While the blares of political power play was preventing personal anecdotes to come out, Rajdeep Sardesai’s new book sheds light on something no one saw coming: His bonhomie with the Prime Minister.
If you know Rajdeep Sardesai, then you know one thing for sure, he doesn’t like Modi and has unabashedly criticized the Prime Minister on several occasions whenever it was due, and this means that he and Modi share a cold and ugly relationship. Hold that thought, dear reader. Your prima facie impression of the relationship between these two gentlemen might be a false one after all.
In his latest (and the first) book, 2014: The Elections that Changed India, Mr. Sardesai lets us peek into the life of a high profile journalist and breaks the most hardened myths about his much talked-about relationship with Narendrabhai . He narrates in the first chapter of his book the day he first met the ‘Man from Gujarat’, almost quarter of a century before he became the Prime Minister, in 1990:
“He almost instantly became Narendrabhai to all journalists… Modi in those early days smiled And laughed a lot, but his eyes at times glared almost unblinkingly—stern, cold and distant. They were the eyes of someone playing the highest possible stakes in the gamble of life. His smile could embrace you, his eyes could intimidate.”
This was just the beginning. The journalist goes on to write that during the late 1990s, when the era of television debates was nascent, at times he had to invite Modi to the studio to represent the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). At one such occasion, a BJP leader withdrew his participation from the show at the last moment and Sardesai pickled his mind searching for someone else to bring out for the debate.
With just one hour to go, he telephoned Modi and expressed his dilemma in Gujarati ‘Aavee jao, narendrabhai, tamhari zarrorat chhe’ (Please come Narendrabhai, we need you). In the nick of time, a booming voice rang across the studio, ‘Rajdeep, mai aa gaya!’, he looked around, and there he was- Narendra Damodardas Modi himself, all set for the debate.
However, this fine relationship between the two men got its most trembling period during the Gujarat riots. This was a period when Sardesai himself covered the riots from ground zero and at many occasions, unleashed total reprehension for the Gujarat government for their incompetency during the anti-Muslim pogroms.
On one occasion, just 3 days after the riots had ended, he was a guest at Modi’s home when Modi provided his infamous soundbyte: Kriya aur pratikriya ki chain chal rahi hai. Hum chahte hai kin na kriya ho na pratikriya’ (A chain of action and reaction is going on. We want neither action nor reaction). Sardesai writes that at this point his doubts about Modi’s incompetency was waived, as it seemed that the Chief Minister was eager to curb any violence. But minutes later, he says, his doubts returned as he describes this horrific incident:
“Barely a few kilometres from his Gandhinagar residence on the main highway to Ahmedabad, We came upon a roadblock with VHP-Bajrang Dal supporters milling about, wielding lathis, swords and axes. It was well past midnight. Our driver tried to avoid the blockade when an axe smashed through the windshield. The car halted and we were forced to emerge. ‘Are you Hindu or Muslims?’ screamed out a hysterical youth sporting a saffron bandana. For the record, we were all Hindus, except our driver Siraj who was a Muslim. The group, with swords threateningly poised in attack mode, demanded we put down our trousers. They wanted to check if any of us were circumcised. In the pursuit of male hygiene, at my birth my rationalist parents had ensured I was. The crowd confronting Us was neither rationalist not normal… when in danger, flash your journalist credentials…I aggressively yelled that I and my team were journalists, we were media, and guess what, we had just interviewed the prime minister…’agar aap kisi ko hath lagaoge, toh mai chief minister ko complain kardunga’ the gang wasn’t willing to listen. ‘Hamein chief minister is matlab nahi, aap log apna identity dikhao’. I showed my press card and got my cameraperson Narendra played to play a clip from the interview With Modi…after 15 tense minutes and after watching the tape, they seemed to calm down a bit and We were finally allowed to go. Our trembling driver Siraj was in tears. My own fear at a near-death Experience was not replaced by a seething rage. If, just a few kilometres from the Chief Minister’s house Hindu militant gangs were roaming freely on the night of 2 March (2002), then how could the Chief Minister claim the situation was under control?”
This incident evoked Sardesai to question Modi’s claims of peace-building and peace-keeping, but when the time came for him to give a verdict on Modi’s role in the Gujarat riots of 2002, he wrote ‘No riot in this country happens without the incompetency of those in-charge.’, thus exonerating Modi. The signs of soured relationship was clear when Modi, during the Gaurav yatra post- Gujarat riots, pointed towards Sardesai, who was sitting in the front seat, and claimed that it was a media conspiracy to defame him and defame Gujarat. Sardesai was stunned.
Later, the chief minister left Sardesai in a spot, when he asked him to conduct an interview of him while he was sitting inside his car, and Sardesai standing outside by the window. This incident, claims the journalist, was planned to show him his place.
But this was not the end point of their relationship, Sardesai claimed that it was Modi who first called him in 2007 to console him after his father’s death. This was followed by an every-Sunday call by Sardesai to Modi’s residence, asking him for a soundbyte, and never failing to receive a quick-witted repartee by the Gujarat chief minister.
At one point in 2012, when Modi had won the seat for Gujarat’s chief minister for the third time, Sardesai phoned him to congratulate the man of the moment, ‘Dhanyawaad, bhaiya!’ said Modi, which was followed by a trademark Modi wit on being enquired further about his victory speech in Hindi, and his plans for becoming the PM: ‘Rajdeep, jab aap reporter editor ban sakte ho, toh kya chief minister, Pradhan mantra nahi ban sakta?’ (If a reporter like you can become an editor, why can’t a chief minister become a prime minister?)
Throughout his book, Sardesai’s reverence for Modi quashes the now trite allegation that he’s ‘Anti-Modi’. The journalist relentlessly praises the Prime Minister for his management skills, fastidiousness, and great gifts of oratory. And now that we finally know that Sardesai and Modi did (and possibly do) share a cordial relationship, with the journalist exalting the prime minister for what is due, it is now time to shed hostility towards Sardesai, whose criticisms and admirations of Modi only shed light upon this balanced outlook towards the man, which is a much-needed quality of objectiveness which stands as one of the most quintessential tenets of journalism.
By: Ayush Tiwari