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'Modi is never ever prepared to consider failure as an option'

By Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com
March 24, 2015 09:55 IST
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Narendra Modi

'He is an extraordinarily focused, determined, full-time politician, who from the moment he wakes up to the moment that he goes to sleep is looking at the job in hand.'

'Modi will strain every sinew to deliver. He'll do everything in his power to deliver. He's set himself a very high bar for success because he's raised expectations during the election campaign to a very high level.'

The concluding segment of Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com's interview with journalist and author Lance Price, whose book The Modi Effect is an authoritative account of Narendra Modi's campaign to transform India.

As a journalist how do you look at Narendra Modi's personality on the world stage now? In your book you have said that he merits scrutiny.

I was very privileged to have such a long time to talk with him. It was very soon after the election. It was during the summer of 2014. In July, August, then September. I think it was more or less one a month.

Yeah, he clearly merits scrutiny, and I found him a very interesting, very complex character. He likes to talk a great deal about his campaign and all the rest of it.

But he is also a very private, very personal, person. And you know, he's very much in his own inner fold, he's much more reluctant to talk about things like his family and all that sort of thing, it is a bit of an area that he has every right to keep private and I don't criticise him for that at all.

But if you look at his election campaign and you raised the business about Hindutva and the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) background and all of that... he didn't talk about that at all.

He did his best to avoid talking about that because he wanted to present himself as the development man. He wanted the twin pillars of his campaign to be good governance and development for India. That was his choice. And actually he was very successful in that.

In the book I talk about how he controlled the agenda, how he didn't give interviews to the media, didn't give interviews to the English-speaking media until very late in the campaign. So he was able to set the agenda. I mean he is very good at that.

That's something politicians all around the world like to do. They like to control the agenda and stop the journalist deciding what the issues of the day are. In the past, I have tried to do that on behalf of Tony Blair -- it was a very difficult thing to do.

But even here in India with so many journalists, so many television channels and so much online media, for a long long time he didn't speak.

He told you that it was his strategy, right?

It was absolutely a strategy and he understands the media. I am told, now he doesn't have a media adviser. I think one of the reasons for that is he understands the media so well himself!

He knows how to play the media. He knows how to get guys to write the stuff he is playing.

So what is the profile that you got of Narendra Modi, the person?

I think he is an extraordinarily focused, determined, full-time politician, who from the moment he wakes up to the moment that he goes to sleep is looking at the job in hand.

I think he is very good at looking forward rather than back, which is an important quality for a successful politician.

In the book, I quote Mahatma Gandhi who said, 'Success comes from an indomitable will.' And there is no doubt in my mind that Modi has that indomitable will.

He also never ever, as far as I can tell, is prepared to consider failure as an option. Whatever he does, he wants to succeed.

That was true when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. It was true in the election campaign, and now I think it is true of him being the prime minister.

He is not going to allow anything that he can influence to stop him be a successful prime minister. And that kind of absolute will, focus and determination is what all great leaders have.

Now that doesn't mean he will be a great leader. It is still early days. He hasn't even been prime minister for a year yet.

So he has earned his place in history through this remarkable campaign and through becoming the first non-Congress politician to win a majority in the Lok Sabha. He has got his place in history.

But that won't be enough for him, because he is always looking towards the future. So now he wants to be a successful prime minister.

Non-Indian readers of your book would like to know what is the idea you got, after talking to him, of the broad contours of his foreign policy.

I think his foreign policy is very much as it should be, focused on India's interest. I don't think he is going to dance to anybody else's tune, including the Americans, Britain, the European Union and all the rest of it.

We all have our views about what we want him to do and where we want India's place to be. But he has welcomed the Chinese president, he has been to Japan. Interestingly, he still hasn't been to the United Kingdom. But we have a general election of our own going on, so we are keen to welcome him later in the year.

I think his foreign policy is India First and that is what you expect from a leader like Modi.

Indians would like to ask you after reading your book: Will he deliver?

You can't ask me whether he will deliver. That's a question...

Based on what he says, you've seen him unfold before you...

The best answer I could give to the question, is that he will strain every sinew of his body to deliver. He'll do everything in his power to deliver. He'll face enormous challenges.

He has set himself a very high bar for success because he has raised expectations during the election campaign to a very high level.

So he has to achieve a great deal in order to live up to the promise that he made.

I think he will find all sorts of difficulties which I know having worked in government -- you think that you are there as prime minister and you can press a button and suddenly things will happen. It is a lot harder than that.

I know how frustrated prime ministers get when they think, 'Well, I've asked for this thing to happen... Why can't we see the difference already on the ground?'

I am sure the public will at times get frustrated, that there hasn't been as much progress as quickly as they would like there to be, but sometimes that's what government is all about.

But the judgement on that really, has to come in five years's time, not now.

