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A screengrab from the 2007 interview which Karan Thapar began by asking if Narendra Modi had an “image problem” with people accusing him of being a “mass murderer” and “prejudiced against Muslims.”  Thapar writes in his book that “Modi’s face remained expressionless. But it was also clear he wasn’t happy. His eyes were cold and hard.” Thapar was later informed that Modi watched the short interview 30 times in order to prepare for the 2014 elections
A screengrab from the 2007 interview which Karan Thapar began by asking if Narendra Modi had an “image problem” with people accusing him of being a “mass murderer” and “prejudiced against Muslims.” Thapar writes in his book that “Modi’s face remained expressionless. But it was also clear he wasn’t happy. His eyes were cold and hard.” Thapar was later informed that Modi watched the short interview 30 times in order to prepare for the 2014 elections

The following is an extract from Indian journalist Karan Thapar’s book Devil’s Advocate: The Untold Story, published recently by HarperCollins India. It is a recounting by the author of his 2007 interview with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, then Chief Minister of Gujarat, in an effort to understand why the author and his television show has been boycotted by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party since 2016, some nine years after the event, and provides a fascinating look into the psyche of India’s leader. The extract is being published in Eos with express permission of the author and the publishers.

The interview was arranged for an October afternoon in Ahmedabad and I arrived by the early morning flight. It was the morning after Benazir Bhutto’s dramatic return to Karachi after years in exile and the terrible bomb blast that had shattered her procession, leaving hundreds dead. That, rather than the interview that was scheduled for later in the day, was at the top of my mind when the plane touched down in Ahmedabad.

I had just about got into the car and we were still within the airport’s perimeter when my phone rang. “Karan-ji, pahunch gaye?” It was Narendra Modi ringing to welcome me. This was the first sign of how careful he is about handling the media.

“Apna interview toh char baje hain lekin thoda pahle aana, gup-shup karenge (Our interview is at 4 but come a little early, let’s chat).” Everything about his manner seemed to reassure me that Narendra Modi had either not read or forgotten about the column I wrote in 2002. He greeted me warmly and chatted as if I was an old friend. We didn’t bring up any subject that the interview was likely to cover. Instead, we bantered, laughed and joked.

I wasn’t sure if this was meant to disarm me. Canny politicians often resort to such guile. But certainly, any apprehensions I may have had quickly disappeared.

Half an hour later, we sat down in front of the cameras. Mr Modi was wearing a pale yellow kurta. His hair was freshly cut. My first set of questions [was] about 2002. My intention was to get this tricky subject over with and then proceed to other matters. Not to have raised it at all would have looked like collusion or pusillanimity. Equally, however, I didn’t want to make a meal of it. Hence, the decision to raise it and get it out of the way quickly.

“Mr Modi, let’s start by talking about you,” is how I began. “In the six years that you have been the chief minister of Gujarat, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation has declared Gujarat to be the best administered state. India Today, on two separate occasions, has declared that you are the most efficient chief minister. And yet despite that, people still call you to your face a mass murderer and they accuse you of being prejudiced against Muslims. Do you have an image problem?”

He didn’t seem at all flustered. I didn’t notice any emotion on his face. Not even a change in his expression. It remained placid and unaffected. However, what did surprise me was that he chose to respond in English. Although today his command of the language is near-fluent, in 2007 it was not.

“I think it’s not proper to say that ‘people’. There are two or three persons, those who used to talk in this terminology and I always say God bless them.”

“You are saying this is a conspiracy of two-three people only?”

“I have not said so.”

“But you are saying it’s only two-three people.”

“This is what I have information. It’s not the people’s voice.”

The truth is that the chief minister wasn’t right in saying that only two or three people had spoken about him in this way. The judges of the Supreme Court of India, including the chief justice, had made observations in open court that amounted to precisely this. So I proceeded to question him on that.

“Can I point out to you that in September 2003, the Supreme Court said they had lost faith in the Gujarat government? In April 2004, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in open court said that you were like a modern-day Nero who looks [to] the other side when helpless children and innocent women are burnt. The Supreme Court seems to have a problem with you.”

