2014 will go down in history as the election of Narendra Modi: Rajdeep Sardesai

  • Manjula Narayan, Hindustan Times, New Delhi
  • Updated: Nov 01, 2014 10:03 IST

Packed with anecdote, Rajdeep Sardesai's book is full of insights into the rise of Narendra Modi. Here, he talks about being fascinated by politicians, double dating with Salman Khan, and his relationship with Arnab Goswami.

When did you start working on the book?

I started taking down notes in January. I had been following the elections from July of 2013 because that's when we did our first election tracker. My original idea was to write my first book on the media but when I was travelling around the country and seeing the elections for myself, I felt that what was happening was historic. When Chiki Sarkar (of Penguin) approached me, the first idea was a biography of Modi. I was reluctant because I thought that Modi is still a work in progress. I told her that if the BJP gets a majority and Modi becomes PM, why not write a book around how he became PM in the elections? So it wasn't a planned book. Then, at the end of the elections, when I took a break from CNN IBN, it was almost serendipity. I finally had the time.

A lot of the writing in it also focuses on the media.

The advantage that all of us have as journalists is we get this ringside view of what's happening around us. Or you've observed someone over 20 years and seen a person evolve and you meet various characters who tell you stories, which they otherwise might not say… So there is a strong element of the journalist's narrative and there is an entire chapter on the conquest of the media by Team Modi. I don't think any election campaign has seen the media play this kind of a role. I'm not saying we are a tele-democracy but I certainly believe television and social media played a much bigger role and for the first time. That made this election very distinctive. It was run like a military style campaign - Modi on 3D was clearly shock and awe campaigning designed to completely capture the entire mind space. The use of technology, the use of micromessaging - it's unheard of in an Indian election. At one level, we almost shifted the terrain of the battle away from the maidan to the media.

Were you jotting things down?

I was taking a lot of notes but I was fortunate that I was in touch with people from within the Modi team who shared information. The detailing comes from Team Modi. The analysis is mine. Team Modi was more willing to share information. Team Rahul still remains very cloistered and unwilling to share information. Most of those who speak about Modi are actually young technocrats who masterminded this campaign. One of the things that stood out for me is that Modi finds it difficult to handle his own peers, his fellow politicians, but he's very good with young people. So young people from outside the system, he empowered them, gave them clear roles, allowed them the freedom to function… Rahul comes across as, frankly, a babe in the woods. The other side was running a military-style campaign while Rahul was running a very traditional old world kind of campaign.

India has changed. We are a younger country and it's a country that wants constant communication. The power of communication is where Modi scored big time. I don't think Rahul ever grasped that reality of New India. Having said that, I'll be fair to him to believe that the Congress had already lost the election in 2011 - the Anna movement and that entire period of corruption. They had no chance.

Did your status as a celebrity journalist help?

Being a journalist gives you an advantage of access. But beyond access, I don't think the celebrity journalist thing comes in at all. A book is ultimately about discipline. And it's lonely. It's you and your screen. Television gives you constant gratification; you feel good that somebody's watching. Here, nobody's watching. But I always believed that I had a book in me. Writing a column of 1,200 words is one thing and making 135,000 words is taking it to another level. TV can be mind numbing. This gave me a chance to step back a bit.

2014 The Election That Changed India: By Rajdeep Sardesai, Penguin (Rs 599; 400pp)When people say things and it appears on TV, it's forgotten. Like Jaswant Singh saying, 'They think I'm a fossil but I'm a proud fossil!' That was a great quote. One would have forgotten it but now that it's in a book, it's preserved for posterity maybe.

My sense is we live in a world where attention spans are very fleeting. Today's news is almost tomorrow's history. You discuss black money today; tomorrow you move on to Delhi Assembly; third day, it'll be some cyclone and everything is forgotten. I don't think we have any sense of memory. Therefore, it's important to put it down on paper.

