New Delhi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday emphasized the progress his government has made in the little over two years it has been in power, even as he struck a pragmatic note, far removed from the hyperbole that characterized his speeches in the run-up to the 2014 parliamentary elections.

Modi also outlined the contours of his government’s foreign policy, particularly with respect to regional rivals Pakistan and China. Taking China’s rebuff at the recent meeting to consider India’s membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) in his stride, the Prime Minister said the central pillar of this engagement is continued dialogue and progressively seeking out common ground. “Foreign policy is not about changing mindsets. Foreign policy is about finding common meeting points," he said.

Modi also signalled his government’s resolve to push for the passage of the much delayed constitutional amendment bill for implementation of the goods and services tax (GST). He sought to politically isolate the Congress, which has blocked the passage of the bill in the Rajya Sabha, and was careful to emphasize that its passage would benefit the poorer segments in states such as Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal—all opposition ruled states.

In an 85-minute interview with Times Now, Modi said there is now no “trace" of the all-pervasive “disappointment" that summed up how people felt about the then-ruling United Progressive Alliance in 2014. The Congress-led coalition was voted out for its mismanagement of the economy and a spate of corruption scandals. Only a comparison with the decade for which the UPA had governed India would show people “where we were and where we are now", Modi added.

“The entire system was engulfed in disappointment," the Prime Minister said, referring to the UPA’s legacy. “And today you can see that in every sector, the changed circumstances can be seen," he added.

Since taking charge, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led (BJP-led) National Democratic Alliance (NDA) has focused its efforts on large-scale campaigns that seek to improve sanitation and hygiene; revive manufacturing; foster entrepreneurship; train Indians in areas where jobs can be had; and bring more Indians into the banking and finance mainstream.

Setting out the defining ideology of his government, he said, “Our philosophy is to reach the last man in the line," adding, “So my development parameter is very simple. It is about how the poorest of the poor can benefit from development. The poor is the central focus of my economic agenda."

Modi emphasized that job creation was the key to fighting poverty and addressing growing aspirations, among the “neo" and middle class. “The young have their aspirations. So another aspect of my policies you must have seen are Start-Up India, Stand Up India, seaport activity... These changes directly appeal to the middle class. We have to create jobs. How will jobs happen? Till I invest in the development of infrastructure, there will be no job creation," he said.

Alluding to the obstructionism of the Congress in the Upper House, the Prime Minister skilfully linked all the policy changes undertaken by the NDA to alleviate poverty, in the process giving key political cover to the reform initiatives, including GST.

Political analysts said the comments were aimed at isolating the Congress.

“PM’s comments on the Congress party were very tactical and oriented towards a disunity among the opposition. If one notices, in the initial period, the opposition unity was high but soon after the logjam got prolonged, one could see fissures in the opposition as a whole. In that way, Modi’s statement is crucial and aims to politically isolate the Congress party,’’ said Abhay Kumar Dubey, a New Delhi-based political analyst associated with the Center for the Study of Developing Societies.

The NDA has liberalized foreign direct investment rules—the country attracted $55.45 billion of FDI in 2015-16, compared with $45.14 billion the previous year—although it has steered clear of wiping the slate clean when it came to some of the previous government’s tax policies.

The NDA has had to cope with the slowing global economy, two successive droughts and the consequent agrarian crisis, and hot-heads within the BJP who have lashed out at anything and anyone that they believe don’t have a place in their concept of a ‘Hindu nation’.

Modi, proactively eloquent ahead of the 2014 parliamentary elections, has been strangely silent at the statements and actions of these hot-heads, although in his interview with Times Now he said that people were giving them too much importance.

For the first time, he also spoke out in support of Reserve Bank of India governor Raghuram Rajan who has been at the receiving end of criticism, some of it personal and nasty, from BJP Rajya Sabha MP Subramanian Swamy. He characterized such criticism as “inappropriate" and added that his own experience with Rajan “has been good". “I appreciate the work he has done," Modi added.

