No child shouted “the emperor has no clothes” but Nirmal Kumar Jain did tell the Prime Minister that “your government is only busy collecting tax in all manner and in all ways”.
Make no mistake. Jain is not a Rahul Gandhi acolyte but a BJP worker from Puducherry who was fortunate enough to have been shortlisted for a videoconference with Narendra Modi on Wednesday with the help of the app named after the Prime Minister.
Modi has taken part in many such interactions, preferring the friendly atmosphere to annoying media conferences. Most questions at such events with party workers are aimed at giving an opportunity to the Prime Minister to underscore the achievements of his government and skewer the Opposition.
On Wednesday, it was the turn of “booth workers” from Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Puducherry.
Everything was going according to the script and the Prime Minster was a picture of confidence, listing the achievements of his government. Modi took care to speak mostly in English, keeping in mind the audience was based in southern India.
The unexpected element was injected soon after the Prime Minister had finished speaking on turning the demographic dividend into a development dividend.
Modi: “Well, Puducherry people are waiting. Let us now go to Puducherry. (Pauses as the Puducherry hall appears on the screen.) I was fortunate to visit Puducherry earlier this year. Puducherry is very beautiful and has become a tourist spot. Who wants to talk from Puducherry?”
(A man who had raised his hand is handed the mic. He introduces himself as Nirmal Kumar Jain, who switches between Hindi and English.)
Jain: “Honourable Prime Minister… I am grateful for this opportunity to speak to you. My question is the work that you are doing to change the country is undoubtedly a good step but the middle class is of the opinion that your government is only busy collecting tax in all manner and in all ways.
“They did not get the relaxation they were hoping for in IT sector, loan processing procedure and bank transaction fees and penalty. It is my request that take care of the middle class, which is the root of your party, like the way you take care while collecting tax from them. Thank you.”
Modi: “Thank you, Nirmalji. You are a trader, so it’s normal that you will talk business. (Pauses and makes a faint attempt at chuckling.) I favour taking care of common people and the common people will be taken care of, I assure you.”
(Modi looks sideways. Perhaps, he is waiting for another question. But if critics say he looks stumped, it will be hard to contest the claim.)
A few seconds later, it is Modi’s turn to swing between languages and bid goodbye to Jain and seek out the next questioner by greeting the state: “Chaliye. Puducherry ko vanakkam!”
NaMo app footage shows Modi and Nirmal Kumar Jain (right, standing) Source: NaMo app
One swallow or a stray question doesn’t make a summer. But the plain speak prompted some to wonder whether the Assembly election setback in three heartland states is emboldening even committed supporters of the BJP to do the unthinkable and ask unpalatable questions.
Jain’s question will also reinforce the perception that the trading community, considered a traditional base of the BJP, is upset with the way the goods and services tax has been implemented.
Stung by the unwelcome attention, Jain may well clarify unintended interpretations are being given to his question.
Another upshot could be that Modi and the BJP can now claim Jain’s question is incontrovertible proof that such events are not stage-managed as some critics have been suggesting.
The next question from a woman worker in Puducherry spread smile on the face of Modi and it was business as usual.
The woman, whose name was not audible as the mic malfunctioned, narrated how she had availed herself of a loan of Rs 1.5 lakh under the Mudra scheme and started a pillow-making business that employs four-five others.