At the half-way mark of his tenure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his most freewheeling interview yet, speaks about issues ranging from the current strife in Kashmir to his party’s chances in the upcoming Uttar Pradesh elections, from big ticket reforms to the crackdown on black money. On his place in history, he counters with: “Why should a person who loves to live in the present worry about history?" Edited excerpts:

My first question. Two years ago you came to power with a historic mandate. How do you view the last two years and what do you think has been your biggest achievement?

After getting the responsibility of becoming prime minister it has been about two years and three months. India is a democratic country and the people evaluate governments regularly. Media also evaluates. And these days professional survey agencies also do this. I think this is a good thing and that’s why I leave it to the people to evaluate how my government has performed. But I will definitely want that whenever my government is evaluated, the situation of the government before we came to power must be kept in mind, what the state of the country was, what the media was discussing.

If we keep that in view, newspapers were filled with news of corruption, despair. People had lost hope, they thought everything has sunk. If a patient, however good the doctor, is despondent, medicines will not cure him. And if the patient is hopeful, then even an average doctor can cure him. The reason for that is the patient’s inner belief.

My first priority after forming the government was that the atmosphere of despair should be removed and create hope and belief in the country. That doesn’t happen with speeches, steps need to be taken, it has been shown to be done. And today after more than two years, I can say with certainty that there is hope not just in the people of this country, the trust of the entire world in India has grown.

There was a time when we were being seen as a sinking ship. In the BRICS (bloc), the ‘I’ was seen as if it had toppled over. Today it is said that if there is a bright spot, it is India. I think this in itself will be a good way to evaluate.

You had come to power on the issue of development, so a question on the economy. After a lot of effort you succeeded in passing the GST bill. How big a success do you see this as and what is the common man going to gain from it?

This is perhaps the biggest tax reform since the independence of India. This reform will bring a big change in India. Very few people in the country pay taxes. Some people pay taxes because they are patriotic, they want to do something for the country. Some pay taxes because they don’t want to break the law. Some pay to avoid any trouble. But most don’t pay because the process is so complicated, they think they might get stuck in the process and won’t be able to come out.

GST will simplify tax payments so much that anyone who wants to contribute to the country will come forward. Secondly, today if you go and eat at a hotel, the bill will come with this cess, that cess... all this will end.

And then we see at octroi and state to state (border) check posts, miles of vehicles standing. When vehicles are standing, it hurts the country’s economy. Now all of it will become seamless, movement of goods from one state to another. Taxation systems will also be simplified and this will not only benefit the common man, the revenues will help develop the nation.

Today there are sometimes incidents of mistrust between states. This will end that situation, it will be transparent and strengthen the federal structure.

After coming to power, your biggest challenge was the economy. You not only had to bring it back on track but also increase the pace of growth. How do you assess the situation and your own achievement?

You are right, there was a negative atmosphere and that had an echo effect. The country’s traders and industrialists had started looking out. There was a paralysis in government. It was this situation on the one hand. On the other, we had to face two successive droughts. Third, there was a slowdown in the global economy.

So there were a series of challenges. But our intentions were strong, policies were clear, there was decisiveness... because there was no vested interest. The result of this was that positivity spread very quickly.

Today, we have the most amount of foreign direct investment after Independence. The entire world says that at 7% growth, we are the fastest growing economy. Whether it is the World Bank, IMF, credit agencies, even UN agencies, they all say India is growing rapidly.

So those policies which are helping growth have been emphasised. All obstructions are being removed with policies. All this has resulted in speeding up of the economy. This time the rains have been good and this helps agriculture, which is a driving force for the economy. This has raised hopes that the coming days will be much better.

Usually it is one or two things that are talked about, but today growth has being talked about in all sectors. Electricity production has gone up and so has demand. Infrastructure work is also growing rapidly and that happens when there is demand in the economy. From all this it looks like we have moved ahead to better days.

You are absolutely right that the monsoon is very encouraging and stock markets are also up. Would you like to tell us what the next wave of reforms will be?

