For a leader who is not known to easily grant interviews to the media, it was surprising to see Prime Minister Narendra Modi speak to Zee News on Friday and TimesNow on Sunday before his departure for the World Economic Summit in Davos. But then, it is easy to see why Modi chose to do the interviews – he was tossed questions that were the equivalent of “free hit” deliveries in limited overs cricket. On a free hit delivery, which is allowed to the batsman after a no-ball is bowled, a batter cannot get out unless she runs herself out or handles the ball or hits it twice or obstructs a fielder. It seems no batter has ever been dismissed on a free hit delivery.

Given that the interviewer’s task is to challenge the interviewee, even make him squirm, in much the same way bowlers are supposed to keep the batter on her toes , here is a sample of questions the media should ask Modi but rarely ever does.

Triple talaq and Muslim women

Typically, interviewers ask questions about contentious issues that are agitating people at the moment, before gradually sliding back in time to seek explanations for the decisions the interviewee may previously have taken. So, the first question Modi should be asked is: What do you, Mr Prime Minister, think of the joke doing the rounds that you and your party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, are fond of Muslim women, but not the community’s men?

The context to this question is the BJP’s portrayal of Modi as the man fearlessly advocating the rights of Muslim women. Not only did his government tell the Supreme Court last year that triple talaq – a practice by which Muslim men could divorce their wives by uttering the word “talaq” three times at one go – should be banned, but it also wants to criminalise triple talaq. It has backed a Bill that could fetch a jail term of a maximum three years for men who persist in using triple talaq, and make them pay maintenance allowance to their divorced wives and their children even when incarcerated.

The next question, therefore, chooses itself: Who will pay maintenance allowance to Muslim divorcees when their husbands are in prison, presumably without a source of livelihood?

The BJP’s concern for Muslim women, however, does not extend to Hindu women who enter into relationships with Muslim men. They are considered too gullible to realise that Muslim men feign love for them merely to convert them to Islam or send them to join Islamists fighting a losing battle around the world. The Sangh claims that such relationships are part of a “love jihad” by Muslims.

The third question on the interviewer’s list should be: Mr Prime Minister, your government has a penchant for gathering data. Have you any figures as to how many Hindu women married Muslim men since you came to power in 2014? Do you think that number can exponentially expand India’s Muslim population? How many Hindu women who converted joined terror groups?

Linked to this is the question of an individual having the right to choose his or her partner: Mr Prime Minister, do you think Hindu women cannot or should not marry Muslim men? If no, have you ever told affiliates of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh not to crush their constitutional rights and harass them?

Communal polarisation

There will have to be a question or two about the BJP’s election campaign that Modi spearheaded in Gujarat in the run-up to elections in December. First, the trap question: Is Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar a boon for the BJP? After all, you derived tremendous mileage when Aiyar dubbed you a chaiwalla in 2014 and then again, in 2017, when he called you a “neech kisam ka aadmi” or a low-life kind of person.

It is very likely Modi would castigate Aiyar for being arrogant, a typical Congress leader. Just the moment to pop the next question: What made you think the dinner Aiyar hosted for a former Pakistani foreign minister, also attended by none other than your predecessor, Manmohan Singh, was a Congress-Pakistan conspiracy to vanquish the BJP in Gujarat?

Modi has shown a propensity for polarising the electorate on communal lines before every election, in sharp contradiction to his 2014 slogan of “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas” (together with all, development for all). For instance, before the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections last year, he spoke of the shamshan ghat-qabristan binary, when he accused the Samajwadi Party government of discriminating on the basis of religion, taking care to ensure that it built Muslim cemeteries in villages but failed to provide Hindu burning grounds. Mr Prime Minister, why do you play the communal card to win elections? Do you not think your strategy will drive a wedge between communities, and prove disastrous for India in the long run? Will you resort to such tactics before the 2019 Lok Sabha elections?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spoken against cow vigilantes twice. (Credit: PTI)

Gau rakshaks, Dalit anger

Over the last three years, many people have expressed anxiety over the growing menace of vigilantism. Cattle traders have been lynched, and people beaten on suspicion of possessing beef. Modi has spoken against cow vigilantes twice. His supporters claim incidents of violence over the cow have occurred very often in the past. To elicit the prime minister’s opinion on such claims, the interviewer needs to ask: Statistics show that between 2010 and 2017, 97% of violent incidents on the bovine issue happened after you came to power. Why have gau rakshaks become militantly active in your tenure?

