The interview with Narendra Modi in 2007 is one among the thousands Karan Thapar has conducted that have stayed in his mind for different reasons. This is a story that is yet to have an ending. Even now, this interview continues to make news. Here is an excerpt about what happened during, before and after.
It’s no secret that the Narendra Modi government does not think very highly of me. No doubt there’s the odd minister whom I am friendly with—Arun Jaitley being the principal example—but the vast majority, with whom I used to get on extremely well, found reasons or excuses to shun me within a year of Mr Modi becoming prime minister. Men like Ravi Shankar Prasad, Prakash Javadekar and M. Venkaiah Naidu, who readily gave interviews as opposition leaders and even during the first year or so after 2014, suddenly shut their doors. Some like Nirmala Sitharaman even went so far as to accept and set a date for the recording, only to back out at the last moment without explanation.
That I was persona non grata first became clear when BJP spokespersons started to refuse invitations to join discussions on my TV programmes. Initially, I assumed they were busy. However, when this kept repeating itself, I asked Sambit Patra if there was a problem. In a hushed voice and a manner that suggested he was embarrassed, he asked if I could keep a secret before he answered. When I gave him the necessary assurance, he said that all BJP spokespersons had been told not to appear on my shows.
Next were the ministers. From people who were always willing to be interviewed and who enjoyed a challenging exchange, they transformed into telephone numbers that refused to return calls. Their secretaries had only one answer: ‘Sir says sorry. He’s busy.’
The only person I could convince to appear on my show was Prakash Javadekar. He continued to do so well after his party spokespersons or his ministerial colleagues had made a habit of saying no or just not replying. Then one day, he too had second thoughts. I knew this was the case when he rang and asked, ‘Meri party aapse kyun naraz hai? What’s happened, Karan? I’ve been told I mustn’t give you an interview.’
This was the first time I was formally told that the BJP had a problem with me. Javadekar did not swear me to secrecy. Instead, he seemed surprised by the instruction that I was to be boycotted. He had rung to give me advice on how to handle the situation. ‘Aap adyaksh-ji se milein aur isko sort out karen (Meet the president and sort this out).’
Because I knew him, my first point of call was Arun Jaitley. I asked to meet him at the finance ministry where he assured me there wasn’t a problem. He said I was imagining it. Everything, he said, would be okay.
I guess Arun was just being polite because the boycott continued. So I got in touch again. This time on the phone. Now he stopped denying there was a problem and, instead, told me that it would blow over. ‘But Arun,’ I responded, ‘if it’s going to blow over, that means there is something that has to blow away. So there is a problem.’ Arun merely laughed.
I sensed that whatever the problem was, it was more than Arun could handle. I didn’t and still do not doubt his offer or willingness to help but I did come to believe that he lacked the ability to do so.
If there was still room for any doubt, it was finally dispelled by BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav. I asked him for an interview in early January 2017 and, to my surprise and delight, he agreed. The recording was on 16 January. Afterwards, when I thanked him, his response left me – and my producer Arvind Kumar – stunned.
‘You may say thank you,’ he said, smiling but nonetheless serious, ‘but my colleagues won’t [thank me]. They don’t think I should have agreed. They won’t be happy that I’ve done this interview, but I don’t believe we should boycott people.’
This was when I decided to meet Amit Shah. After I wrote a series of letters and phoned several times, he agreed to meet me the day after Holi in 2017. The meeting happened at his residence on Akbar Road. It wasn’t a long one but sufficient for me to make my point and for him to respond.
I told him I had come to meet him because, over the last year, first BJP spokespersons and then BJP ministers had started refusing to appear on my programmes. I added that some spokespersons had actually told me in confidence that they had been forbidden from appearing and that, more recently, senior ministers had said the same thing. I also told him about Javadekar and my conversations with Arun Jaitley. Finally, I said I had come to find out what the problem was and, if I had unwittingly upset someone or said something, I would have no hesitation in apologizing. But what had I done?
Amit Shah listened to me in silence. I don’t think I took more than a minute or two to explain.
We were sitting in the large drawing room of his house. He was in an armchair overlooking the garden; I on a sofa by his side. We were the only two people in the room.
‘Karan-ji,’ he said. He sounded friendly or, at least, there was no trace of the opposite either in his tone or manner. He claimed I had misunderstood the situation. He insisted that no instructions had been given to spokespersons or ministers to boycott my shows.
Finally, he promised to ring me in twenty-four hours after looking further into the matter.
I left feeling reassured and confident that whatever the problem, it had been resolved. I was terribly wrong.
Amit Shah never got back. Over the next six weeks I must have written a score of letters and telephoned and left messages perhaps fifty times. I got no response at all. But something did happen: the penny, at last, was beginning to drop.