First of all, in our country, whatever is talked about is seen to be reform. If it isn’t talked about, it isn’t seen as reform. It shows our ignorance. Actually, to reform is to transform. I say in my government: Reform, Perform and Transform. And since I am siting for an interview, I would say Reform, Perform, Transform and Inform.

Take ease of doing business. Our ranking is improving very quickly. This is not possible without reform. Our systems, processes, forms were so complicated. Now they’ve been reformed, so our rankings are going up.

The small things need to be improved. Even today there is licence raj in some areas, that needs to go. This is an important reform that is happening at every level, administrative, governance, legal. Like we removed 1,700 laws that were from the 19th and 20th centuries. I have asked states also to do so.

These are very big reforms that people, because of lack on information, don’t consider reforms. Take education, where we have taken an important step that no one gave attention to. We have said that 10 government and 10 private universities will be freed of all University Grants Commission rules. We will give them money and they must move towards becoming world class universities. If rules were holding them up, we will remove the rules—now do it and show us. This is a major reform but doesn’t get people’s attention.

Direct benefit transfer is a big reform. Earlier who knew where MNREGA money was going. Now it is sent by DBT. So is gas subsidy and student scholarships. All these for me are reforms in governance, transparency. We are getting in more technology. These have to be done at a larger scale.

At the centre of this is the common man. How to make life easier for the common man, how they will get what is their right, we want to stress on these.

There has been economic growth and improvement but private investment is still a little slow. Some sectors are still in trouble, like real estate. Venture capital funding of start-ups has slowed. What message would you like to give to private industry and foreign investors?

I see that because of your integrity and decorum, you didn’t ask me this question bluntly. Most people do... Modiji in the last two years what mistake did you make?

Today I think, before presenting the first Budget, I should have placed a White Paper in Parliament on the economic situation in the country. This thought had come to me. I had two paths.

Politics told me that I should put out all the details. But the nation’s interest told me that this information would increase the hopelessness, the markets would be badly hit, it would be big blow to the economy and the world’s view of India would get worse... it would have been very difficult to get the economy out of that...

I chose to stay silent in the national interest. At that time the situation in public sector banks was coming out... about how budget numbers were moved around... I didn’t put these details out in public. It hurt us, we were criticised, it was made to look like it was my fault. But I took the political damage in the country’s interest and the result of that is I am being able to fix things, despite shortcomings.

The impact of all these issues from the past have impacted private investment, like non-performing assets of banks, that I am trying to fix now. I held a session with bankers and told them there will be no call from the government to you.

Despite that, the pace at which roads are being made, railways are expanding, the sixfold increase in electronic goods manufacturing, these things show we haven’t taken short cuts.

And my motto is, as it says on railway platforms, ‘short cut will cut you short’. We don’t want to take any short cuts and the results are showing.

Anyway the situation has improved, we don’t have to worry about these things but let me tell you about the days in the beginning. In May 2014, I chose the tough path. And when unbiased people analyse the situation, I am confident they will be surprised.

It is reported that because of your crackdown on black money, small businessmen are hiding either in Dubai or London. You haven’t spared political dynasties either. Will this process continue?

First, from a political standpoint, I have niether thought about this and nor will I do so in the future. I have been a state chief minister for 14 years. And history is testimony to the fact that I have never opened any file due to political considerations. I have never been accused of this either. It has been over two years here too. The government has given no instruction to open any file. The law will take its own course. I have no right to indulge in any cover up. You saying that we haven’t spared any dynasty isn’t correct.

Second point: The first decision of my first cabinet immediately after assuming office... a matter stuck for 4 years in the previous regime... a matter that was raised by the Supreme Court also... the matter of setting up an SIT (special investigation team) on the issue of black money. We have constituted the SIT, it is doing its work. The Supreme Court is monitoring its progress. Another important work that we have done is to have a strong black money law that no one dare send black money abroad. So this is a job that we have done. No new black money.

