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Interview/Vinod Mehta

Last updated on: February 6, 2012 16:04 IST

'Narendra Modi is a damn good chief minister'


Sheela Bhatt

'I don't have faith in Indian politicians, but I have faith in Indian democracy....

Whatever you may say, Indian democracy is very genuine,' Vinod Mehta tells Sheela Bhatt.

One of the country's most celebrated editors, Vinod Mehta last week stepped down as the editor-in-chief of Outlook, the news magazine he founded and edited for 17 years.

In keeping with his style he summed up his latest move thus: "If somebody thinks that I am out of Outlook, they are wrong. I am still very much here. I have just relinquished the day-to-day responsibilities."

The veteran editor of several publications like The Pioneer, The Independent, The Indian Post, The Sunday Observer and Debonair, Mehta has chartered a course, many times contrary to the flow around him -- like publishing Arundhati Roy's bold and consistent anti-establishment pieces in Outlook.

Criticised for his affection for the Congress party which Mehta has never tried to conceal, he calls himself a Leftist Liberal who says he would have no problem with the BJP if it gave up its communal agenda.

In the second segment of an extensive interview with Sheela Bhatt, Vinod Mehta looks back at 40 years in journalism and explains why he believes Indian democracy is genuine.

Part 1: 'Corruption, unfortunately, is at the editor-level'

In the 40 years of journalism, you have seen Indian politics, Indian economy and the level of Indian poverty very closely. In view of the realities that you have seen, do you really feel that Indian democracy is genuine?

Oh yes! I think whatever you may say, Indian democracy is very genuine. The Indian voter may not be very intelligent and may not be very well educated, but he's a very shrewd voter and no one can fool him.

In 2004, look at the way he brought down the (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee government, when they tried to fool him with the India Shining (campaign).

Unfortunately, Indian democracy sometimes throws up parliamentarians and MLAs who are of a slightly dubious character, but the cleansing process is going on.

Anna Hazare and all are a part of the cleansing process.

I don't have faith in Indian politicians, but I have faith in Indian democracy.

Please click Next to read why Mr Mehta published Arundhati Roy's pieces on the Maoists and Kashmir...

Image: Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi addresses a gathering in Godhra
Photographs: Amit Dave/ Reuters


'Indian democracy allows thousand flowers to bloom'

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This is surprising coming from you since Outlook is one magazine which has reported on injustice.

You have carried Arundhati Roy's views against the Indian establishment and, also, reports on the realities of Kashmir, Maoism and the Northeast.

It is a great tribute to Indian democracy that I can write about these things. That there is a magazine and there are others who can constantly bring out these things, and there is an audience for them.

I am not saying there is a huge audience for them, but there is an audience. After all, Outlook would not have survived if we printed all this for our friends. Arundhati Roy has a huge audience, both nationally and internationally.

There are people who are very concerned about the state of Indian democracy, and the fact that Indian democracy allows these thousand flowers to bloom.

All these voices that speak up one against the other is a tribute to Indian democracy.

The freedom of the press and the freedom of expression in India are absolutely genuine. I have no doubt about that.

Democracy is also about correcting injustice. Wherever injustices exists, their voices must be counted.

Look at the whole Naxal problem, two, three years ago people said, 'kill them, kill them', they are all anti-national, they are trying to break up the country. Now people are saying, 'No, perhaps they do have a reason to complain, perhaps you need to improve living standards and governance...'

You've ignored them; perhaps, these people wearing slippers and carrying bows and arrows -- they don't look very much like anti-nationals who are trying to break up the country. So there is a need to listen to them and see what their grievances are.

I think this is what Arundhati Roy is saying and she has managed to convert much of the Indian State. Today even (Home Minister P) Chidambaram talks of development when he talks of Naxalism!

Tell us candidly, what do you think before printing an Arundhati Roy article?

Is it about your commitment to such views about the Maoists or is it more about the fact that she is touching a wider audience?

Or, is it because you have a commercial interest in it?

Oh! I don't deny I have a commercial interest, but there is nothing wrong in having a commercial interest if that is in the interest of society.

I would not give 21,000 words to everybody; I gave her 21,000 words to write 'Walking With The Comrades.' I gave it to her because she has an audience, she writes very well, has a point of view, is a celebrity and she does sell.

So why should I make any bones about that?

As long as I agree with her, I fundamentally or generally agree with her basic thesis, I will print her thoughts.

I do agree with the basic thesis, not with everything she writes. But I agree with her basic thesis that she carries against the capitalist trait, against the problem in Kashmir. Not the break-up of Kashmir, but the fact that these people need a voice. And the army etc should slowly be withdrawn. I agree with her.

Please click Next to read why Mr Mehta has a bias for the Congress party...

Image: Arundhati Roy addresses a news confrence in Istanbul
Photographs: Reuters

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'I have a bias towards the Congress'

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Many critics have said Lucknow Boy is a very interesting read, but it is quite like a diary of the editor, maybe not a scholarly book on subjects as complex as the media and India.

Well, maybe, I am not a very scholarly person. But I am writing an autobiography, and I am trying to write about my life. I am trying to write about that as honestly as possible.

Now I don't want to make that into a very scholarly type of narrative. I want to write about my life and this is the way I write. So why should I pretend to be something I am not?