“Karan, I have a small request. Please go to the Supreme Court judgement. Is anything in writing? I’ll be happy to know everything.”

“It wasn’t in writing. You are absolutely right. It was an observation.”

“If it is in judgement, then I’ll be happy to give you the answer.”

“But do you mean a criticism in court by the chief justice doesn’t matter?”

“This is my simple request to you. Please go to the court judgement. Find out the sentence which you are quoting and I will be happy that if the people of India should know it.”

“It wasn’t just an open comment made by the chief justice. In August 2004, the Supreme Court reopened over 2,100 cases out of a total of around 4,600 — over 40 per cent — and they did so because they believed justice hadn’t happened in Modi’s Gujarat.”

“I’ll be happy and I am happy because of this judgement because, ultimately, the court of law will take the decision.”

Mr Modi was making a legitimate distinction between what is formally written in a court’s judgement and what is merely spoken obiter dicta in open court. However, for a politician seeking election, this was not a convincing defence. If the chief justice has criticised you, it hardly matters whether it was done in writing or verbally.

More importantly, the criticism had been carried by all the papers on their front pages. This was, therefore, at the core of the image problem Modi faced as he campaigned for his second re-election. No amount of verbal jugglery could diminish that. And that was the point I was trying to put to him.

In fact, the truth is — sadly and foolishly, I did not know this at that time — the modern-day Nero comment I had quoted was not spoken verbally, as the newspapers of the time had suggested, but was part of a formal written judgement delivered by the Supreme Court. Teesta Setalvad gave me the details after watching the three-minute interview. In its judgement in the Zahira Habibulla H. Sheikh v. State of Gujarat case, delivered on 12 April 2004 by a bench comprising Justices Doraiswamy Raju and Arijit Pasayat and written by the latter, this is what the Supreme Court put in writing: “The modern-day ‘Neros’ were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected.” To be honest, this was even more damning than what I had claimed was only said orally. The written version also accused Mr Modi of “probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected.” Alas, I was unaware of this when I was interviewing Mr Modi and so my question was weaker than it might have been. But even the diluted version was enough to rile him.

“I’ll tell you what the problem is,’ I continued in the interview. ‘Even five years after the Gujarat killings of 2002, the ghost of Godhra still haunts you. Why have you not done more to allay that ghost?”

“This [task] I give it to media persons like Karan Thapar. Let them enjoy.”

“Can I suggest something to you?”

“I have no problem.”

“Why can’t you say that you regret the killings that happened? Why can’t you say maybe the government should have done more to protect Muslims?”

“What I have to say I have said at that time, and you can find out my statements.”

“Just say it again.”

“Not necessary I have to talk about in 2007 everything you want to talk about.”

“But by not saying it again, by not letting people hear the message repeatedly, you are allowing an image that is contrary to the interest of Gujarat to continue. It’s in your hands to change it.”

Right through the two or three minutes this exchange lasted, Narendra Modi’s face remained expressionless. But it was also clear he wasn’t happy. His eyes were cold and hard. Perhaps he was making an effort to keep his face calm and steady. But now his patience or, perhaps, his resolve snapped. He had had enough and ended the interview. With the words “I have to rest. I need some water” he started to take the microphone off.

At first I thought he was genuinely thirsty and pointed out that a glass of water was on a small table by his side. However, it didn’t take long to realise that this was just an excuse. The interview was definitely over.

Yet even then Modi did not show any anger or even nastiness. The tape of these three minutes, which CNN-IBN repeatedly broadcast the next day, has Modi saying: “Apni dosti bani rahe. Bas. I’ll be happy. You came here. I am happy and thankful to you. I can’t do this interview … Aapke ideas hain, aap bolte rahiye, aap karte rahiye… Dekho mein dostana sambhand banana chahta hoon (They are your ideas, you keep speaking … I want to maintain friendly relations with you).”

