Prime Minister Narendra Modi opens up like never before on the last four-and-a-half years of his professional tenure and answers questions not put to him earlier.
It was a cold, damp, and particularly windy January evening. My cab weaved its way through New Delhi traffic, carrying me to an interview with perhaps the most talked-about figure in the country today – Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
As we entered the gates of 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, I reflected on the fact that my presence in these hallowed grounds indicated a massive shift in the attitude towards entrepreneurs and startups, and I sent up a silent thank you to everyone who has been a part of my journey over the past decade.
India today values its startup culture and understands that it is entrepreneurs and innovators who will power her progress. (I also thought of my late mother who would have been very proud to see a middle-class girl like me from Bihar getting ready to interview the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy).
I was ushered into the Prime Minister’s office without any waiting. Meeting the Prime Minister himself was a revelation. For one, I hadn’t been asked to send my questions in advance, nor did I have to get them vetted before the interview. He stood up to greet me, calling me by name and speaking of YourStory with familiarity.
As we sat down for our discussion, I asked, “When you were young, did you ever think you would become the Prime Minister of India one day?”
“No. In fact, at the time, even if I had got a small-time job, my mother would have distributed ‘gur’ (jaggery) to everyone in my village,” he said, rather matter-of-factly.
This set the tone for the interview that followed. The Prime Minister was direct, candid, and answered my questions with patience and a wry sense of humour that I hadn’t expected.
So naturally my next question was, “You gave high hopes to everyone. High expectations come with high hopes. So don’t you think hope is a double-edged sword? Do you feel the pressure because of people’s expectations?”
He answered without hesitation. “I feel hope and aspirations are good for any society and country. It is our effort to ensure that our country is brimming with confidence and aspirations. We do not want the negativity and pessimism that was seen during the previous government. As regards to expectations, I believe that more the expectations, the more will it drive us to work at a better pace and energy. We have not come to power to sleep at the wheel. I believe people’s expectations should drive us to perform better, think of innovative ideas and implement faster. After all, when people have hopes in me, it also means that people have faith in me to deliver on their aspirations.”
And this explains the underlying fierceness and passion that comes to the fore each time he speaks about the nation and his mission to create lasting change. It also explains the much-talked-about round-the-clock working hours the Prime Minister maintains and the tireless energy about him.
And through the extensive interview, Prime Minister Modi’s concentration never wavered. Even the most complex of data points tripped easily off his tongue. There was no hint of hesitation in recalling names and details, and he recalled the names of people he had met in remote corners of India with ease.
So, no matter which side of the political fence you’re on, you’d agree that the responsibilities of the Indian Prime Minister – the leader of the world’s second-most populous country – is unparalleled, and Prime Minister Modi is one of the few Indians to have held this responsibility so far.
Here are excerpts from YourStory’s exclusive interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Shradha Sharma: You made ‘startups’ mainstream in India and your initiative ‘Startup India, Stand up India’ is a big opportunity to shape young minds to be job creators instead of job seekers. There is, however, this perception that the benefits of this programme have not been as widespread as they could have been. Tell us more about what you plan to do here. Maybe a review meeting to address the gaps and challenges?
Prime Minister Narendra Modi: Do you think a government or a government programme can make a country the world's second-largest startup ecosystem? If India is the second-largest startup ecosystem, it is because of the people of India, especially the youth, whose energy and innovation are putting us on the top of the world map with respect to startups.
My firm belief is that the aspirational youth of India will do wonders, and the government’s role is to be an enabler. Towards this end, we have taken multiple steps such as Startup India and regulatory reforms that boost the startup ecosystem.
These include streamlining regulatory mechanisms, amending the definition of startups so that more startups can avail benefits, enhanced tax exemptions, reduced tax rates enabling faster exits, allowing the issue of ESOPs, increasing the limit with regards to sweat equity, and reducing the number of trademark filing forms, which have been reduced to just eight from 74. We are setting up thousands of Atal Tinkering Labs to feed the startup ecosystem with innovative youngsters. I could go on and on.
You will be happy to know that while around 4,000 patents were granted in 2013 and 2014, more than 13,000 patents were granted in 2017-18. Similarly, the number of trademarks registered has also gone up from around 68,000 in 2013-14 to around 2.5 lakh in 2016-17.
