Indian television media is unfortunately not picking up serious issues. I am worried about two statements (Gujarat Chief Minister) Narendra Modi gave in an interview to me. Modi explained why he was not in favour of the idea of Akhand Bharat and at another place he almost labels Muslims as 'mentally-challenged' Indians," says Shahid Siddiqui, editor of Nai Duniya who managed to interview Modi about the 2002 Gujarat riots.
Modi's trying to get the 2002 riots off his chest before the exclusive Muslim audience of the weekly edited by Siddiqui has created a huge controversy. It's a first of its kind conversation, and comes 10 years after the riots and just a few months before the Gujarat assembly election where Modi's personality and actions will come into national focus once again.
Talking to rediff.com, Siddiqui explains that Modi is not supportive of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's idea of Akhand Bharat because it will have a Muslim majority due to Pakistan and Bangladesh's current demography. The RSS's dream of Akhand Bharat is no more Modi's dream, says Siddiqui. Modi, in the interview, speaks about the idea of a Sanskrutik Bharat now.
Siddiqui, who is in the limelight because of the Modi interview scoop, has since been sacked from the Samajwadi Party. Many observers think that the SP has, unwittingly, served Modi's purpose behind the interview to "divide" the Muslim community over his actual role and immediate action after the Godhra incident. He wanted Muslims to "listen" to him and "judge him on the basis of facts".
Siddiqui says he was not convinced by Modi's answers on the riots because "he was not apologetic about the deaths of so many innocents. He completely rejected the idea of granting reservations to Muslims as if it is dangerous." Siddiqui says he has written in his paper that he is not in agreement with Modi's views, but still the SP sacked him for giving a platform to Modi.
The six-page splash given to Modi in Nai Duniya has upset the Congress party, too.
Siddiqui thinks his questions were quite hard and that he didn't give any clue to Modi before the interview as to what questions would be asked.
However, Siddiqui candidly agrees that Modi's answers were logical. But then, he adds, logic doesn't allow you to escape culpability for a crime.
"The point is, I didn't see anguish in him or readiness to take the responsibility for the event," Siddiqui says and argues, "The issue is just not legal or about logic. It's about taking political responsibility as the head of the state government. He should accept that things went wrong under his leadership. His was a clever way of saying 'hang me if I am guilty'. In politics perception is most important. In the case of mass killings there cannot be any argument but to say it's unacceptable, wrong and one has to own up responsibility for the loss of lives."
When asked what Modi should have done instead, Siddiqui says, "He should have resigned and presented himself before the law. He can't sit in a seat of power and overlook the inquiries. Even a junior clerk is suspended if found guilty. He resigns and then he is prosecuted. People are sent to jail till the trial proceeds and a verdict comes. The law can take its course only if the person in power resigns."
Siddiqui says on reading his interview no Muslim has told him that he was convinced of Modi's arguments. "His taint will remain."
When he met Modi, Siddiqui says, he found him arrogant even while being polite. "I found that he was telling me, 'look, I am right. You have to apologise to me if I am not proven wrong. I am never wrong'," says Siddiqui.
Siddiqui, who has been editing Nai Duniya since more than three decades, says, "I found him a bit confused, too. He was in two minds. He was talking to Muslims but he was not ready to lose his Hindu constituency. He was trying to ride two horses."
But Siddiqui takes pride that while Gujarat's development and Modi's non-corrupt image were in the news these last five years, "I have once again brought the issue of riots and justice for the victims into focus."
Siddiqui says, "If Modi wanted to launch a new image or change his brand through the interview, he will not be successful.
"In India you can become the tallest leader, a successful leader, but you can't become the prime minister by alienating Muslims. Atalji knew this fact. In 1978 Atalji gave me an interview in which he said that as long as Muslims in India are feeling secure India is a secular country."
Giving the background to the interview, Siddiqui said he attended the marriage of actress Hema Malini's daughter in Mumbai when he met film director Mahesh Bhatt, veteran scriptwriter Salim Khan (Salman's father) and Gujarati businessman and Modi fan Zafar Sareshwala in an informal setting.
When Sareshwala praised Modi, Siddiqui complained that as the CM doesn't meet editors like him, he did not know his real views. Siddiqui claims that Salim Khan and others too supported the idea of getting Modi's views for a larger Muslim audience. Sareshwala proved to be quite influential. In less than two weeks Modi granted time to Siddiqui and the latter flew down to Gandhinagar for the interview.
And Modi put his best foot forward. He was fully prepared to reach out to the community that could be detrimental to his dream of becoming prime minister. He gave Siddiqui a copy of the statements he made in 2002 as reflections of a true statesman, "principled, just, foresightful, swift, firm and positive".
Modi thinks that in 2002 he appealed to people "with folded hands" to maintain peace. He also gave Siddiqui enough material to suggest that he did everything possible after the riots. Most interesting was a page titled 'Understanding the Modi of 2002'.
Modi claims that most are unaware that at the time of the 2002 riots, not only was the chief minister new to the job (barely a few months into it, having taken office on October 7, 2001), he had in fact just contested his first elections ever, to the Gujarat state assembly, on February 24, 2002, a mere four days before the riots broke out. Modi reminds he entered the Gujarat assembly for the first time on February 26, 2002, and the riots ignited barely 72 hours after he became an MLA.
Shahid says on a lighter note, "Modi was wearing a stylish kurta. He was polite, civil and not aggressive. However, only his lips were smiling, not his eyes. He told me jokingly that 'saara desh mera namak khata hai'. Gujarat's share of India's salt production is 70 per cent."