The odd part is that I must have spent at least an hour thereafter with him. He plied me with tea, mithai and Gujarati dhoklas. In these difficult circumstances, his hospitality was exceptional. I spent that time trying hard to convince him to continue. I offered to redo the interview and put the questions about 2002 at the end. I assured him that I had many other matters to raise and only started with Godhra and the Muslim killings because, for both of us, it would have been wrong to avoid the subject. It was best to get it out of the way at the start.

None of this logic worked with Narendra Modi. I then said that if he left me with just three minutes the channel would show it repeatedly the next day. It would be treated like a news story. It would probably feature in every single bulletin. On the other hand, if he did the full interview, it would be broadcast once and repeated once and then forgotten, probably forever. But even this didn’t work.

Modi kept saying that his mood had changed. He said he would do the interview some other time. But, simultaneously, he also repeated we must be friends. “Dosti bani rahe,” which he had said earlier, was repeated again and again. When an hour was over, I said I had to leave otherwise I would miss the plane to Delhi. We shook hands and I departed.

The following Sunday the channel released the interview and it instantly became a headline story. As I had predicted, it featured in every bulletin. Modi’s walking out was big news and because it happened in the middle of the Gujarat campaign, the Congress party made merry with it. On Monday afternoon Modi called. “Mere kandhe pe bandook rakh ke aap goli mar rahe ho.” I said this was exactly what I had predicted. Indeed, this was why I’d felt he should have finished the interview rather than walk out.

Modi laughed. I will never forget what he then said. “Karan brother, I love you. Jab main Delhi aaonga bhojan karenge (We’ll have a meal together when I’m in Delhi).”

The truth is that these were just clever parting words. I’ve never met Mr Modi since. We’ve not even spoken. And there is no question of being invited to share a meal.

However — and this is important — for the next 10 years after this interview it did not affect my relationship with the BJP in any way. To begin with, most of the party’s senior leaders wanted to personally hear the story and I have to admit that I enjoyed telling them. More importantly, none were put off from giving interviews or, even, reluctant to agree. This was the case from 2007 right up till 2015 or, possibly, early 2016. Even during the first year or 18 months of Narendra Modi’s government, the BJP’s attitude towards me did not change. Its spokespersons and ministers always agreed to appear on my shows or grant interviews. It was as if the interview had never happened or was forgotten, as it deserved to be because by 2014 it was seven years old.

This is why when the period of ‘untouchability’ began I was initially unwilling to accept that it was because of the interview. Indeed, it took me a while to realise that that was in fact the case. Then, on 18 October 2017, Pavan Varma, the well-known diplomat, author and politician, gave me proof. What he said corroborated the impression Nripendra Misra had given me. The story Pavan told me was clinching.

Sitting in my office, his eyes happened to fall on a photograph of Narendra Modi. It was one of a group of former prime ministers whom I’ve interviewed. The Modi picture, however, was grabbed from the television screen and it’s the precise moment that he starts to take off his mike and end the interview. A CNN-IBN caption, which was visible on screen, is part of the photograph. It says: “Can’t do this interview.”

“Do you know what Prashant Kishor told me about that interview?” Pavan suddenly asked. “He said he had made Modi watch it 30 times as he prepared him for the 2014 elections. His team used your interview to teach Modi how to handle difficult questions or awkward uncomfortable moments.”

What followed was even more surprising as Pavan gave me further details of his conversation with Prashant Kishor. Modi told Prashant that he deliberately kept me for a whole hour after the interview so that I would leave his home convinced there were no ill feelings on his side. The cups of tea, mithai and dhokla were part of a strategy to disarm me. When I told Pavan that Modi had been extremely friendly and seemed by no means upset by the outcome of the interview, Pavan said this was deliberate. It was conscious strategy.

“But do you know something else?” Pavan added. “Modi said to Prashant that he will never forgive you and when he gets an opportunity he will take his revenge. This is something Prashant repeated at least two or three times. It wasn’t just an occasional comment made by Modi. Prashant was convinced that this was Modi’s intent and he wouldn’t rest till he had got even with you.”

Devil’s Advocate: The
Untold Story
By Karan Thapar
HarperCollins, India
ISBN: 978 -9352779840
224pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, August 5th, 2018