I could also mention that overall funding for startups has shot up year-on-year from $1.6 billion in 2013 to around $13 billion in 2017.
I can keep giving you such facts, but do you know what counts for me as a real success and gives great fulfilment? It is the deepening and the broadening of the startup ecosystem. Startups are coming up not only in ecommerce sector, but many other sectors like agri-based, social entrepreneurship, and, most importantly, from places that would surprise many.
I am sure you know that today 44 percent of the startups registered in India are from tier II and tier III cities? Startups have come up across more than 400 districts in India, and around 45 percent of startups are founded by women entrepreneurs.
There are people coming up with startups that help farmers convert organic waste into manure. There’s a startup that is looking to resolve the problem of stubble burning. There are youths who are developing machines that can help farmers test the grade of their produce.
There’s so much happening with the youth looking at local or national problems and solving them with innovation and technology. This is what startup success means.
As far as feedback is concerned, the government has always been very open in this regard and there are well-established feedback channels in addition to the robust government feedback mechanism. I have also personally met youngsters from the startup ecosystem regularly and received their feedback.
If there is something you want to say, feel free to tweet to me or write to me on the Narendra Modi mobile app.
SS: The startup community has raised concerns about Angel Tax. What is your take on the issue?
PM Modi: Some members of the startup community have raised concerns regarding this. I see this positively, as it is apparent that the people feel that there is a government which is open to feedback and changes policies according to their feedback.
This issue is related to a segment of the new economy and it often happens that these issues can't be addressed through the old lens. We need to be sensitive to this fact.
When the issue was raised, the other ministries concerned immediately discussed this issue and assuaged the startup community. A healthy dialogue has happened between the community and the government, and I am told that a further order has been passed to give relief to the startups.
I am of the opinion that we should do our best to make sure this community thrives and flourishes.
SS: We need more women entrepreneurs in India. In the coming months, can we expect a special focus on helping women become entrepreneurs? What are some of the things women need to be aware of?
PM Modi: Since YourStory is a platform which celebrates stories of entrepreneurship, let me begin with a story about a letter I received from a woman based in Tamil Nadu. Though she had not studied much, she started a small business to support her family and had taken a loan under the Mudra Yojana. She also got her enterprise registered at the Government E-marketplace. On that platform, she saw that there was a requirement for thermos from the Prime Minister's Office (PMO), and took the opportunity to sell it to PMO. This is a story of the entrepreneurial zeal of women and how it is getting empowered across the country. I was touched to read this letter.
Women are natural entrepreneurs. They have a smart and simplified understanding of complex business terms and have excellent management skills. Women are also blessed with innovative ideas and creative ways to realise them. They know when it is the right time to conserve capital and when it is a time to stock up on inventory.
We, the Government of India, have started several initiatives to empower women. Mudra Yojana has given 14 crore loans out of which close to 10 crores are to women entrepreneurs. These loans are collateral free and liberate entrepreneurs from the vicious cycle of exorbitant interest rate charged by money lenders.
Under the Stand-up India programme, each bank is lending to at least 1 woman entrepreneur. The government has released 3 percent of 25 percent public procurement, which is mandatory for MSMEs. We also increased the paid maternity leave from 12 weeks to 26 weeks to help women working in the corporate sector to manage their personal life better.
We are trying to empower women in all spheres of life, be it constructing toilets in all schools to help girl children or various initiatives to improve the health and welfare of mothers, to encouraging registration of PM Awas Yojana homes in women’s names.
This enhances the dignity of women and gives them more power to think big and work hard and turn their aspirations into reality.
SS: What is the importance of MSME sector according to you? How optimistic are you about the reforms and incentives you have announced for the sector?
PM Modi: The MSME sector is among the nerve centres of our economy. It not only provides livelihood to crores of people but is also a part of every Indian’s life. This sector is very consumer-centric and does not operate on the ‘one-size-fits-all’ maxim. It is the MSME sector which understands and caters to the diverse needs and requirements of India.
Similarly, the need and requirements of the MSME sector are diverse and different. Our government has given great attention to this sector. Mudra Yojana has helped fund entrepreneurial aspirations of crores of our countrymen.
