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Meeting Modi: Spartan surroundings, no fuss, all business

April 21, 2014 16:05 IST

Smita Prakash with Narendra Modi during the interview

Smita Prakash, Editor, News, Asian News International, recalls the behind the scenes action during her recent television interview with Narendra Modi in Gandhinagar.

6.30 am: Drive into the home of Gujarat Chief Minister and Bharatiya Janata Party prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi. There are peacocks ambling in the small verdant garden, koels cooing in the trees. A small batch of very courteous policemen, who don't even check our ids, wave our cars in.

I am a bit uncomfortable. Isn't this man very high on the hit list of terror groups? Why this chivalrous trust? I am used to the rude, unforgiving checks by the Special Protection Group. But then our equipment is checked thoroughly. Metal detectors and body frisking and we are ushered in, into the house. Very professional.

6.40 am: The foyer has five feet tall-seated Buddha made of wood. Mentally thinking... the so-called 'Hindu fundamentalist' leader does not have pictures, portraits or sculptures of Shivaji or Hanuman or Ganesh at the place where he meets guests. No photographs or paintings of 'the leader' either.

The room where we are seated and offered tea or coffee is spartan. Tacky plastic flowers in a planter, the smell of phenyl, a man is swabbing the floor, no incense or sign of any ostentation or religious symbolism as yet. As you can guess, I am a disbeliever; I have my scanners on... cleverly trying to find any signs of megalomania that Modi is accused of.

6.50 am: I ask for coffee, not for any symbolic reason, I just don't drink tea. (Modi's oft-repeated claim that he still has the simplicity of a tea vendor has become a mantra for his followers). I am holding fast to my desire to be as neutral as possible in the interview. My questions are beyond the riots of 2002, beyond Hindutva and beyond hate speeches.

The interview is not for ratings; I don't work for a channel. It is not going to be one-upmanship because my subscribers will probably edit out my face anyway (later saw to my surprise that my questions were not edited out).

The interview has to cater to ANI's clients in the south; there are more television channels in the south than the north. The questions have to be a mix of domestic political for local clients and international policy based for ANI's foreign clients. There are many tugs and pulls going on in my mind.

7.00 am: Two of Modi's aides walk in, a little chit-chat about elections and we get straight to the point. What would the theme of the interview be? I tell them knowing fully well they expect me to not back down on anything. My last conversation with Modi was in 2011; I have been waiting for an interview since then. But I don't tell them this.

I just discuss some of the questions, they don't draw any Laxman rekhas. I also know they will not have any time to brief Modi because we are about to start filming, Modi is on the way.

7.20 am: I check the set. It is bare minimum, two ordinary chairs, and one prop of a statue of Vivekananda and some potted plants. The floor tiles are clean and white. My mind immediately goes to a recent interview that I had done of Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav. Glistening Italian marble, walls pasted with pictures of Mulayam Singh Yadav, installations of cycles (his party's election symbol).

This room too like others is bare. Nothing on the walls, not even a carpet. We make a request to bring one from somewhere in the house. In my mind I am thinking, if he becomes prime minister, this man is going to turn 7 Race Course Road (the PM's official residence) into a monastery at this rate!

A cameraman from the Gujarat information ministry sets up his camera alongside ours. All the chief minister's interviews are recorded by his government department too. Excellent. I am impressed. I recall advising a former prime minister about this, many years ago. All chief ministers have huge information departments and yet such a basic thing as recording media interviews is not done. IAS officers sit in the room, taking notes!

7.50 am: Modi arrives without any fanfare. Alone, no chamchas, no hangers-on, no attendants. We are ushered into his office and exchange pleasantries. The first thing that catches my eye is the colour of his kurta and jacket. It is a combination of orange and green. I wonder if I should tell him to change. The colours look very bold for television, but I hold my tongue.

Waiting for him to tell me not to go beyond 20 minutes or half hour, to tell me how he is very busy with campaigning, to tell me how he has rejected x-y-z journalist and granted an interview to me, in other words make me feel small, indebted... all tactics used by other powerful politicians to set the mood for an interview. He does none of that. He does not lay down any dos and don'ts.

8.00 am: We climb up the stairs to the conference room where the set is, nobody holds doors open for him, no elevator, no perfuming the area for 'Netaji'. And this happens for chief ministers and prime ministers. I have interviewed several of them to see how their staff makes their surroundings very pretty and pleasing.

A glass of warm water has been placed before the chief minister... the strain on his voice because of a marathon number of rallies he has addressed, makes me wonder whether he will be able to go on for more than 30 minutes. No box of tissues to wipe the sweat off his forehead as the air-conditioning has been switched off for the shoot. Either his staff is not used to television shoots or else they have been instructed not to pamper their boss.

Seventy minutes later we are done with the interview. Modi does not ask me "Kab chalaoge? Kahaan chalogey? Yeh edit kar do. Voh kyun poocha?" No orders, no requests. I am quite uncomfortable. This is not what I expected. But then I smile to myself. In a way I know I am right. The best interviews are the unscripted ones.

Image: Smita Prakash with Narendra Modi during the interview.

Smita Prakash