Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai on his two decade-long, on-off relationship with the one-time 'pracharak' and now Prime Minister of India
My 26-year career in journalism has parallelled the journey of two individuals who have achieved iconic status. The first front page article I got a byline for was Sachin Tendulkar’s maiden first class century in December 1988. The first major outstation assignment I got a chance to track was the Ram Janmabhoomi Rath Yatra where I met a certain Narendra Damodardas Modi for the first time in 1990.
Tendulkar has since got a Bharat Ratna, Modi has gone on to become the Prime Minister.
Tendulkar’s superstar status has meant that he is far removed from the shy little boy with curly locks who would come with his brother to our cricket matches on Mumbai’s maidans. Modi too has evolved from the politician, who self-confessedly would organize the chairs at a BJP press conference in the 1990s into a muscular larger-than-life neta.
Ah, the 1990s! Modi and I got along rather well in that period: I moved to Delhi in 1994, and knew a fair smattering of Gujarati, always an advantage in the national capital’s multi-lingual culture. Modi had known of my grandfather who was a police officer in the Gujarat cadre, and we were able to strike some kind of a rapport. As we often joked over a plate of kadhi-chawal, “We are the ‘outsiders’ in the big, bad world of Delhi!"
In the late 1990s, private news television was just about taking its baby steps. We were constantly on the lookout for the TV-savvy politicians, who would appear in our studios.
The BJP was blessed with quite a few: Pramod Mahajan, Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley, Govindacharya (remember him?), and, of course, Narendrabhai. Of the many anecdotes that you will find in my book 2014: The Election that Changed India, my own favourite is of asking Mr. Modi to rush for a programme as a last-minute guest for a 10pm show I was co-anchoring with Arnab Goswami. That Mr. Modi came for the show despite being a replacement for Vijay Kumar Malhotra, who had fallen ill, shows how nothing is constant in life and politics.
Now, the same Mr. Modi maintains an arm’s length from journalists. Ok, so he did take selfies with some rather over-excited fellow hacks at a recent Diwali Milan function, but the fact is, Modi isn’t coming to a TV studio any time soon as a guest at one hour’s notice. Or indeed, freely participating in talk shows or even giving interviews as he would so readily in the 1990s.
The 2002 riots changed the Modi-media equation, as indeed it did my own relationship with the man.
Modi now saw the media, especially the English language media, as adversarial in the context of the riots coverage. We were the “other", the “enemy", and he was convinced that he was a “victim" of an orchestrated media campaign. My friend Narendrabhai who once so readily embraced media was increasingly wary of it, later openly hostile. On the evening of his victory in the 2002 Gujarat elections, he turned to me triumphantly, “You must now apologize to the people of Gujarat for having given the state a bad name." No mention, of course, of the over 1,000 lives which had been lost in the riots.
Sadly, his supporters took the cue from their leader. If Mr. Modi could target professional journalists as “news traders", then perhaps his admirers felt they had a licence to do the same. The anonymity of social media provided some of them fresh ammunition to abuse; it was almost as if no journalist who had covered 2002 could be “forgiven" for having questioned their icon.
Ironically, when my father passed away in 2007, one of the first politicians to ring me up and offer his condolences was Narendrabhai. It was a gesture that touched a chord, signalling a warmth that existed under the seemingly unemotional exterior. And yet, there was an underlying tension that had crept into our personal relationship which never really went away.
He gave me an interview just ahead of the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections, but made me sit on the footboard of a bus to take it. He was perhaps deriving pleasure from reminding me of my station in life as a reporter talking to a prospective national leader.
And yet, the lines of communication never broke down.
Right through the 2014 general election campaign, I would often ring him, either on a Sunday or late in the night. He’d almost always call back, and would share his insights on what he was convinced (rightly, I might add) was a wave of support. A 24x7 politician, you could not but be impressed with his relentless focus and energy. I asked him once for the secret mantra. “You must wake up before dawn and meditate," he told me.
But while we spoke often on the phone, he never did give me the extended interview that he had promised.
I wasn’t quite sure just why, but maybe there were some demons of the past that hadn’t been fully excised. Since his remarkable election triumph, we haven’t met, although I was invited to attend his swearing-in. I am now hoping to take my book to the Prime Minister’s office and give him an autographed copy. He, is after all, the hero of the 2014 electoral battle. And his rise is quite unique: the pracharak of 1990 is the prime minister and neta number one of today. Neither a cheerleader nor a critic, I remain the reporter chained to the news wheel.
The writer is a senior journalist. His book: 2014: The Election that Changed India is published by Penguin Random House.
Rajdeep Sardesai’s book 2014: The Election That Changed India will be released in November. You can pre-order it at http://www.flipkart.com/2014-election-changed-india-english/p/itmdznfmvvsb5pwb?pid=9780670087907