to Muslims.

In his reply, Modi laid the blame on the media for failing to highlight “dangerous statements of Congress’ prince [Rahul Gandhi] and the destructive thoughts in its manifesto”.

On the Revanna matter, Modi said he had “zero tolerance for such issues”. He pointed out that the Congress too has previously had ties with Revanna’s party.

The Hindustan Times did not counter saying that the Congress manifesto makes no mention of redistributing public wealth, let alone of mangalsutras. Neither did journalists of the newspaper ask Modi how Revanna had managed to flee the country, or why the BJP ignored warnings from its own leader about the potential fallout of an alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular).

On Times Now, one of the three outlets that questioned Modi about Revanna, Modi repeated his “zero tolerance” line, adding that it was a law and order matter for which the state government was responsible. Karnataka is ruled by the Congress. The channel’s Editor-in-Chief Navika Kumar’s follow up question was virtually a free pass: “Will you bring him [Revanna] back?”

In the same interview, Times Now Consulting Editor Sushant Sinha asked Modi to explain the dangers of allowing reservations in educational institutions and government jobs based on religion – a matter the prime minister has falsely claimed is mentioned in the Congress manifesto.

The absence of fact checks could be seen in other instances too. In its interview, TV9 Network journalists questioned Modi on the Opposition’s claim that the BJP wanted a super majority of 400 seats so that it could change the Constitution. Modi offered a lengthy reply on how the Congress had undermined the Constitution on several occasions.

The interviewers did not point out that four BJP leaders have explicitly stated that the party is seeking an overwhelming majority so that it can make changes to the Constitution.

The pattern was consistent on questions on electoral bonds. Modi was asked questions about them in only four interviews. In his replies, Modi maintained that the scheme was transparent and the Supreme Court’s decision to strike it down would lead to an influx of black money in the electoral process.

In none of the interviews, Modi was countered by questions on the widely reported quid pro quo arrangements between corporations and the BJP that the bonds facilitated.

Narendra Modi being interviewed by Smita Prakash of ANI. Credit: Screenshot via @ANI

False claims about religion-based reservations

In several interviews over the last three weeks, Modi has repeated his false claims that the Congress planned to seize and redistribute private wealth to Muslims. He has also claimed that the Congress would snatch away reservations in educational institutions and government jobs from Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes and give them to Muslims. Scroll and other publications have debunked both these claims.

Though Modi claimed to be talking about the Congress’ election manifesto, statements of this sort began to appear in his interviews only after his speech in Banswara on April 21. This was two weeks after the Congress manifesto had been released on April 5.

In Modi’s interview with news agency ANI on April 15, for instance, the words “Muslim” and “reservation” did not feature in the entire conversation – even though it was one of the longest interviews the prime minister has given this election season. Through the 77 minutes, he does not talk about the Congress manifesto or the debate around the redistribution of wealth.

This does not feature in his interview to Kannada news channel Asianet Suvarna on April 20 either. Though Modi criticised Karnatka’s Congress government on a range of matters, he did not say that it had taken away OBC quota to give it to Muslims.

But in almost every interview after the Banswara rally, Modi made it a point to raise the bogey of religion-based quotas – at times, even without being asked on the matter.

For example, the first question in his interview to the The Times of India on April 29 was about his assessment of the first two phases of polling and whether his party would win 400 seats.

As part of his answer, Modi said: “For us, one of the main reasons we want to win 400 seats is to protect the rights of SCs, STs and OBCs in our country. We want a thumping majority so that the evil designs of the opposition to take away their reservation and rights, and give them to their vote bank are foiled.”

The ‘400 paar’ slogan

The BJP’s election slogan of “400 paar”, setting a target for the party and its allies to win more than 400 seats, has also been a regular feature in Modi’s interviews. The questions have been largely focused on whether the prime minister was confident of achieving the target.

In his replies, Modi has time and again tried to downplay the speculation among political observers that the “400 paar” slogan might have led to complacency in the BJP’s ranks. In his interview to The Times of India, Modi said: “As a karyakarta [functionary] myself, I can attest that no complacency sets in within BJP. All top leaders of our party are constantly in the field, among the people.”

Modi has also repeatedly stated that it was BJP supporters, and not the party leadership, who came up with the slogan. “…Feeling among people was that we should give 370 seats to the party which abrogated Article 370 [in Jammu and Kashmir],” he told The Times of India. “And hence, the slogan, ‘Abki Baar, 400 Paar’ for the NDA [National Democratic Alliance] emanated from among the people.”

The prime minister repeated this argument in interviews to the Hindi dailies Dainik Jagran and Rajasthan Patrika, the Marathi daily Sakal, and news channels Aaj Tak and India TV.

However, in at least two interviews earlier this month, Modi offered a more nuanced response. In his interview to Times Now on May 6, Modi said, “In a functional way, the NDA plus was already nearly 400”. The National Democratic Alliance is the ruling coalition at the Centre, led by the BJP.

Modi added in the interview: “When we won in 2019, we [the National Democratic Alliance] had nearly 359 MPs. Political parties from Andhra [Pradesh] and Odisha were always with us. It comes to around 35 MPs. Then MPs from [the] North East are with us.”

Modi gave a similar reply in his interview to Republic TV on May 10, saying that the “effective majority” that his government enjoyed in Parliament was already of more than 400 MPs.

Focus on southern states

A state-wise breakup of the regional news outlets to which Modi has given interviews show a clear attempt to bring a greater focus to the southern states, where the BJP is still a minor player. The prime minister has given seven interviews to news outlets based in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. The focus on southern states is second only to Gujarat. News organisations in the prime minister’s home state got six interviews.

On March 31, Modi’s first interview in the election season was to a Tamil news channel, Thanthi TV. A version of the interview, dubbed in Tamil, was also published on the YouTube channels of Thanthi TV and the prime minister.

Even in the case of interviews to almost all national news organisations, Modi has been asked several questions about the BJP’s plans and prospects in the southern states. For example, in his interview to The Times of India, Modi was asked five questions only about the BJP’s chances in the south. The interview on ANI followed a similar pattern.

Even News18 Rajasthan, a regional channel outside the southern states, asked Modi three questions on the BJP’s prospects in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. The interview was conducted on May 13, the day of polling in the twin states.

Plans for a third term

In several interviews, Modi was asked about his plans for his third term, giving him an opportunity to assert that his party coming back to power was a done deal.

For instance, in her first question to the prime minister, ANI Editor-in-Chief Smita Prakash asked Modi: “…You have said in many speeches that 2024 is not your target, it is 2047. What is going to happen by 2047, and is this election just a formality?”

In her next question, Prakash borrowed from a Modi speech where the prime minister had said that his first two terms were only “trailers”, and the movie will start in his next term. Referring to these comments, the ANI editor asked Modi what his vision was for 2047.

Malayalam daily Mathrubhumi’s Editor Manoj K Das followed a similar line. “You are already preparing a road map for India,” Das declared in his first question. “What are the lessons you have picked from the last 10 years of governance to shape Amrit Kaal 2047?”

In the Times Now interview, the channel’s Consulting Editor Sushant Sinha asked Modi: “Is your preparation only for 2024 or is it also for 2029?”

Modi’s answers to these questions had a pattern in saying that he had already started planning for his next term and beyond. In his reply to Sinha, Modi said: “Neither do I think about elections, nor do I plan my work with election timetable in mind. I think about where this nation will be when it turns 100 years old, when we have reached a century of freedom.”

In the ANI interview, Modi said he had started planning for 2047 two years ago.

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