» News » Rajdeep Sardesai: 'Item number was wrong use of words for Priyanka, should've said cameo'

Rajdeep Sardesai: 'Item number was wrong use of words for Priyanka, should've said cameo'

By Sheela Bhatt/
November 06, 2014 15:59 IST
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'Politics is not flirtation. You can’t go into politics once every five years in Amethi. You can’t dip your toes in politics, you have to be a 24x7 politician’

‘The media today, at the moment at least, is not questioning enough and we seem a little intimidated’

‘Amit Shah had a double-barrel gun -- Modi at the top and RSS on the ground’

‘Modi’s challenge, and what he has successfully managed to do, in the 2014 elections is to make himself Hindutva Plus’

The second part of journalist Rajdeep Sardesai’s interview to Sheela Bhatt/

Don’t miss the first part: ‘I was never anti-Modi’

While writing the book on the 2014 elections, were you able to understand who Modi is?

If you see the epilogue, I quote Ashis Nandy from a seminar where he described Modi as a textbook fascist, and then I also quote Modi’s admirers who say he is a “karmayogi”; at the end of the day he is a remarkably hardworking man.

I still think Modi is a work in progress. I think in the next 5-10 years, we’ll come to know who the real Modi is. At the moment I think we are judging Modi either through the prism of 2002 or the prism of 2014. I think the truth will lie somewhere in between, as always. And Modi is clever enough. What I do believe is that Modi does everything strategically.

Everything is strategic with Modi.

So is he a better politician than a better person?

He is a terrific politician, as I’ve realised. Think about it, he is a pracharak. My sense is, Modi is an outstanding politician. As a person… look, as I write in my book, he was the first person to ring me up when my father passed away, so maybe there is… I don’t know, Person Modi, he doesn’t reveal much.

You know, we don’t really know who the real Modi is! I mean, imagine, he’s someone who didn’t invite his family to his swearing-in. I think ‘Who is the real Modi?’ is a question we still don’t know the answer to. There are aspects of him which are negative, there are aspects which are positive.

Why did India give him so many votes? What was the voter’s psyche in choosing him?

The voter’s psyche was developed because Manmohan Singh was in silent mode. The voter’s psyche got affected when Manmohan Singh said money doesn’t grow on trees. Manmohan Singh was seen as insipid while Modi stood out as strong and muscular.

I think Modi has to send five ‘thank you’ cards.

He has to send a ‘thank you’ card to Akhilesh Yadav for messing up Uttar Pradesh so the Gujarat governance model looked strong in UP.

Modi has to send a ‘thank you’ card to Rahul Gandhi because he looked confused and naïve. He looked like a young innocent boy compared to Modi who looked experienced compared to Rahul.

Modi has to send a ‘thank you’ card to Manmohan Singh because his silence made Modi’s oratory even more powerful. People wanted someone who can communicate and Modi is an astute communicator.

Modi should send a ‘thank you’ card to Ajit Pawar because in Maharashtra, another big state with 48 seats, the way Ajit Pawar was perceived or the Nationalist Congress Party was into corruption, people said Modi came across as someone who doesn’t do what these Pawar types do.

And fifth, Modi should send a ‘thank you’ card to Mani Shankar Aiyar. Because Aiyar, by calling him a chaiwala, actually made Modi look like a real grass-root man, a self-made man in contrast to these elite princes of the Congress. People voted for Modi because they were tired of this kind of weak leadership.

I would have been interested to see what would have happened if Manmohan Singh had resigned two years before, in 2011, when the Anna Hazare movement was happening and the Congress had appointed a new, strong leader.

But do they have any strong leaders?

Let us assume, for example, Chidambaram had been made PM. See, all said and done, Chidambaram would’ve communicated. Maybe not in Hindi but he’s a good communicator. He also probably worked hard to get the economy under control.

Chidambaram made a good point to me which I tended to agree with, I’ve said it in the book, that if the economy was growing at 10 per cent people would’ve forgotten corruption. And, also, maybe Modi. Because one of the things is that when you have double digit inflation and you have low growth, and you have a weak prime minister, you have no chance.

You said in your book, ‘I see very dark times ahead with a lot more control and muzzling of the mainstream media’. Are you trying to say that under the Modi government the media will not have real freedom?

I don’t know whether I used the word “dark times” but I certainly do believe that the media today, at the moment at least, is not questioning enough and we seem a little intimidated at the moment. We seem very desirous of being co-opted by Modi.

I’m not saying that the previous government didn’t do that. Even the Congress government for a very long time was let off very easily. Let’s be honest, they were also let off pretty easily by the media in the past. I don’t think between 2004 and 2009 we really questioned Sonia Gandhi. The real questioning started only after 2011, that too first not by us but Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal and other people outside the media system.

I mean, Kejriwal raised Robert Vadra, it was not raised by the media in the real sense. So you know to that extent, the media gave the Congress also a long honeymoon period. And now I think whether you call it honeymoon period… Modi has done one thing cleverly. He has understood the importance of single, one-way communication. Limited one-way communication! Using social media, using press releases, using Man Ki Baat on AIR, using speeches at Make in India, he will ensure that he controls the media narrative. And we are happy to follow instead of questioning the Modi narrative.

We are taking selfies with him!

What do you think, how will this trend progress further?