We have made requisite legal changes so that the black money circulating inside the country can also be curbed. There’s a scheme which is running till 30 September, for all those who are still willing to come into the mainstream. I have said this in public, that 30 September is your last date. You may have made mistakes. Whatever the intention may be, whether it has been done willingly or unwilingly, here is your chance. Come into the mainstream. I have this plan for people to sleep peacefully at night. People must accept this. And no one should blame me if I take tough decisions after the 30th. This money belongs to the country’s poor. No one has the right to loot this. This is my commitment. I am working with full force and will continue the effort.

Mr Prime Minister, let us move away from the economy and talk a little about politics. Many states go to polls next year. Social discrimination and fundamentalism are raising their ugly head again. Dalits and members of backward classes have started saying that the BJP and Sangh are anti- dalit. How will you assure the people that your agenda is development and development alone.

The country has full faith that our agenda is only development. There is no confusion in people’s minds. But all those people who never wanted that a government like this come to power.. those who never wanted the previous regime to go... they are the ones who have trouble. So, development is our only issue and it will remain so. And this is not a political issue. This is my conviction. If we want to free this country of poverty then we need development. We will need to empower the poor.

As far as some incidents are concerned, they need to be condemned. It has no place in any civilised society. But we must not forget that law and order is a state subject. Some are selectively picking issues and blaming Modi for it. I don’t know what purpose it serves for those who are doing this. But this is surely hurting the interest of the country. Such incidents must not happen. From a statistical point of view, whether it is communal violence, atrocities against Dalits, atrocities against tribals, data shows that such incidents have gone down in number as opposed to the previous government.

But the issue is not what happened in their government and our government. The issue is that this is not befitting as per our society. We have a culture dating back thousands of years. We have seen some imbalance in our society. We have to intelligently take our society out of this imbalance. This is a social problem. It is deeply rooted. Politics on social imbalances is disservice to society, to all those who have faced injustice for generations. I am devoted to the development of Dalits, the oppressed, the underpriviledged and the deprived.

Those who see this as an obstruction to their politics are the ones creating trouble. And this is why they are levelling baseless allegations. All those who have fed this country the poison of caste divide have destroyed this country. They must stop giving political tones to social problems. We must go forwards with a purpose. And I want to ask the society also... are these incidents befitting of a civilised society? I spoke from the ramparts of the Red Fort on incidents of rape... I said that parents must ask their sons also. Where they are going, what they are doing? We ask our daughters this.

Mr Modi, how important is social harmony for economic progress?

Economic progress alone is not the solution. Peace, unity and harmony are essential for society. Even in a family, no matter how well off you may be... the family’s unity is important. This is true for society also. We don’t need unity to fight poverty alone. We need to be united and harmonious for whatever it takes. We need to be committed to social justice. And that is why, unity for economic progress alone is not important. Peace, unity and harmony are useful in family, life, society and for the nation. And to all those who believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam... the whole world is one.

All political parties talk about removing poverty. But poverty is an issue of grave concern in our country. Job creation is a major challenge for you and you have kept this in mind too. What will your strategy on both counts be?

Poverty alleviation has been a political slogan. A lot of politics has also happened on poverty. And a lot of programmes for poverty alleviation have also been started keeping elections in mind. I do not want to get in a controversy on whether it was good or bad. But my path is a little different. We have to empower the poor to end poverty. If the poor are empowered, then they have enough power to alleviate poverty.

Politics can be done by keeping the poor poor. But freedom from poverty can only come by empowerment. The biggest tool for empowerment is education. The next point is employment. If we get economic empowerment, then it can serve as a tool to change things on its own. Take, for instance, the Mudra scheme. At least 3.5 crore people have taken the benefits of the scheme and they got about 1.25 lakh crore through this scheme. Many of them are those who have got money from the bank for the first time. They will get sewing machines, stitch clothes. They will do something. It is possible that they might employ a few. This empowerment will give these people a lot of power. To educate their children. Suppose a person buys a taxi. Then they would feel they must educate their children. They will move forward.