Formalisation is being incentivised and the results are here to see. From the time we got Independence to 2017 when GST was launched, we’ve had 66 lakh registered enterprises in India. Today, this number has shot up to 1.2 crores.
A few months ago, we launched 12 initiatives to help the MSME sector. These range from increasing access to the market, to ease of doing business for MSMEs and social security for the employees.
Now, MSMEs can get approval for loans of up to Rs 1 crore in 59 minutes. This means by the time you reach your office from home in a city like Mumbai, you will get approval for loans.
I am very confident that our reforms and measures will further strengthen the hard work of our entrepreneurs and they will drive India to new heights.
SS: What is the governance culture of new India you talk about? How is it a break from the past?
PM Modi: New India is about aspirations and the opportunities to fulfil these aspirations whatever be one’s background. New India is about rule-based governance model rather than a discretion-based one. Processes, and not pedigree matters.
In this government, systems are the same for everyone. There are no special queues. From the VIP era, we are now in the era of EPI -- Every Person is Important.
You can see a glimpse of this in several areas of our working. For example, there have been many rural electrification targets set earlier but these were never realised. We announced that we will bring all villages on the grid within 1,000 days and we did it even before the deadline.
There were many proclamations and promises of taking electricity to the homes of the poor since time immemorial, but it never happened. We have already taken it to more than 2 crore households and will complete it very soon. Soon, every household in India will be electrified.
Rural roads are being built at double the pace. Highways are being built at more than double the pace.
In just four years, the number of operational airports shot up from 65 to 100.
In just four years, India's total sanitation coverage shot up from 38.70 percent to 96 percent.
In just four years, our Ease of Doing Business (EODB) ranking went up from 142 to 77.
Many states in the Northeast have been brought into the Indian Railway map for the very first time.
Mind you, all this phenomenal work has happened with the same system, same files, same officers, and same delivery mechanisms that the earlier government had. This happened because we are result oriented.
SS: We talk a lot about India's demographic dividend. What is your vision for the youth of India? What is your dream for them, and what are your expectations of them?
PM Modi: Always accept rather than expect.
Burdening the children with mountains of expectations is the worst disservice one can do. The issue is not about expecting anything from our youth. It is more about having full faith in them.
India's demographic dividend is our strength. While on one hand, several nations, including economically prosperous societies, are getting older, our nation is getting younger.
Youngsters from India are doing wonderful things both in India and internationally. I dream of Yuva Shakti that is filled with self-belief, has the power to think big, and is hardworking to realise that aspiration.
I dream of a young India that is not constrained by any limitations whatsoever. I want the youth of this country to lead a life filled with hope and opportunity.
I also want the youth of this country to question. Sometimes, people say youngsters are impatient, they ask a lot of questions, but I say this is why youngsters are special. They must continue doing so because that is when they will do out-of-the-box things.
As a government, we are doing everything possible to give them that platform where they can excel. From ensuring financial inclusion to providing quality healthcare, from a paradigm shift in the education sector that places focus on learning over teaching, outcomes over outlay, to giving a thrust to Digital India, and from building next-generation infrastructure to focusing on areas like skill development, a lot is being done for India's youth.
SS: Young Indians aspire to have a better life than what they have and also better than what their parents had. What is your advice to them? Are there some lessons from your own journey that you would like to share with them?
PM Modi: In very simple words, have faith in yourself and enjoy every moment of life. Do not bow to any pressure from society.
Today, the youth of India have a wide range of opportunities, something we never had. I hope India's youngsters harness these opportunities coming their way.
Very often while making educational or career choices, youngsters fall prey to social pressure, which ends up hampering their chances of success. Just to look good in front of others, they end up doing things they may not want to do. Instead, build your own opportunities and success will be yours.
SS: They say it's lonely at the top. You occupy the county’s topmost position. What is it like to be Narendra Modi, the man?
PM Modi: It is never lonely when one has the constant affection and blessings of 130 crore Indians!
From a very young age, I have been involved in social work which meant extensive travel across India. In fact, I would have spent a night in almost every district in India. Due to this, I've got a glimpse of India's rich heritage, its diversity, and met wonderful people. These friendships have endured.
Even now, I am constantly interacting with so many people. There is so much work. So I think the question of being lonely does not arise.