I tried to go back and look at writing on previous elections and I found very little in terms of books written by journalists or even academics. The great '77 elections: you have Kuldip Nayar's book, Prison Diary; you have Janardan Thakur writing about Indira. 1984, Rajeev Gandhi's big election? Nothing on that. Even the election that BJP won under Vajpayee, nobody's documented. You have to go to newspapers as your archival material. In America, around Obama's elections, there are tens of books!

OK, so what's this about double dates with Salman Khan?

We were both 19 or 20 in college and his girlfriend lived close to where I was and my girlfriend lived close to his house so it was good to meet at some mid-way point and double date.

That was very casually thrown in.

I've tried to keep the book accessible. One of my challenges was, 'Let's take politics out of this dreary tu tu main main and out of academic jargon.' Salman flying that kite with Modi was an important photo-op. The biggest super star is there with Modi in a Hindu area flying a kite. Modi again, very clever, used it beautifully. Everything with Modi is strategically done. This was just something to liven it up. But it's true; it's not a false story.

While you got in all the strands in the writing I was wondering how come you stayed away from the Madhu Kishwars and the Amartya Sen and Panagariya…

One of the things was I wanted to stay away from polarized opinions. There are the Modi cheerleaders and there are the Congress chamchas and I wanted to stay away from both.

You're calling Amartya Sen a Congress chamcha?

No, I'm not calling him. I'm not saying that in his context. I wanted to stay away from those whose opinion is already well known. I wanted to tell the story as I saw it and from people who were, in a way, part of the campaign and understood what was happening. I think we get caught into demonizing or deifying and I wanted to stay away from that. This book doesn't demonise Modi but it doesn't deify him either. It doesn't demonise Rahul; it doesn't deify him; it just tells you where they made mistakes and where they were brilliant. My worry is that the Modi bhakts will see the chapters where Modi is not seen in favourable light and say, 'Oh, you're being critical of Modi' and Rahul's (people will also…)

They will do that.

Yeah, but I have no issues with that. I believe I have written an honest book. I have seen Modi evolve; as I have seen this campaign evolve; as I've seen the Congress crumble. The book is more than just Rahul and Modi; there are other characters who come in, whether it's Kejriwal or Nitish.

When I finished the book I thought Rahul was a character on the side and that Modi was actually the subject of the book.

2014 will go down in history as the election of Narendra Modi. In fact, we even had a debate on whether we should have Rahul on the cover at all. Then someone said, 'Where's Kejriwal?'

You can't stuff everyone in.

You can't stuff everyone in. Also, Kejriwal was an interesting element to this election campaign. The only time the BJP was worried was when Kejriwal, in January, appeared to emerge as an icon of the middle class and the youth. That's the only moment they were worried. And then he self destructed. They took full advantage of that. Even Nitish is a fascinating character. I'm fascinated by all politicians. I find Lalu fascinating.

There are some great gossipy bits.

I was trying to bring these characters to life beyond caricaturing. Lalu represented the kind of politics which was very successful in the 1990s. Lalu broke the stranglehold of the upper castes. Maybe he needed to do it as the mad king as he was for a while. I remember him once telling me: 'Tum saatth hazaar logon ko ikatte kar paoge? I said 'Nahi, sir.' He said, 'Dekho, mere saamne saatth hazaar log hai." He had the ability to pull a crowd in. You have to have a grudging admiration for some of these guys.

Parts of the book that deal with 2002 are dark but as it goes on, the tone changes.

That's important because I think that's the evolution of Modi. In 2002, he was being put on magazine covers as the hero of hatred. Today, he's seen as the man who is going to change India. The book reflects that change from 2002 to 2014 and I really do believe that it is important to document that.

The bits about the 1990s were interesting because nobody knows about these things.

Particularly about the way in which Modi would come to TV channels. When I now see Modi keeping the media at arm's length, I think of that Modi, who, with one hour left to air a programme, would come as a last-minute guest. It just shows how the world has changed.

I think I read that bit twice or thrice.

It's absolutely true. The last debate that Modi ever did was one week before becoming chief minister on my Big Fight. He was the only BJP leader ready to come and talk on 9/11. Now, he'd never come in a public debate. So times change, contexts change.

About what happened in New York… Why did you apologise?