Amit Shah’s failure to respond made me think long and hard. I didn’t think he was the sort of man who speaks casually and holds out false hope. Something or someone had stopped him. That’s when I started to believe that the problem was probably Narendra Modi.
The more I thought about it, the more certain I felt of this. I had no proof—at least not at that point—but what else could explain BJP spokespersons suddenly refusing invitations, ministers agreeing and cancelling interviews, Javadekar’s and Jaitley’s comments and behaviour and, finally, Amit Shah’s sudden silence after promising to get back in twenty-four hours?
Was the problem the interview I had done with Mr Modi in 2007, during the campaign for his second term as chief minister of Gujarat, when he had walked out after barely three minutes? Possibly, but I suspected that it went a little further back. And it didn’t take long to realize that the roots must lie in a ‘Sunday Sentiments’ column I wrote in March 2002, days after the Godhra tragedy and the horrific killing of innocent Muslims that had followed.
I decided that perhaps it was time to speak to Mr Modi directly. Maybe an honest conversation would clear the air between us. Even if I half-felt this was unlikely, I thought it was worth the effort. So I rang his national security adviser, Ajit Doval, and also his principal secretary, Nripendra Misra.
I got to speak to Mr Misra before I met Mr Doval. Both conversations happened on the same day, 1 May 2017.
Nripendra Misra rang up in response to the message I had left in his office. I told him I wanted to meet Mr Modi to find out why I was being boycotted by his ministers and his party, and added that if I had unwittingly done something to upset the prime minister I was happy to apologize. But I first needed to know what that was. I also said I couldn’t believe this was because of the interview I did in 2007 because that was now ten years ago.
Misra said he would have a word with Modi and get back to me. Later that evening, I called on Ajit Doval in South Block and repeated the same message. He said he would wait for Nripendra Misra to get back to me. He hoped that Misra would be able to sort out matters. But if he couldn’t, Doval said he would have a word directly with Narendra Modi.
Three days later, Nripendra Misra rang. He said he had spoken to Modi and got the feeling there would be no point in my meeting the prime minister. He said the prime minister felt I was prejudiced against him and it was unlikely that my attitude would change. Misra also added that this was why Amit Shah had never got back. He too, presumably, had spoken to Modi and got a similar response.
I then rang Doval although I knew nothing further would be possible. I told him what Misra had said. He heard me out in silence. His only response was, ‘Let’s hope things clear up, but it will take time.’ So now I knew the cause of the problem. I had offended Narendra Modi and this was the result. The only thing I still wasn’t sure of is when precisely that offence had happened. Was it the interview in 2007 or was it earlier with my ‘Sunday Sentiments’ column of March 2002? I suspect it had built up over the years but the start was probably with the column.
So, if I’m right in my hunch that this was when the problem began, then the fairest thing would be to repeat what I had written at the time. I called the article ‘Go, Mr Modi, and go now’. This is what it said:
“I thought I knew Narendra Modi. Not so long ago I respected him and was grateful for his advice. In 2000, when I was preparing for an interview with the RSS Sarsanghchalak, he helped me understand the organization and opened my eyes to its weaknesses. With perfect impartiality he made me aware of the damning mediocrity that has come to characterize its functioning.
“‘Question Sudarshan-ji about the RSS’s loss of relevance. No longer does it stand for excellence. Today, it’s mediocre in everything it does.’ That’s how he started the discussion.
“‘What do you mean?’ I questioned. This was the last thing I expected to hear. After all, Modi is an RSS pracharak. I had sought him out as a defender of the Sangh, not as a critic.
“‘The RSS runs 20,000 schools and fifty papers. But none of these have achieved any measure of national distinction. The RSS is dedicated to social work but Sai Baba, the Radha Soami sect and Pandurang Athavale’s Swadhyaya Group have bigger names in this field. The RSS doesn’t count.’
“I was stunned. Not simply because Mr Modi was being critical. More because he was offering a line of attack that came from within the RSS. This was not the traditional and hackneyed left [wing] critique. It was the searing disillusionment of the right. It was new. It was different.
“‘Ask him about the attendance at RSS shakhas,’ Modi continued. I could sense his enthusiasm. He was behaving like a journalist. I liked that. More importantly, I admired his honesty and was grateful for his advice.
“‘Just look at Kerala. The biggest RSS unit is there but its impact is minimal. Instead, everything the RSS dislikes is thriving. The communists, the Church and an economy that is dependent on foreign not swadeshi funds. That’s how irrelevant the RSS has become.
“‘Ask Sudarshan-ji about all of this and you will touch on issues that matter to people like me. It will be a fantastic interview.’
