Book Review: 2014 The Election That Changed India: ‘No selfies with Modi’

‘My coverage of the riots ruptured my relationship with Modi,’ says the author

New Delhi: For India, 2014 was the year of locked horns. We locked horns with friends over Modi and the definition of secularism, over the Congress and dynasty rule, over 1984 and 2002, over the “idea of India” many of us grew up with, an idea that was now trapped between “Pappu” and “Feku”.

In this calamitous year, when we spent an inordinate amount of time in front of the telly, listening to one man hold forth, even his worst critics grudgingly marvelling at his energy, and slapping our foreheads in depressing unison when another man rambled on and on, as if in amnesia, about RTI and women’s empowerment, a climatic chapter of modern Indian history got written.

It’s a crazy, frenzied chapter marking the end of an era, and the beginning of another. Charles Dickens may well have been writing about India 2014 when he wrote: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity…”

Rajdeep Sardesai’s book, 2014: The Election that Changed India, summaries that chapter of history in the tight context of personality cult and the ensuing clash before victory day. With broad, confident brushstrokes he creates, in truekshatriya tradition, character sketches, post-script of course, of Modi the winner and Rahul the loser. He analyses and judges personalities by what they did on the battlefield, no so much by who they are, or what they stand for.

I met Sardesai on a crisp afternoon in his house in Delhi, and he told me, “More people have written to me saying that the book is far more critical of Rahul than it is of Modi and my answer to that is very simple: That Modi won the election, Rahul lost the election. The book is about who won and who lost.”

In what he picks and what he chooses to leave out, it’s a pragmatic book by a man whose fate seems uncannily tied to that of his protagonist. It got sealed in 2002, and then again in 2014.

Sardesai gives us almost a fly-on-the-wall account of the campaign of one party, and because the losing side is, well, the losing side, he doesn’t bother much with the Congress.

For many, May 16 was the day the msic died. Not for the 31 per cent voters, of course, who were dancing to new bhajans about Modi.

Sardesai doesn’t capture that moment of bereavement. Instead, he eulogises the marketing juggernaut unleashed by the duo he refers to as Jodi No. 1 — Narendra Modi and Amit Shah.

History is not always written by victors. Sometimes it is written for them, without them having to ask.

Sardesai’s book toggles between Modi and Rahul, almost as if he drew a rule in the middle of a blank sheet, wrote Modi on the left and Rahul on the right and started comparing.

Modi’s story begins on May 16, 2014, and almost immediately goes into flashback: “The first time I met Narendra Damodardas Modi… was 1990… the occasion was the Ram rath yatra of L.K. Advani”. Soon he shifts to 2002, the year when “my coverage of the riots ruptured my relationship with Modi”. There on it’s a heady ride to 2014.

We get to know that Modi has boundless energy, is fastidious about order and cleanliness, has an instinctive ability to create a well-marketed political event to raise his profile, and get detailed accounts of his punishing 18 hour days — he begins at 5 am with meditation, followed by a light breakfast, a pre-fixed interview, and is ready to take off by 8.30, going to bed well past midnight.

By the end of campaign 2014, Sardesai writes, “Modi had travelled 300,000 km, or seven times the earth’s equatorial circumference”.

Rahul, on the other hand, Sardesai writes, prefers “the corporate 9 am to 6 pm working style”, and his “self-identity appears to be of someone who entered electoral politics not out of choice but compulsion”.

Sardesai duly chronicles Rahul’s disappearing acts, “often an embarrassment for his mother”, and says that though well intentioned, “Rahul lacked the focus and stamina to convince the skeptics that he was a genuine 24/7 politician”. He even terms Rahul’s big thespian act of tearing up the Ordinance meant to protect convicted lawmakers as a “brief item number”. The movie starring Rahul then is a slow, drowsy art film with sudden, brief bursts of Technicolour, only to return to quiet Kalavati in black and white, waiting for Rahul.

We all know that few can match Modi’s oratory skills, and perhaps fewer still can match Rahul’s strange choice of words and awkward delivery. Modi’s style is that of a “pugnacious street-fighter, full of machismo” and he is "cocky and self-confident". Rahul is hesitating, halting and, often, criminally out of context. We know that while Rahul kept invoking the sacrifices of “mera parivaar”, Modi spoke of saving “mera desh”.

Yet Sardesai devotes considerable space to compare their box-office draw, or, well, TRPs: While TV channels were airing Modi’s speeches without advertisement breaks over 12 months, during Rahul’s public interactions “a hapless member of the Congress media cell would call and plead, ‘Please cut live — it will be very interesting’. Sadly, it wasn’t.”

Rahul was hardly to be seen on the telly. And the day the nation did tune in to listen to him, he was an epic disaster.

It’s not like Sardesai doesn’t stitch together Modi’s negative persona. He mentions Modi's paranoia about his political peers, Sanjay Joshi’s CD episode, Snoopgate, Jasodaben, Adani. But he doesn’t dwell on them.

Instead he dwells in detail on battle 2014.

Modi had the might of the BJP and the RSS — 45,000 shakhas and five millionswayamsevaks — behind him. He also had Amit Shah, the “ruthless politician who believes in a saam, daam, dand, bhed brand of politics’”.