One of the things that we have done is called Stand Up India. I have told banks that every branch must give financial aid to a Dalit, a tribal and a woman. They must make them entrepreneurs. The country has 1.25 lakh bank branches. If they empower even 3 people each, they will benefit 4-5 lakh families. People who did not have this sort of financial empowerment, will feel empowered. They will be an economic strength. This is the Stand Up programme. Start Up... To give employment to the young, I have started this scheme. These are small decisions.

I have also sent an advisory to the states. That they must move forward in this direction. We have big malls in our country. Lakhs and crores of rupees are spent in constructing them. There is no time restriction for them. They can run toll 10 pm, 12 pm, 4 am...but there will be a government representative with a stick in his hand and ask a small shopkeeper to shut his shop...why? We have said that these small traders who have small enterprises, they are free to be open 365 days, 24x7, so that they can go about doing their business and also employ a few. And these are the people who drive the economy in our country.

We have laid a lot of stress on skill development. Skill development is the need of the hour. We have changed systems. There is a ministry for skill development. It has a different budget. And work is being done at a huge scale. Skill development by government, skill development through public-private partnership, skill development through universities, collaborating with other countries who have done good work in developing skills. The country has 80 crore youth. They are below 30 years of age. If the youth have the skills, they can change the fortunes of this country. And we are laying stress on this. The country’s youth and employment are at the centre of all economic activities.

In the agriculture sector also, if you move towards value addition, it will create more opportunities to generate employment. A youth from the village who has had to go to big towns under pressure, if we empower him, then employment opportunities will be created. We are laying stress on this. And we can see some results.

I think you are the first prime minister who has had direct communication with Indians abroad. How has this benefited the country ?

Everything should not be measured on a scale of profit and loss. An Indian in any country in the world, he has a feeling in his heart that his country must progress. And if he sees unfavourable press about his country then he gets upset. Indians abroad have a lot of effection for India. But they don’t get an opportunity or a channel. We have acknowledged the power of the diaspora in Niti Aayog. They have global exposure, they have academic qualifications, a zeal to work for the country. And wherever they are, their love for the country has not diminished. Why should we disassociate from them? We must establish a link with them. And there will come a time when they will be true ambassadors of India. India’s strength is largely due to their (diaspora’s) attitude and contacts.

The nation will be keenly watching the UP elections unfold next year. It is being said that it will be like a mini national election. What do you think will be the biggest issues in the election? And what according to you is the possibility of your win?

First, it is the misfortune of our country that whatever we say or do is always linked to the elections. If elections are 16 months away, people will say that you are doing something with those elections in mind. So, these political pundits, the super political pundits cannot take politics out of their mind. Their minds are buzzing with politics. Again, in our country there are frequent elections. Elections here, elections there... elections, elections, elections. Every decision is weighed in the election balance. It’s high time we de-linked issues and decisions from elections. Parties will come up with their manifestos after polls are announced. Why link them now?

Leaders of political parties, when they meet me, emphatically tell me: let us please keep elections aside. They tell me why don’t we club assembly elections with Lok Sabha polls. And why don’t we hold local body elections as well during that time, so that the entire election process gets over in a week to 10 days’ time and for five years the country runs uninterrupted. There will be decisions, momentum and the bureaucracy will work effectively. Every party is saying this but no single party can decide this. All parties will have to unitedly do this. Government alone can’t do this. Election Commission has to take the lead in this effort and all parties have to agree on this. I can have my own ideas but I can’t do anything about it. This has to be done democratically. But I do hope, some day, there will be comprehensive discussions, debate.

There will be elections in five states in coming days and Uttar Pradesh is one of them. As far as the BJP is concerned, we will fight on development issues only. Our focus will be welfare of farmers, villages, jobs for the youth and we will stay committed to the cause of social justice. Our focus will be to maintain peace, unity and brotherhood in our country. We will take steps in these areas and move forward.

There is apprehension that there could be an environment of polarisation in Uttar Pradesh.

The poison of casteism and communal vote bank have caused enough damage in our country. The biggest obstacle to strengthening our democracy is vote bank politics. There was no atmosphere of vote bank politics in the last general elections; there was the atmosphere of development instead. After 30 years, people of all sections of society unitedly voted for a majority government. An entire section of our society has made a shift. It’s possible that the people of UP will do a similar thing for the betterment of the state, and will vote keeping development in mind.