“I had intended to follow this advice. But foolishly I started the interview on a more conventional tack. We spoke about the RSS’s commitment to a Hindu Rashtra, the Constitution, the BJP’s alliances and the Vajpayee government’s performance. Then we ran out of time. Mr Modi’s questions got squeezed out.
“Even though many praised the interview and the press were kind to it, I knew it could have been better. It ought to have been different. It might even have been original. Had I found a way of incorporating Mr Modi’s questions it would have been.
“At the time I thought of Narendra Modi as a man who had the strength to question, the courage to challenge and the objectivity and generosity to share his sentiments across political divides. I can’t pretend I knew much more about him. I certainly did not get to know him well. But I felt I did not need to. I liked—in fact, I admired—what I had seen. That was enough.
“Sadly, it seems I was mistaken. No, that’s not quite right. It’s not being fully honest. The word ‘seems’ suggests a doubt or hesitation that is misplaced. The word ‘mistaken’ feels euphemistic. The truth is I was horribly wrong.
“The image of Narendra Modi that emerges from his handling of the recent communal carnage in Gujarat is completely different. The ‘other’ Modi is narrow-minded, sectarian, mean-spirited and a prisoner of his limitations.
“I can accept that his inexperience, maybe even his foolish personal pride, was the reason why the army was not called out earlier. Perhaps he thought he could handle the situation differently yet still effectively, show toughness but also a measure of understanding. After all, it’s not easy to crack down on your own constituents, on those who share your beliefs. Even if tragic, such mistakes are human. They happen often enough.
“But when he claims that for every action there will be a reaction, when he attempts to explain the murder of Ehsan Jafri by alluding to the fact that the mob was fired upon and when he finds grounds for paying the victims of Godhra double the amount paid to those who died in Ahmedabad, he reveals himself as a moral dwarf. To value a Hindu life more than a Muslim one or talk of mass murder as if it was somehow explicable is not just beyond comprehension—it’s hateful.
“The man I thought I knew was a leader. He had the spirit and the wisdom to rise above narrow confines, to turn opponents into friends, to win admiration from journalists, to guide and be followed. The man I discovered last week is a mere creature—of prejudice, of petty vengeance, of double standards and forked-tongued utterances.
“The first Mr Modi deserved to be chief minister. The second deserves to be sacked.”
Today, as I read what I had written seventeen years ago, in the light of all that has since happened, I can see how it would have caused offence. I was blunt and sharply critical. Clearly I had hit where it was likely to hurt most.
It was over five years later, in 2007, that my interview with Narendra Modi happened. If I recall correctly, I had asked Arun Jaitley for help and I’m sure it was his intervention that convinced the Gujarat chief minister to agree. The interview was arranged for an October afternoon in Ahmedabad and I arrived by the early morning flight. It was the morning after Benazir Bhutto’s dramatic return to Karachi after years in exile and the terrible bomb blast that had shattered her procession, leaving hundreds dead. That, rather than the interview that was scheduled for later in the day, was at the top of my mind when the plane touched down in Ahmedabad.
I had just about got into the car and we were still within the airport’s perimeter when my phone rang. ‘Karan-ji, pahunch gaye?’ It was Narendra Modi ringing to welcome me. This was the first sign of how careful he is about handling the media.
‘Apna interview toh char baje hain lekin thoda pahle aana, gup-shup karenge (Our interview is at 4 but come a little early, let’s chat).’
Everything about his manner seemed to reassure me that Narendra Modi had either not read or forgotten about the column I wrote in 2002. He greeted me warmly and chatted as if I was an old friend. We didn’t bring up any subject that the interview was likely to cover. Instead, we bantered, laughed and joked.
I wasn’t sure if this was meant to disarm me. Canny politicians often resort to such guile. But certainly, any apprehensions I may have had quickly disappeared.
Half an hour later, we sat down in front of the cameras. Mr Modi was wearing a pale yellow kurta. His hair was freshly cut.
My first set of questions were about 2002. My intention was to get this tricky subject over with and then proceed to other matters. Not to have raised it at all would have looked like collusion or pusillanimity. Equally, however, I didn’t want to make a meal of it. Hence, the decision to raise it and get it out of the way quickly.
‘Mr Modi, let’s start by talking about you,’ is how I began. ‘In the six years that you have been the chief minister of Gujarat, the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation has declared Gujarat to be the best administered state. India Today, on two separate occasions, has declared that you are the most efficient chief minister. And yet despite that, people still call you to your face a mass murderer and they accuse you of being prejudiced against Muslims. Do you have an image problem?’
He didn’t seem at all flustered. I didn’t notice any emotion on his face. Not even a change in his expression. It remained placid and unaffected. However, what did surprise me was that he chose to respond in English. Although today his command of the language is near-fluent, in 2007 it was not.