It carries quite an air of gossip.

Yeah, but you know gossip is important in life, but much of my gossip and my tales are true.

If you can tell me one piece of gossip (from Lucknow Boy) which is not true because everything is by and large true, there is nothing which is untrue.

Your critics feel that though you are the editor of such an important political weekly you have been biased towards Sonia Gandhi since the days she entered public life.

I have tried to explain that in my book. I have a bias to the extent, not so much toward Sonia Gandhi, but towards the Congress.

If you live in India, you finally have to choose between two parties. I have no problem with the BJP except their communal agenda and if they didn't have that I might possibly accept them.

I am a Liberal Leftist and they (the BJP) are to the right of the political spectrum. Even without their communal agenda I don't think I am very enamoured by their politics.

But my basic problem is their communal agenda. It was there in the 1990s and periodically comes up. Because I am from Lucknow, I am a secularist and my background is such, so how can I be for the BJP?

What about the Nehru dynasty?

When I support the Congress, I know there are many flaws in my support. There may be many inconsistencies in my support. I wish Sonia Gandhi or Rahul Gandhi were not part of a dynastic set-up.

I have written in my diary that if you support the Congress, there is a duty for you to acknowledge the dynastic set-up and say that well THIS IS THE problem with the Congress.

But then you come back to the initial question, what is the choice? If I had multiple choices I would go elsewhere, but I finally have to choose between these two. I can't say that I am going to support Ajit Singh's Rashtriya Lok Dal.

Please click Next to read what Mr Mehta thinks about Rahul Gandhi...

Image: A cut out of Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is seen through the Congress party flag in Mumbai
Photographs: Arko Datta/Reuters

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'I don't think India will be any unsafer with Rahul Gandhi than with Arun Jaitley or Sushma Swaraj'

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Do you think India will be safer in the hands of Rahul Gandhi?

How do you see Rahul Gandhi, if and when he becomes prime minister?

I don't think it will be any unsafer in the hands of Rahul Gandhi than in the hands of Arun Jaitley or Sushma Swaraj. I don't think that they are the same.

Why do you say that?

I don't see Rahul Gandhi (that way). If you think that half his allegiance is to the Pope or something on the lines of what Sushma Swaraj said about her (Sonia Gandhi in 2004) and what others have said that she will sell secrets to the Pope. I mean you can't believe all that. If you believe all that, then forget it.

How do you think Rahul Gandhi will perform compared to his father Rajiv Gandhi?

You can't be sure -- the way things are going -- that the Congress will come back to power. I think there is less than 50 per cent chance that they will come back, given the kind of public mood today.

But when he (Rahul Gandhi) becomes prime minister at the age of say 45 or something like that and the demography of half this country is less than 30 years of age, I think he will be in a better position to connect with them.

Please click Next to read why Mr Mehta thinks Narendra Modi is a damn good chief minister...

Image: Rahul Gandhi hops out of a helicopter during his election campaign in UP
Photographs: Jitendra Prakash/Reuters

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'India is getting less Hinduised because the BJP is getting less Hinduised'

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In the last 10 years Outlook has done too many stories on the BJP, Hindutva and the RSS. Do you think the country is getting more Hinduised or right wing?

India is getting less Hinduised because the BJP is getting less Hinduised. The BJP is realising that there is not much juice left in that Ram mandir kind of thing.

After all, if you take Narendra Modi, and you forget about the riots, and if it comes to governance you can't have much to complain about.

Modi relies on his claim to fame which is good governance. If you forget that episode (the 2002 Gujarat riots) he has been re-elected so many times partly because of who he is, but partly because he is a damn good chief minister.

So when you talk of Arun Jaitley and Sushma Sawraj or Nitin Gadkari, they don't seem to talk the politics of the mandir etc. They are talking of black money, price rise, inflation and bijli sadak paani(electricity, road, water), so the BJP itself has realised that there is no mileage in that 1990s slogan.

How do you then explain issues like not allowing M F Husain's exhibition, the vandalism by the Ram Sene in Karnataka and terrorism in Malegaon?

No, no, fringe elements are there in the (Sangh) Parivar (the Hindu brotherhood). There are some crazy fringe elements in the Parivar, just like there are crazy fringe elements on the leftist side. But those elements are becoming less and less important.

You look at the VHP (Vishwa Hindu Parishad), eight, nine years ago Pravin Togadia was a very important force in the Parivar. Today, nobody talks about him.

Even the RSS is talking of the Hindu agenda less and less, they are talking of a great prosperous nation.

In the current political set-up, on one side the stock of the Congress is declining while on the other side the BJP does not look like a cohesive alternative.

In that case, do you think the coming two to five years are going to be unstable and confused?

Yes, I think there could be a real jumble there, but I hope in the 2014 election, one of these -- NDA (the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance) or the UPA (the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance) can get enough of a majority to rule the country.

I mean not the BJP, but the NDA.

And once the NDA comes to power people like (Bihar Chief Minister and Janata Dal-United leader) Nitish Kumar should be major players in the NDA.

This Hindu agenda will become even less important. The governance agenda will be more in focus. So if the NDA comes to power you will find that the BJP will become the party we all wanted, at least what I wanted it to become -- a conventional right-wing party.

Image: The BJP national headquarters in New Delhi
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters

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