J&K is burning now. Your party is part of the state government there and the situation is worsening. What should be done according to you to improve the situation there?

Whenever we talk about J&K, we should take the entire picture of Jammu, the Valley and the Ladakh region into account. The seeds of the problem were sown at the time of Independence and division of our country. Every government has had to battle this problem. This is not a new problem, it is an old one. I believe, the youth of Kashmir will not be distracted. We will proceed together to maintain peace, unity and goodwill so that the heaven called Kashmir will remain a heaven. Problems will also get solved. That’s why I always maintain that the people of Kashmir need both development and trust.

I would like to ask you a few personal questions. We got a strong leader in you. But on a couple of occasions your emotional side came out. People would like to know what kind of human being you are. What is the real Narendra Modi like? Or are there many layers to Modi?

A soldier at the border who bravely fights and the same soldier when he plays with his daughter cannot behave in the same manner. Narendra Modi, whatever he is, after all is a human being. Why should I suppress or hide what’s inside me. I’m what I am. Let people see what they see. As far as my duties and responsibilities are concerned, I have to fulfil them to the best of my abilities. If I have to take strong decisions for the country’s sake then I will have to make those decisions. If I have to work hard for that then I will have to. If I have to bend I’ll bend. If I have to walk fast then I’ll walk fast. There is nothing like the real or fake Modi. If you take off your political glasses, then you will see the real Modi. But it will be a mistake if you continue to judge Modi through your perceived notions.

I have met you many times in Gandhinagar when you were CM and even in the PMO. I have never seen any fille, paper or even a phone on your table. No one ever intervened during our meetings. You function like a CEO. Some say you hear more and speak less. What’s your working style?

You have made the right observations. I have been painted as one who doesn’t listen and only talks down. I actually hear a lot and observe a lot, that’s why I have evolved as a person. I have benefited a lot through this. I’m a workaholic but basically I always like to live in the present. If you have come to meet me then I get immersed in that meeting. I don’t touch the phone or see the paper and I don’t lose focus. When I see files similarly get immersed and get lost in those files. Ditto my tours. I live every moment in my present. The person who meets me is always satisfied that I have given him quality time.

Secondly, one must do justice to one’s work. I have always tried to. One must always learn and understand. One must have the courage to leave those ideas that were relevant five years back and not now. One must have the courage to change oneself. This is how I developed my style of functioning.

You have punishing schedule of 16-18 hours. So how do you relax?

I relax through work. I never get tired of working, the opposite tires me. You have to write 10 letters and you start feeling tired after writing two. But you feel satisfied if you finish writing all 10 letters and skip your meal, because you feel the work is finished. Actually you get tired by not working and work gives you satisfaction. That satisfaction gives you energy. I have felt this and always tell this to my young friends. Tiredness is more psychological. Everyone has the same capacity as needed for the volume of work. You keep accepting new challenges and your inner self will always back you. This is inbuilt.

Who has influenced you the most?

My village belonged to the Gaikwad estate and as a child I gained a lot from that environment. The speciality of Gaikwad king was that he used to build libraries and primary schools in every village. I studied in one such school. Usually poor students studied there and teachers generally paid attention to them. I developed an interest in reading books. Now there’s no much time to read. Those books made an impact. From the age of 12 I started taking part in oratory competitions. I used to like Vivekananda’s quotations, his style of delivery. I had taken a liking for Hindi.

Last question, where does Narendra Modi find himself in Indian history?

Why should the person who loves to live in the present worry about history? One must not make that mistake in one’s life. Unfortunately, in our country, governments, political parties and leaders always try hard to make their own image. What if we dedicate ourselves to building the image of our country rather than our own? Modi is just one among 1.25 billion Indians, nothing more. Modi’s identity must get lost among those 1.25 billion people. There will be no greater joy than Modi getting lost in the pages of history. CNN News18

My Reads Logout