I don’t know. If you go by history, Indian media tends to, after a year or two, start questioning. The first one or two years we get carried away, we get caught in the honeymoon but after that we’ve always questioned. I hope we do the same.

Buy Rajdeep Sardesai's book, 2014: The Election That Changed India, here

Rajdeep, controversy never leaves you and you never leave controversy. In 2009, you wrote a piece on Priyanka Gandhi saying that you were so charmed by her when you followed her for a day on the campaign trail, and now you are saying Priyanka Gandhi is an item girl.

No no! In fact, if you hear the whole conversation with Shobhaa De, I said that Priyanka Gandhi is a natural communicator. She is spontaneous. She looks like her grandmother a little to a lot of people. That is her strength.

But I also said Priyanka Gandhi, politics is not flirtation. You can’t go into politics once every five years in Amethi. You can’t dip your toes in politics, you have to be a 24x7 politician. In that context I said that politics cannot be an item number. You cannot be an item number in politics. Maybe it was a wrong use of words. I should have said cameo. You can’t do cameo appearance in politics.

I still believe and I still hold that Priyanka is a natural communicator. But that is not enough. I gave a contrast with Mamata Banerjee. Mamata will ring you up at 3 in the morning if she finds a mistake in your ticker. Lalu Yadav will invite you into his bathroom to take his picture to show that he is such a simple person and leads a simple personal life.

Politicians, the great politicians, have no sense of privacy. They will open their doors to you 24x7. Subah, sham, raat woh politics karte hain!

I was drawing a contrast with Priyanka Gandhi. Yes, I should’ve not used the word ‘item number’, I should’ve said cameo. Modi is not winning today only because of communication, Modi 24x7 politics karta hai.

But he also safeguards his privacy like hell.

He safeguards his privacy like hell, like Sonia Gandhi does.

But let’s give some credit to her. Between 1999 and 2004 she was always trying to galvanise the Congress, and she was out there and she was taking up issues. She did some road shows, she did some rallies. What she did was guard her privacy in terms of interviews. She didn’t do any of that. She was very careful how to manage her public persona.

Modi is also very careful in that regard. But today you have to look at Mamata, how she fought the Left for 20 years before she became the CM of Bengal. Priyanka Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi will have to fight Modi.

In the 2014 election was Amit Shah helping and managing Modi’s Hindutva image?

I think Amit Shah’s role should not be limited to Hindutva politics, I think that is wrong. I think Amit shah was conscious that you have to practise a strategy for UP that was different from the rest of the country. In UP Hindutva was an important element. Amit Shah was able to blend Hindutva politics, use Modi’s persona as governance icon and to galvanise RSS cadres.

Did he galvanise RSS cadres only through Hindutva? I’m not so sure.

Was Modi’s personality his major weapon?

I think Amit Shah had two weapons. Modi at the top and RSS below. RSS pracharaksswayamsevaks, VHP karyakartas below. To attract the people below he had to use Hindutva politics. For the people above he had to get Modi to speak about governance. So he had a double-barrel gun. Modi at the top and RSS on the ground.

I don’t think we realised till the end the importance of RSS swayamsevaks in this election. This guy I quote extensively, Sunil Bansal, Amit Shah’s right hand man, was saying we participated more in the 2014 election than 1991 or 1977. In 1991 there was a rath yatra so the RSS cadres could be seen or the VHP workers could be openly seen. This time they were the silent workers. These were the people who won them UP, I think, Modi was not the only one who won them UP.

UP was won because Amit Shah played a terrific double barrel strategy -- Modi on top and RSS below.

When a typical Indian voter in a tehsil and taluka votes for Modi, does he look at Modi as a Hindutva figure or not?

I think you have to see the emergence of a new phenomenon in Indian politics today and someone has written about it, it’s called ‘rurban’. Rural-Urban. We see ‘urban’ as 200 seats and rural rest. But this ‘rurban’ is a good 300 seats. And this is where Modi has become powerful.

To the neo urban class I think he carries two images -- Hindutva and governance. You cannot win elections just on Hindutva. I mean, BJP’s incremental vote went from 8 crores to 18 crores this time.

So post-2014 elections do you think Modi can go for a pure development plank and remove and erase his Hindutva image?

His Hindutva plank is always going to be with him. He doesn’t need to do anything.

Is he powerful enough to carry his Hindutva plank openly?

No. We have seen what he did in Gujarat. Did he not demolish the VHP’s temples for which Ashok Singhal called him ‘Mahmood of Ghazni’? In spite of it Modi will always be seen as a Hindutva hero.

His challenge, and what he has successfully managed to do, in the 2014 elections is to make himself Hindutva Plus. That Plus has helped him win elections. Hindutva was always there, he did not need to do anything extra to get Hindutva. For the BJP cadre he is a Hindutva hero.

Does Modi really believe in Hindutva?

I think he does but he is clever and strategic enough to realise that to win elections you cannot be just Hindutva.

For Modi everything is strategic and that is his success. Modi has successfully realised that Hindutva alone will not make him PM of India.

Buy the book

Image: Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra. Photograph: Pressbrief/Flickr.

Don't miss tomorrow!: Rajdeep Sardesai on what the Congress did wrong

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Sheela Bhatt/ in New Delhi
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