It is well known that cow protection is an issue dear to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, of which Modi was a pracharak or fulltime worker once. Most cow protectionists, going by media reports, belong to organisations affiliated to the Sangh. This provides the grounds to ask Modi: It is said vigilantes have been acting with impunity because they feel your government will protect them as they belong to the Sangh Parivar. Do you not think steps should be taken to disabuse them of this notion?

Since we are on the subject of the Sangh, Modi should be asked: Do you not think Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat is violating the Constitution by claiming that India is a Hindu Rashtra?

From this question follows another: The BJP used to call Congress party president Sonia Gandhi an extra-constitutional authority who had no business interfering in the functioning of the Manmohan Singh government. Do you not think Bhagwat is more or less doing the same? Have you ever asked him to keep away from talking about governance?

Dalits have been in ferment since May 2014, witnessed in the suicide of University of Hyderabad student Rohith Vemula in 2016 and then in the community’s vehement protests in Maharashtra this year. Mr Prime Minister, you are trying to woo Dalits but they seem to be alienated from your party as never before. Why are they discontented? Why do they think the Sangh is pursuing a brahminical agenda to which they are bitterly opposed?

Politics and governance

Even as vigilantes run amok and Sangh pracharaks dabble in policy-making, the Union cabinet has been subordinated to the will of the prime minister, who is more than just first among equals. Is it true that ministers in your cabinet do not enjoy autonomy and every measure they take must get your clearance? Why are your ministers so afraid of you? Does fear deliver good governance?

But the fear of Modi does not seem to have affected former BJP ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, who have continued to fire volleys against the Central government. It makes sense to ask Modi: What do you think of attacks on your government by Sinha and Shourie? Do you think they are piqued because they were neither given sinecures nor ministries? Have you asked Sinha’s son, Jayant Sinha, why his father is critical of you?

It would be apt to clarify the perception that the Enforcement Directorate and Central Bureau of Investigation raid politicians who are outspoken in their criticism of Modi. Of course, Modi will accuse them of indulging in corruption, which he has vowed to root out. The question should be packaged to Modi in another manner: Was it the corruption of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal that prompted a raid at his office in December 2015? Do you think his party can ever pose a challenge to the BJP? If no, why is the Aam Aadmi Party not being allowed to function smoothly?

Demonetisation and development

On the corruption issue, there should be a gentle reminder to Modi of what he had promised in the 2014 election campaign: In 2014, you said you will bring back slush money parked abroad and credit Rs 15 lakhs in every Indian’s bank account. Did you mislead the nation or are Indians still to hope for that amount to be deposited in their accounts?

Corruption would lead the interviewer to probe another Modi plank – development. You came to power in 2014 on the plank of development. But the reverse seems to be happening – growth rate is down and the economy, though showing signs of recovery, continues to sputter. To what extent was your policy of demonetisation responsible for this?

To Zee News, Modi said he should be judged not just on demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax. Cite this statement to the prime minister to ask: Is this a tacit admission that you have failed to deliver on the development front and might have mismanaged the economy? On what other issues would you want your performance to be judged?

Then there have to be questions that help us peep into Modi’s heart and mind. Do you, Mr Prime Minister, feel remorse that over 100 people died while waiting to exchange their old currency notes for new ones? Or do you think their deaths were as painful a necessity as that of soldiers who die fighting terror or guarding the border?

The prime minister in tears while speaking about demonetisation in 2016. (Credit: YouTube)

What not to ask

Cut out questions on Kashmir and the North East and whether it is time to withdraw the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, which grants security forces in disturbed areas sweeping powers to arrest, search and even kill. Every prime minister has the same position on these subjects. But as a last question, no interviewer can help ask: Does your office ask for questions to be submitted before it decides whether to accede to an interview request?

Modi need not answer that one. Readers will know the answer if they ever come across an interview with Modi that is not the equivalent of the free hit in limited overs cricket.