Behind Rahul was the stupefied silence of Prime Minister Manmohan, and a risk-averse Sonia Gandhi.

Behind Modi also stood the moneybags.

Sardesai writes, “The 2014 election was perhaps the first time in Indian electoral history that the Opposition was getting more funding than the ruling party.” Not just the big corporates, but even SMEs were willing to give the BJP around Rs 10 to 20 crore each.

Modi had booth workers in Boleros, a daunting IT team whose missed call system had got the BJP 1.3 million volunteers, and a “media watch” group tasked to “take down” Modi’s critics on the Internet. And he had advertisements — 130,000 ad spots across 226 channels, 9,000 insertions in 295 publications, and 150,000 ads on websites.

And, finally, there was Team Modi’s Brahmastra — Modi in 3D. “He’d speak in one location but would be beamed in 3D avatar in over 50 locations…" the party was spending “upwards of Rs 200 cr on each 3D show”.

Congress’ only Brahmastra was Priyanka Gandhi, who seemed to make a dent every time she made an appearance, only to soon recede to her family, home.

When I met Sardesai, he was in a relaxed mood, posing for photographs, and skilfully manoeuvring answers to add to his new avatar — Rajdeep Sardesai, author.

He’s quit the channel he created, has finished writing a book, is not planning to start another channel any time soon. He is in between things. And in this fallow period he is casting a critical eye on television news, while maintaining a deliberate distance from the transient beast. He writes and talks about “a certain frenetic mindlessness” that has crept into “noise” (not news) television and seems to be developing a liking for things that endure. Like books.

“I believe that books are something that last. They are not like a TV programme — here today, gone tomorrow.”

Sardesai’s writing style is staccato, but self-assured. There’s little humour, little sentiment, but many quick, emphatic judgments. And on occasions when he wants to avoid passing judgment, he simply puts his thoughts into other people’s heads. “Perhaps he (Advani) saw shades of an autocratic Indira in Modi’s behaviour,” he writes.

All his profiles of politicians begin with "I" — “I had first met Mayawati around... I first met Kejriwal around… I had met Lalu for the first time in the early 1990s… I first met Priyanka during the 1999 elections…” Though anecdotal, they give an insight, inadvertent of course, into the man who often himself became the story.

Sardesai briefly touches upon his own troubles at CNN-IBN in the chapter devoted to the rise and fall of Arvind Kejriwal, and writes about “dark times ahead with a lot more control and muzzling of the mainstream media”.

He also tells us that behind many political milestones dwell his casual yet prophetic utterances. He apparently planted the idea of Anna Hazare’s fast at Jantar Mantar.

Sardesai also lets us in on how much VIP mindspace he occupies. Sharad Pawar blames him for preventing him from becoming Prime Minister and Advani blames him for denying him his moment of ultimate glory, courtesy the cash-for-votes fiasco.

Last month, too, on November 5, Sardesai was in the news. He was trending on Twitter — #LiarRajdeep — because he had said in an interview, “I was never anti Modi”.

This was addressed to the “new India” he writes and talks about, an India that both excites and scares him because, he says, “They will break down doors to bring about change, but new India can also become more intolerant of criticism… seems to be constantly outraged and therefore doesn’t do anything constructive.”

“I have had a peculiar relationship with Mr Modi because I have, perhaps, interviewed him more than any other television journalist... So it’s not as if we haven’t had a professional relationship. Why would I be anti him? I was questioning and critical of the handling of the riots by the Gujarat government of which he was the chief minister and, therefore, had to take responsibility… I’m not an activist who believes everything that Modi does is wrong... there are aspects of Mr Modi which, as a journalist, you’ve got to accept, and you’ve got to respect and admire and there have got to be aspects that you have to question and challenge and criticise. I don’t want to take selfies with Modi, but I’m very keen to question him all the time.”

The TV journalist has rediscovered nuance.

The best bits in Rajdeep Sardesai's book are courtesy “our Sunday phone conversations...” — chats between Sardesai and Narendra Modi. I asked Sardesai, “Yeh silsila kab se chal raha hai?”

These conversations began in February 2013, and continued, “If not every week, then fortnightly... in the hope that he would give me this big, grand interview, which he didn’t... I haven’t spoken to him since he’s won the elections… I spoke to him last on the day we did the exit poll, which was 12th or 13th of May.”

On May 16, after the day’s job was done, Sardesai called Modi’s residence in Gandhinagar, but was told, “Sorry, saheb sowa chali gaya.”

Sardesai is looking forward to meeting Modi and presenting him with a copy of his book.

So, I asked him, if today Modi were to give him an interview and grant him any five questions, what would those questions be? Sardesai hummed and hawed and said, “I can’t even think of them at the moment.”

Okay, one question, I persisted. After a long pause he said, “How do you see Rajdeep Sardesai — as a friend, activist, journalist? How do you see, after all these years, how do you see our relationship over 25 years?

Rajdeep Sardesai should know. He has answered that question in his book: “Modi is an individual who does not forgive or forget easily -- he has a long memory and bears grudges against those who he believes have harmed him”.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

( Source : dc )
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