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Chronicling elections 2014

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16 January 2015

Rajdeep Sardesai is one of the most renowned and respected journalists in India. He is currently the consulting editor of the 'Headlines Today'. He started his career in 1988 with The Times of India where he was the city editor of its Mumbai edition. He ventured into television journalism in 1994 as a political editor of NDTV and hosted popular shows like 'The Big Fight'.  He set up the IBN 18 network including CNN-IBN, which went on air on 17 December 2005, IBN7 and IBN Lokmat.  Former president of the Editors' Guild, Sardesai and has won several awards including the Padma Shri in 2008.

 
Photograph courtesy: Surinder Nagar  

In this interview with Swetha Amit, Sardesai talks about his new book 2014 The Election That Changed India, the transition of Modi as a leader over the years and his views on the impact of 2014 elections on India's growth.

How did you come up with the idea of this book? And how did you manage to maintain objectivity between being a journalist, author and a citizen of the country?
I had been quite keen to write a book for some time now. After having spent 25 years in journalism, I experienced something similar to the "seven-year itch" where I got this 25-year itch to write a book. Besides this, I genuinely felt that the 2014 elections were historical in many ways.   It was the story of Rahul and Modi - one who is a Prince and the other a 'Pracharak (propagator)'. According to me it was a wonderful story, which was waiting to be written. Since I was keen to write a book sometime, I thought this was a good time to fulfil that ambition by penning down this story into a book.  I also feel that a book always has a long lasting impression in comparison to a Television programme which just leaves an impression for a day.

With regards to objectivity, I think the most important thing is to retain the journalist in you.  If you remain a journalist, objectivity comes effortlessly because you are merely reporting. More than a journalist I see myself as a reporter and a reporter's first instinct is to just tell the story as he or she sees it. So if your self-image is that of a reporting journalist, then it's easier to stick to the facts and be objective as an author.

It was interesting to see both Narendra Modi and  Rahul Gandhi on the cover of your book. So what was the reason behind the title of your book The Election That Changed India? Where do you see the implications of the 2014 elections on India's Growth story?
I believe that in order to have a winner you also need to have a loser. That's the reason why I have depicted both Mr. Modi and Mr. Rahul Gandhi on the cover.

Has it changed India? Well the title may be a bit of an exaggeration. I think I should have called it 'The elections that has potential to change India.'

I personally think that these elections have the potential to change India, not just in terms of economic growth but also more in terms of the way the country is governed and the direction in which the country is taken. There is also a new opportunity that India has in the next 5-10 years. It is the ability to use the enormous manpower potential that it has and to try and ensure that we are able to create a job driven growth process and something that focuses on infrastructure. 'Make in India' for instance is a nice slogan. But in the end, whether we make in India or make for India, we have to create an environment where India attracts investors and that we make it easier for others to do business in India.

Right now it is too early to make any judgements about the present government as it has been in power only for six months.  I think five years from now, one will have a better idea of whether this election actually changed India or not. Maybe five years down the line, I can write another book called '2019 the elections that really changed India or the elections that didn't change India'.

You have equated 2014 elections in India to the revolutionary one in 1977 and termed this as a historical one. Could you elaborate your reasons for this?
I believe that the 1977 elections was crucial in reaffirming people's faith in democracy. Their loss of faith, which was an aftermath post the declaration of emergency was restored after the elections in 1977. I have equated it to the 2014 elections not just with regards to the reaffirmation of faith but more in terms of the incredible results depicting the emergence of a majority non-Congress single party government.

Also the manner in which the elections campaign was carried by Narendra Modi, was almost equivalent to a presidential style of election. I think that these elections marked a transition from the old style of election campaigning to a more contemporary presidential style of campaigning.  So I thought it was a historical election in that sense.  

BJP was initially seen as a Brahmin-Bania party. How do you think it managed to break this stereotype and evolve over the years?
The BJP has made a conscious effort to go beyond the 'Brahmin-Bania party' identity. For instance the Rath Yatra they did in 1990 saw the emergence of popular backward caste in the BJP such as Kalyan Singh and a few others. In the last 30 years, they have also made a conscious effort to reach out to the Dalits and Tribals. 

A party is also judged by what the other side or opposition has to offer.  The younger generation today had limited options on the other side. Though Rahul Gandhi might be just 44 years old, he had the tendency to look and act like a 75 year old sometimes. The youth on the other hand were looking for an energetic individual who was able to constantly communicate and engage with them by addressing their issues.

One of the abilities of Modi, which has to be acknowledged irrespective of whether one is a critic or a supporter is that he had made a conscious effort to reach out to the 18-23 age group. While other political parties had spoken about them, they never really made a conscious effort to reach out to them like how Modi did. Even in his election campaigns, Modi went to colleges like Shri Ram College of Commerce and addressed the students there.

Being active on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook made him accessible and an icon whom the youth could identify with.  He was constantly voicing his opinion about issues about the future and had portrayed himself as someone who could reach out to 'Young India'. Besides this, the youth were also looking for a strong leader.  Since the opposition was unable to offer a strong leader as its candidate, Modi's strong and communicative leadership style began to be appreciated by people.  They were ultimately looking for a leader who was dynamic and Modi seemed to personify dynamism.

