When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept to power in May with a historic win, picking up 282 seats and 31% of the popular vote, it was clearly a singular triumph for its leader Narendra Modi. In six states, the party picked up every single seat on offer. In north and western India, it won four out of every five seats it contested. Modi also turned out to be a great leveller: Almost every community (barring Muslims), rich and poor, voted for the BJP; and the party won two-thirds of the urban seats and more than half of the rural seats.

Rajdeep Sardesai, one of India’s best-known TV journalists, writes that the polls marked a “tectonic shift" in Indian politics, destroying “long-held orthodoxies about voting patterns", the conventional rural-urban divide, traditional caste loyalties, family ties, paternalistic governance, and “maybe even of the Nehruvian consensus that dominated Indian politics for decades".

Narendra Modi supporters. Photo: Arvind Yadav/HT
Narendra Modi supporters. Photo: Arvind Yadav/HT

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how Modi scripted such an unprecedented win. Sardesai’s explanation is also unexceptional. Modi simply understood the “changing demographics" of India—a “younger, aspirational and upwardly mobile society". He also ran an energetic, focused and expensive campaign amply helped by an unquestioning media, a listless rival, a discredited ruling government, and a maverick anti-corruption crusader who shot himself in the foot. Luck favours the brave, and Modi certainly proved himself to be a doughty fighter.

But Sardesai seems to suggest the “cocky and arrogant" man has a dark side too, an “individual who does not forgive or forget easily" and “has a long memory and bears grudges against those who he believed had harmed him". When Sardesai receives an anonymous phone call threatening to harm his family for posting a so-called offensive tweet, he complains to Modi. “It is wrong," Modi tells him, “but how do I stop everyone who speaks." Sardesai writes that he found it “difficult to believe that a politician who had such an overwhelming control over his party faithful could be so helpless".

Sardesai also paints an unflattering portrait of Modi’s governance during the 2002 Gujarat riots. A near-death experience when Sardesai’s car is stopped by an enraged Hindu mob a short distance from Modi’s residence during the violence leaves him shaken. He believes Modi’s government was “utterly incompetent because it was aware that the Godhra violence could set off a cycle of vengeance and yet did not do enough to stop it". He doesn’t believe that Modi was complicit in not doing enough to stop the riots, but agrees that he gained handsomely in the end by the consolidation of Hindu votes, cementing his reputation as a defender of Hindu interests.

Rahul Gandhi supporters. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

In telling a compelling political story, Sardesai offers little insight into the vacuity of Indian politics and the self-aggrandisement of its practitioners. But, interestingly, he turns a critical gaze on himself and his ilk.

The cash-for-votes fiasco, involving the channel he was associated with earlier and the BJP, makes him introspect. “Where I badly erred was in not maintaining a sufficient firewall between the BJP politicians involved in the sting and our own reporting team. We had wilfully allowed ourselves to be used by a political party in their quest for power and my constant reporter’s search, indeed hunger, for a big story," he writes with unsparing honesty.

He also relates what is now a well-known story—about how Reliance Industries put the heat on Sardesai’s earlier channel in the build-up to the election campaign, once asking him not to go ahead with a Google hangout with Aam Aadmi Party chief Arvind Kejriwal (the channel went ahead with the programme). The Ambanis’ disquiet with Kejriwal, Sardesai writes, was “symptomatic of a growing belief within corporate India that they were now under siege".

But he believes there is something more rotten with the media today. Breaking news is truly broken, he writes, and “studio talk is cheap; solid ground reporting needs deep pockets". But don’t most news channels have deep pockets? Doesn’t it all boil down to lazy, access-obsessed and formulaic journalism in the end?

The BJP’s biggest success was in making the 2014 election truly presidential, allowing Modi to set the pace and the agenda. What is also true, writes Sardesai, is that the media, especially TV, “lost its capacity to seriously interrogate the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate’s leadership credentials". Modi’s fabled “Gujarat model" was never tested on the ground. “Modi said it, we believed it." Sardesai also reckons the media “did become part of the Modi propaganda machine".

Will the media do better now that Modi is in power? The early signs don’t appear to be very encouraging. Whatever the case, Modi, in the writer’s opinion, could well “redefine the idea of India, or at least in the way it is governed". Sardesai, clearly, is an amiable optimist.

Soutik Biswas is the India editor of the BBC News site.

To read an excerpt of 2014: The Election That Changed India, click here.

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