I apologised because I don't think any journalist should get physical.

But it was a gang thing

Yeah, I felt completely surrounded at that moment but in hindsight, I should have just walked away. I guess I snapped because of the kind of abuse that I was getting and the heckling that was going on. But I think if you are honest to your conscience and you've done something which you believe you need to apologise for, I'm happy to apologise. I would like them to also introspect as to is heckling and abusing a professional while he's doing his job kosher; is it acceptable? I'm happy to introspect but at the same time, I believe that those who resort to abuse, heckling, kicking people on the shins… I hope they also learn. I am willing to reach out more than half way to anyone who will. In fact, I hope that this book will be read by critics and friends. I believe that criticism is important. If they have some valid criticism that's good, but where is it? There seems to be a lot of abuse now in our civil society.

Why do you think that is?

Earlier, if you disagreed with someone you had a dialogue with them. Now, if you disagree with someone, you become an enemy.

What has happened is that your ideology is either 'You are with us or you're on the other side'; either you're a complete cheerleader or you're an anti-national.

Go to Pakistan!

Yeah, you can't shout at me and say… I think you've got to hold the middle ground. And this is what the book is about. There are aspects of Mr Narendra Modi which are positive and there are aspects at which he needs to look at sharply and introspect. Likewise with Rahul. But society now wants to deify people or demonize them. That's troubling.

So when he heard about this did Modi say anything?

No. The last time I spoke to Modi is the last time I mention in the book, which is after the exit polls. When I rang him up on the day of the victory he had gone to sleep and that's where the book ends. I haven't since met him. I hope to go and give him a copy of the book. I hope he accepts the book and reads it. I hope he reads the good parts as well as the bad parts, that he reads the book in its entirety. That's my hope for anyone. You've got to read the book from page 1 to 354. You can't read the book and say, "Oh, on page 22 you said this." That's unfair on the author.

I've noticed that a lot of people just hate you. Is it because they think of you as elitist, establishmentarian?
As I said, I think we live in polarised times. There are people who still see me through the prism of the coverage of the 2002 riots.

But you're a journalist; you have to cover things.
Yeah, but that's not how the world sees it. 'You covered the riots in that way. Why did you do so? Now you must apologise to Mr Modi.' I don't think any of us should do real journalism to be popular. I think you do journalism because you want to hold a mirror to society which is good, bad and ugly. People may not like the ugly images and therefore will dislike you but that's my job. At the end of the day, what counts for me is respect from my peers. What worries me is that too many journalists are getting into popularity contests.

Talking about popularity with colleagues. In that piece in Caravan, Arnab comes across as hating you.
It doesn't make a difference. These are all people I have grown up with, and as I said, my only benchmark for this are my colleagues in NDTV at that time. You can ask them.

Did he hate you?
No, we worked together wonderfully well. We went together to watch the 2003 World Cup finals with my son and my father and it was one of the most pleasant memories of my life. Would I go with someone whom I disliked for an intimate holiday to South Africa? Would he go if he disliked me?

OK, maybe not. Though his style is very different from yours.
No, his style was not different from mine when he was in NDTV. He's changed, I haven't. Look, he's still a friend…

He's still a friend?
For me, he's still a friend.

But would you have a drink with him?
Of course, I would.

When was the last time you met him?
I met him just now on Modi's trip to the US. We didn't have a drink, which is unfortunate. Television has made people competitive. I mention that in the book.

…That relationships that have been nurtured over the years are getting destroyed because of this manic competition. I don't think there's hatred. There's crazy competition and personally, I find it repelling almost. At the end of the day, we've all grown through a particular womb. It's almost as if Dr Prannoy Roy has produced all these kids who've suddenly gone in different directions. I've the most pleasant memories of NDTV, CNN IBN and I've made great friendships there and I see them as friends. How they see me is for them to decide. I have only good feelings for them. There's too much of positive memories including the one that I mention in the book. To think at the last minute we are rushing to get a BJP guest and we get a Modi!

Yes, that was a good one.
Yeah and that was a programme that Arnab and I used to do together. So these are all created by people outside....

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