Your book mentions about how Modi was seen in political isolation before he agreed to appear on your television show 'The Big Fight' to voice his views on 'Islamic terror' post the 9/11 attacks. After that his fortunes tilted in his favour and he was sworn in as the chief minister of Gujarat. What do you think prompted him to do so, when several politicians at that time were reluctant to make an appearance and comment on this sensitive issue?
Modi was a person who was always very media savvy even before he became the chief minister in 2001. He was someone who liked the idea of being on television and communicating through this medium. He was never afraid of expressing himself. The other leaders were ministers at that time, which probably made them reluctant to come out and speak on this sensitive issue of 'Islamic Terror'.

Modi on the other hand was ready to voice his views on this subject at that time even though it was a controversial one. It was probably because he regarded this as something he felt strongly about and did not want to refrain from expressing his strong opinion. Most importantly as mentioned earlier, he wasn't afraid of voicing out his views on national television.

You have mentioned an incident where you and your crew of journalists had a 'near death' experience on 2 March 2002 in Gujarat. How did this affect you as a journalist?
I had seen a similar sort of situation in the 1992-93 riots in Mumbai.  I have always wondered as to what is it that makes a community or one individual hate another so much that they are ready to kill each other.  This thought has always haunted me to an extent where I have tried to understand the reason behind this hatred by talking to people and academics. I never thought that Mumbai and Ahmedabad - two cities which I identified with so closely could erupt in the manner that they did. I was a Mumbaikar in 1992 and spent a large part of my childhood days in Ahmedabad.  It troubled me greatly to see these two cities divided and polarised to a large extent.

As a journalist, I realized that in tense situations like these, you are caught in the crossfire of events. However that is a part of my professional hazard, which I have no issues with. But seeing these two cities, which were close to my heart, divided in this gruesome manner was the real cause of my concern and was far more troubling.

People did not forgive nor forget the Godhra incident in 2002 easily. How do you think Modi managed to surpass this insurmountable obstacle and win the votes in such a grand scale? Did the famous 'Gujarat Model' play a vital role here?
I think it's a big achievement as to how over the years he was able to recast his image to that of a "governance guru". He understood that if he had to grow as a leader, he had to become more than just a Hindu samrat (emperor).  So it was a conscious and deliberate strategy on his part to project himself as a governance guru. At one level he did it with a lot of perseverance and the manner in which he would administer Gujarat gave people a sense that he was a strong leader and someone who focused a lot of activities towards growth and development.

Another level included a bit of proactive PR. Any effective scheme in Gujarat would be identified with his own personality.  His governance became his calling card. He instilled a corporate India-like image, where he projected Gujarat to be business that is investor-friendly. The manner in which he started several government schemes for power and infrastructure, depicted his conscious effort to move away from the 'Hindutva leader' mode.  So basically this Gujarat model helped him surpass this obstacle and he made sure that everybody identified the Gujarat model only with him.

 

Publisher: Penguin Books India,
Price: Rs 599, No of pages:352
Genre: Non Fiction

 

How would you see the similarity between attaining success in politics to success in the corporate world? Does it involve manipulation and breach of trust like in politics or does hard work also play a pivotal role here? 
Hard work plays an important role everywhere including politics. Every politician irrespective of the fact whether he is straightforward or corrupt works hard. However the only drawback in politicians is that over a period of time, they tend to betray the trust of people. In the sense, they sort of lose touch with the people and eventually end up becoming rulers. Politicians are originally supposed to be sevaks (servants) who serve the people.  The definition of a politician unfortunately has changed over the years from someone who serves the nation to someone who rules the nation.

Similarly in the corporate world, even if you are a CEO you are ultimately a part of the team. You cannot see yourself as a ruler just because you are the boss or CEO. The moment you become a ruler then you distinct yourself from the others eventually resulting in losing the personal touch with the rest of your team members. Therefore a good politician and a good CEO will always realize that they need to stay connected to their people/team.

You have mentioned instances like 'Nirbhaya' - an incident that shook the nation, in your book.  Sadly, one still sees the lack of decline in crimes even today. What measures do you think the government should partake to improve security for women in this country?
There are several aspects to this. As far as infrastructure is concerned, the government needs to provide better public transport facilities and improve street lighting.  With regards to the legal aspect, the laws in our country also need to ensure that there is speed and certainty of punishment. If someone is caught, it takes years before he is convicted. So that needs to change.

However the most important aspect is the social aspect where the ultimate change has to take place in the mind-sets of people. Unless the attitude towards women changes in society, crime against women will never end. Women need to be seen as equals rather than the weaker sex. This kind of attitude needs to be incorporated and taught right from schools. It's important for people to be taught about gender equality from an early age.

Be it instances like the Uber cab rape case recently or for that matter the horrific incident in Peshawar on 16 December 2014 where innocent school children were mercilessly butchered; what do you attribute the cause of these heinous crimes to?
Any form of violence starts with hatred in the mind. The problem is that there is a lot of hatred among communities and individuals today. Religious identities are used to divide people leading to even more hatred.  People are so indoctrinated by certain beliefs that they are even willing to kill in order to seek revenge.

When you are indoctrinated, you are told in some way that your belief system is under threat and then all logic or sanities completely disappear.  What else can explain the fact as to why people are even willing to kill innocent children today?  According to me, no religion advocates killing of children. And I believe that the only religion that must triumph in the long run is humanism. People should learn to be humane first.

Lastly, what can we expect from you next? Any more books?
I want this book to be read by the masses. So right now it's being translated into several languages such as Hindi, Marathi, etc.  I have also taken up a new assignment with Headlines Today. A year from now, I will contemplate and see if there is something else I want to write about. So maybe you will see another book from me in 2016, though I need to come up with a new idea first.

( See: Excerpt from: The Election That Changed India )





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