On Wednesday, April 24, Bollywood actor Akshay Kumar interviewed Prime Minister Narendra Modi in an hour long conversation at the PM’s residence. Journalists and media professionals have not received such unfettered access to PM Modi, let alone Bollywood actors who do not actively participate in the country’s political discourse.
Modi is the first prime minister in Indian history to have never held a press conference during his tenure. In the past five years, Modi has never appeared before the country’s media fraternity to answer questions and provide clarifications on his policies.
Some, like CNN-News18 journalist Bhupendra Chaubey argue that Modi is not compelled to hold a press conference because they “do not help the cause of democracy”.
“Narendra Modi has created a new paradigm of communicating directly with the people of india. In a democracy, what matters most is whether people are listening to you and whether people are willing to trust the comments being made by a leader with or without the media”, he said on the channel.
However, others believe a leader’s trustworthiness can only be gauged when their statements stand up to fact checking and cross questioning by experts and journalists. Critics have also said that leaders listening to and responding citizens’ concerns is an important function of democracy.
The Opposition has also criticised Modi for not holding any press conferences.
In December last year, Congress President Rahul Gandhi tweeted images from a press conference he attended and said, “Dear Mr Modi, Now that campaigning is over, hope you can spare some time for your part-time job as PM. Btw its been 1,654 days since u became PM. Still no press conference?”
Even former Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh addressed the matter. He said that although he has the reputation of being the “silent prime minister”, he met the press frequently.
“I wasn’t the PM who was afraid of talking to the press. I met press regularly & on evey [sic] foreign trip I undertook, I had a press conference on return”, he said.
However, Kumar said he is not interested in political questions. He wants to know what makes Modi tick- from what he eats to what a day in his life is like outside politics.
On family and growing up
Modi said that despite his love for mangoes, his family could not afford to buy any. But he used to venture out into the fields and ask generous farmers if he could pluck mangoes from the trees.
On his ambitions growing up, Modi said he never dreamt of being the prime minister of India and had never travelled beyond his village. His mother would have celebrated if he had an ordinary salaried job, he says.
“When I was young, I was interested in reading and read autobiographies and biographies of famous people in the library. Sometimes, when I would read about the army, I would feel inspired”, he said.
He also said that he had not opened a bank account until he became a politician and chief minister. Even when Dena Bank officials gave school children in his village piggy banks to save money and deposit later into the bank, he had no money to put.
After earning money as a politician, he said he donated 21 lakhs from his personal bank account to his cabinet secretary’s driver so that the driver can educate his children.
Kumar asked if he misses being around mother, brother, and other relatives given his hectic schedules. But Modi said that he has become accustomed to living away from family.
“From a very young age, I left them all. My life has become totally detached… it was my training when I left the house. When I first left, I struggled. But now this is my life”, he said.
He also said that his mother encourages him to focus on work and prefers living in her hometown.
On political friendships
Modi said that despite public rivalry with opposition leaders, they say private friendships. He added that all politicians are bonded together, almost as a family, in a manner that outsiders cannot conceive.
He mentioned that West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is a strong critic, sends him kurtas and sweets every year.
“If I say this, I could suffer in the election…”, Modi joked. “But Mamata didi sends me one or two kurtas she selects herself every year.”
He said that Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina also specially sends him new sweets she discovered several times a year. “Mamata didi found out about this. So she has also started sending me sweets”, he says.
He talked about his interactions with former US President Barack Obama, as well.
“Whenever he meets me, he asks if I increased my sleep time or not”, said Modi about Obama while replying to Kumar’s query
He also said that he has never outwardly expressed his anger or disrespect towards even the lowest ranking government officials. Instead, he believes in teaching and providing constructive criticism if someone makes mistakes. He also subscribes to the concept of team building.
On his image and sense of humour
Kumar mentioned several times that Modi’s image is one of a strict man, almost like a school principal wielding a cane. However, Modi disagreed with that characterisation.
“If someone says I make them work hard, that is correct. But if they say I pressure them, that’s not correct”, explained Modi.
He also believes that officials around him notice how hard he works and try to adopt that “spirit” and “work culture”.
He said that his background in human development has taught him that forcing people to work is not an effective strategy. To elaborate on his discipline, he says as an example that he neither uses his phone while meeting with people nor allows others to use theirs.
Kumar also asked about Modi’s sense of humour and if he allows himself to be light-hearted with his close circle. Modi said that he does not maintain the awe-inspiring “aura’ of a prime minister, but behaves friendly and jokes with officials, including junior officers in cabinet meetings.
When discussing his economic frugality, Modi later indulged Kumar with jokes about Gujaratis’ stereotypical affinity for wealth.
Modi has still not held a press conference, but did agree to chat with Kumar who asked him questions. He said he was happy to answer “apolitical” questions for a change.
“Dear @akshaykumar, it was good talking to you about everything, except politics and elections :) I’m sure people would like watching our conversation”, Modi tweeted.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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