Manisha Priyam, a Delhi-based political analyst, said, “His strongly defensive stance towards Rajan showed that Modi is in command of the party and has distanced himself from the people making remarks against Rajan’s ‘foreign roots’."

While he defused the controversy around Rajan’s exit, the prime minister also listed out his government’s achievements, particularly on inflation. Inflation is nowhere near being the menace it was in 2013 and 2014, although it has gone up in recent months. And India’s economy expanded by 7.6% in the year ended 31 March compared with 7.2% a year ago, 6.6% in 2013-14 and 5.6% in 2012-13.

“There is no doubt that the rate of inflation has come down compared to (what it was during) the previous government, but the increasing gap between supply and demand for pulses cannot be addressed through imports or by cracking down on hoarding," said T. Haque, director of the Delhi-based Council for Social Development and former head of Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices.

The government’s efforts, Modi stressed, were on inclusion, to cater to the needs of the poor, and on meeting the aspirations of young people.

The easiest way to create jobs, he told Times Now, is to make it easier for small businesses to operate and do well, which, in turn, would encourage them to hire more people.

“Job creation is work in progress. Manufacturing, construction and highway development are all labour intensive sectors. It is appropriate to focus on these sectors for job creation. The textiles sector, which is labour-intensive, but is performing below potential, deserves more attention. Also, the government should keep in mind the increase in productivity while addressing the issue of employment creation," said D.K. Joshi, chief economist at rating agency Crisil.

Although the NDA’s continuation of some of the UPA’s entitlements-led approach has not gone down well with some of its supporters who subscribe to a far more right-leaning economic philosophy, Modi said this focus on development would be his party’s preferred approach to next year’s all-important state election in Uttar Pradesh.

According to Modi, the government had acted to address the problem of rural distress—triggered in the aftermath of two consecutive droughts and a collapse in global commodity prices. While the NDA persisted with the rural employment guarantee scheme of the UPA, it has also taken steps to use market-based instruments to underwrite the growing risks of farming commercial crops. In this, he dwelt on the crop insurance scheme rolled out by the NDA.

Admitting that a constant electoral cycle (five states have gone to the polls in 2016) could affect policymaking, Modi spoke of his government’s and party’s support for a move to hold state and parliamentary elections simultaneously. That process, however, is in its preliminary stages and could take a while, if anything comes of it at all. In the meantime, the government of the day will need to build bridges with rivals, something that Modi said his party has been able to do when it comes to the critical GST, with most parties except the Congress. And even that, he seemed to suggest, wasn’t for want of trying, at least not on his part.

Indeed, the Congress, he hinted, was only focusing on the negatives—such as India’s inability to be accepted into the NSG, which he said was a process that would follow its own cycle—and not on the positives, such as his successful visit to the US and improving relations between the two countries.

Foreign policy has been big on Modi’s agenda, although he described India’s push in this area as a team effort involving several ministries apart from his office. India, he added, has had to make up for lost time in a world that is no longer bi-polar. India’s application to the NSG was opposed by China and a few others (although the government has clarified that there was 32 interventions in its favour in the 48-member body).

With China, Modi said, the only way forward was through talks, and the objective of foreign policy was to find “common meeting points".

“Previously, Modi’s efforts were focused on friendship and economic engagement with China. Now, Modi seems to have understood that China would follow an assertive foreign policy, one that positions China as a leading power in the world which will not allow India to stand in the way," said Lalit Mansingh, former foreign secretary.

“I think we will now see a more realistic foreign policy being crafted vis-a-vis China," Mansingh said.

The Pakistan issue was expected to come up at the NSG meeting in Seoul last week, but it did not. India and Indians would do well not to look at everything through the Pakistan filter, Modi said.

“Pressure on terrorists has increased and their schemes are proving unsuccessful," he said, but admitted that dealing with Pakistan was not easy because “there are different types of forces operating" in that country. India wants friendly relations with Pakistan but “without compromising on our interests", Modi said in the interview.

Meenal Thakur, Pretika Khanna, Gireesh Chandra Prasad, Sayantan Bera and Shreeja Sen contributed to this story.

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