SS: India as a technology and data superpower in the world: do you see that happening? How much of this is a priority for you in the next coming years?
PM Modi: India is an active contributor to the fourth Industrial Revolution. The nature and degree of our contribution will surprise the world.
India may have missed the bus during the first three industrial revolutions, but this is a bus India has not only boarded but will also drive.
These successes will not happen without the active usage of technology.
Today, India has one of the highest mobile data consumption in the world.
Today, India also has the cheapest data in the world.
Today, India is one of the biggest mobile manufacturers in the world.
Today, India has one of the biggest startup ecosystems in the world.
Today, India is also home to the highest number of youths in the world.
Today, India is one of the largest markets in the world.
Our innovative youth are at the forefront of technological innovation, be it in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain, or Big Data. The coming years will see tech proliferation happening across the fields of healthcare and agriculture.
The scale that India's markets will offer will give a unique advantage to our youth. We have taken multiple initiatives to reap the demographic dividend. Our common service centres ensure that the fruits of digital India reach the poorest.
There are wonderful stories of how digital India is transforming the lives of people in our towns and villages.
I was impressed to see how a young girl from the snake charmer community was literally charming the mouse and making the most of digital India. It was heartening to see how youth in villages are leveraging Wi-Fi and digital tools to help in clearing competitive exams.
A network of hundreds of Atal Tinkering Labs is coming up across the country and helping foster an atmosphere of innovation and inquisitiveness. This will give a solid bedrock for our students to help them become innovators of tomorrow.
India is also undergoing a rapid formalisation. What this does is create a trail of transactions and generates a credit history, thus helping people secure finance smoothly. All MSMEs registered with our Goods and Services Tax (GST) portal get an option on the portal itself to avail a loan of up to Rs 1 crore. This is how Digital India actually accomplishes what was previously not even imaginable.
SS: How do you see India will be received on the world stage in the next five years?
PM Modi: India's position internationally has been significantly enhanced and I see no reason why this trend will not continue in the coming years. Today, India is the fastest growing major economy in the world. The last four-and-a-half years have seen the highest growth and the lowest inflation since 1991. Do you know that all the 10 cities projected to have the fastest growth in the world for the next two decades belong to India?
We are a sought-after investment destination, as our FDI numbers show. Do you know that India has overtaken China in terms of attracting FDI?
We are not only an IT hub but also a space tech hub, thanks to our bright youth. The knowledge capital that Indians hold is respected across the world.
From Yoga to the nuclear triad, from tapping our ancient knowledge systems to adapting to 21st-century international dynamics, we are making a mark across all domains.
Our country has seen deep economic reforms in the last four years which will take us on an even higher development trajectory. In the last four-and-a-half years, our policies have been stable, transparent, and predictable. A rule-based order has replaced discretion-based order.
The government’s scale and speed of work has been something which has never been seen before.
From 38 percent in 2014, over 98 percent of rural households now have a toilet.
From 55 percent rural habitations connected in 2014, 91 percent of rural habitations have road connectivity now.
From 55 percent households having gas connections in 2014, more than 90 percent of households have a gas connection now.
From 50 percent households having bank accounts in 2014, almost all households have bank accounts now.
From 80,000 Common Service Centres (CSC) in 2014, there are 2.5 lakh CSCs now.
From 70 percent households with electricity connections in 2014, 95 percent of rural households have electricity connections now.
Given all these factors, why will the world not look at us with hope and expectations?
As I thank Prime Minister Modi, shake his hand, and prepare to leave, I ask him if criticism bothers him. He replies gravely, “As a leader, one should invite and embrace criticism, because criticism involves an in-depth study of facts and events to corroborate your claims, requiring a level of depth and intelligence that allegations lack. Criticism doesn’t bother me; it is allegations that do.”
His parting words to me are “We are an ancient civilisation with a young population. Short-term fixes will not work. We need measures that will give us a long-lasting change.”
I climb into my cab that soon hits one of Delhi’s infamous traffic snarls. I complain about the delay and my cab driver turns around and says, “Manzil pahunchenein ke liye kuch to time lagta hain. Thoda sabar kariye madam.” (“To reach your destination, it will take some time. Have some patience, madam.”)