What is your answer: Will he deliver?

I can't! (gets flummoxed) I don't have an astrologer, I don't have a crystal ball... I can't look forward five years and say what will happen in the next election...

All I can tell you is that if he doesn't deliver, it won't be through any lack of will or in determination or focus on the job.

In the book you say Modi told you the Indian people voted for him personally, meaning for his personality. After that, there is a PMO (Prime Minister's Office) clarification on the issue.

What is the exact position? What did he mean? Is that statement true or not?

Actually, he didn't say that. What he said was when I said, 'You seem to be very much the focus of the campaign, the Modi campaign, it was all about you.' He said that was because when he listened to the people, the people were asking for a trusted name, not a party name. They wanted a person to trust. The exact quotation is in the book.

I am paraphrasing what he said. 'In Indian culture there is a history of placing trust in a person and therefore he was presenting himself as that person and that is the alternative to the government.'

Therefore he was responding to what the people were asking for... that's why he put himself as a person to be trusted.

He wasn't claiming all the credit for the election victory. He was saying that he had responded to what he heard from the people, that they wanted a leader that they could trust.

After the election, he paid tribute to his party, to the Bharatiya Janata Party at all levels, he paid tribute to all of those who had volunteered to help him.

I am not sure that that got reported so much, because it was all 'Modi, Modi, Modi, Modi.' Now it was all 'Modi, Modi, Modi, Modi' because that's what he wanted, that's how he designed his campaign.

His critics say he is a narcissist. Is he a narcissist?

I think he is. I have never met a politician who isn't egotistical, who doesn't love to talk about himself, who doesn't love to be the focus of attention.

And in that respect, Modi is the same as every other politician, every other prime minister or president that I've ever met. They are all like that.

So don't be surprised if he has got an ego. Of course, he has! One of his staffers said to me -- a 360-degree campaign. So wherever you look, you saw Modi.

Could you explain to me that statement? What do you mean when you said he's a 360-degree politician and he had 360-degree campaign?

Yeah, well, the phrase is not mine. It is a phrase from one of his staffers, one of his BJP staff, who said that this was a 360-degree campaign. And that meant you could look anywhere in the 360 degrees around you and all you'd see was Modi. And I think that was it... it was a saturation campaign!

He dominated the media, the social media... his picture was everywhere, it was on T-shirts, on posters, there were masks... There was Modi wherever you looked.

So clearly it was a very personal campaign. I describe it as a quasi-presidential campaign. He made himself the issue.

You know the BJP's senior leader L K Advani said during the election campaign that 'Narendra Modi is a very good event manager.' You have interviewed him, and you have written on how he won this election.

Is Modi's entire success and the historical mandate actually event management? What kind of a political depth do you see in Modi?

I think it is definitely more than event management. Of course, Modi is very good at staging events. He is very good at the big rallies. People travelled hundreds of miles to see him speak.

So, of course, he is box office in that sense. He is a superstar. But there is nothing wrong with that.

You know, if you want to be good at communicating in politics, you've to have that quality. And he has that quality.

But he wasn't just elected because he knew how to stage a good event. He was elected because he offered a different vision for the country. He spoke of politics in a different way, he inspired hope.

I think that is something that is true in politics around the world! If you are the kind of candidate who is offering optimism and hope for the future then you have a huge advantage over your opponents.

I call the book The Modi Effect, because what I wanted to look at was what extra in Modi... what was the Modi effect on the campaign.

I think that the timing of the election, the two terms of the UPA (United Progressive Alliance), and lots of disenchantment with anti-incumbency, with rising prices, with all the corruption and everything else... the timing was very auspicious for the BJP.

I think if there was probably another leader of the BJP like Advani or if someone else had been the candidate, probably the BJP would have ended up as the largest party in Parliament.

The Modi effect was to push the BJP beyond that. To go beyond 272, to create a majority. And that was from all the energy, all the passion, all the drive, all the imagination that Modi brought to the campaign. And that was what I wanted to write about.

In the Modi effect, what is the contribution of his Hindutva image and what he stands for it?

I think his background in Hindu nationalism, Hindutva and all of that consolidated his part in the election. So that is important. He was one of them. But 'The Modi Effect' has got nothing to do with that.

'The Modi Effect' is about development, it is about jobs, the economy. It is about a better future, better governance. And while he can never dissociate himself from those people in the RSS and from that part of the party...

And you say in the book that he has no desire to do that also...

From what I can tell, I don't know... He grew up in that tradition. I don't think he has any desire to turn his back on that.

But he recognises that the job of the prime minister requires much more than that. It involves concentrating on what he said he would do, which is development and good governance.

Image: Narendra Modi at an election rally in Varanasi, April 2014. Photograph: Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

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Sheela Bhatt/Rediff.com in New Delhi
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