‘I think it’s not proper to say that “people”. There are two or three persons, those who used to talk in this terminology and I always say God bless them.’
‘You are saying this is a conspiracy of two-three people only?’ ‘I have not said so.’
‘But you are saying it’s only two-three people.’
‘This is what I have information. It’s not the people’s voice.’ The truth is that the chief minister wasn’t right in saying that only two or three people had spoken about him in this way. The judges of the Supreme Court of India, including the chief justice, had made observations in open court that amounted to precisely this. So I proceeded to question him on that.
‘Can I point out to you that in September 2003, the Supreme Court said they had lost faith in the Gujarat government? In April 2004, the chief justice of the Supreme Court in open court said that you were like a modern-day Nero who looks the other side when helpless children and innocent women are burnt. The Supreme Court seems to have a problem with you.’
‘Karan, I have a small request. Please go to the Supreme Court judgment. Is anything in writing? I’ll be happy to know everything.’ ‘It wasn’t in writing. You are absolutely right. It was an observation.’
‘If it is in judgment, then I’ll be happy to give you the answer.’ ‘But do you mean a criticism in court by the chief justice doesn’t matter?’
‘This is my simple request to you. Please go to the court judgment. Find out the sentence which you are quoting and I will be happy that if the people of India should know it.’
‘It wasn’t just an open comment made by the chief justice. In August 2004, the Supreme Court reopened over 2,100 cases out of a total of around 4,600—over 40 per cent—and they did so because they believed justice hadn’t happened in Modi’s Gujarat.’
‘I’ll be happy and I am happy because of this judgment because, ultimately, the court of law will take the decision.’
Mr Modi was making a legitimate distinction between what is formally written in a court’s judgment and what is merely spoken obiter dicta in open court. However, for a politician seeking election, this was not a convincing defence. If the chief justice has criticized you, it hardly matters whether it was done in writing or verbally. More importantly, the criticism had been carried by all the papers on their front pages. This was, therefore, at the core of the image problem Modi faced as he campaigned for his second re-election. No amount of verbal jugglery could diminish that. And that was the point I was trying to put to him.
In fact, the truth is—sadly and foolishly, I did not know this at that time—the modern-day Nero comment I had quoted was not spoken verbally, as the newspapers of the time had suggested, but was part of a formal written judgment delivered by the Supreme Court. Teesta Setalvad gave me the details after watching the three-minute interview. In its judgment in the Zahira Habibulla H. Sheikh v. State of Gujarat case, delivered on 12 April 2004 by a bench comprising Justices Doraiswamy Raju and Arijit Pasayat and written by the latter, this is what the Supreme Court put in writing: ‘The modern-day “Neros” were looking elsewhere when Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning, and were probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected.’ To be honest, this was even more damning than what I had claimed was only said orally. The written version also accused Mr Modi of ‘probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be saved or protected’.
Alas, I was unaware of this when I was interviewing Mr Modi and so my question was weaker than it might have been. But even the diluted version was enough to rile him.
‘I’ll tell you what the problem is,’ I continued in the interview. ‘Even five years after the Gujarat killings of 2002, the ghost of Godhra still haunts you. Why have you not done more to allay that ghost?’
‘This [task] I give it to media persons like Karan Thapar. Let them enjoy.’
‘Can I suggest something to you?’
‘I have no problem.’
‘Why can’t you say that you regret the killings that happened? Why can’t you say maybe the government should have done more to protect Muslims?’
‘What I have to say I have said at that time, and you can find out my statements.’
‘Just say it again.’
‘Not necessary I have to talk about in 2007 everything you want to talk about.’
‘But by not saying it again, by not letting people hear the message repeatedly, you are allowing an image that is contrary to the interest of Gujarat to continue. It’s in your hands to change it.’
Right through the two or three minutes this exchange lasted, Narendra Modi’s face remained expressionless. But it was also clear he wasn’t happy. His eyes were cold and hard. Perhaps he was making an effort to keep his face calm and steady. But now his patience or, perhaps, his resolve snapped. He had had enough and ended the interview. With the words ‘I have to rest. I need some water’ he started to take the microphone off.
At first I thought he was genuinely thirsty and pointed out that a glass of water was on a small table by his side. However, it didn’t take long to realize that this was just an excuse. The interview was definitely over.
Yet even then Modi did not show any anger or even nastiness. The tape of these three minutes, which CNN-IBN repeatedly broadcast the next day, has Modi saying: ‘Apni dosti bani rahe. Bas. I’ll be happy. You came here. I am happy and thankful to you. I can’t do this interview … Aapke ideas hain, aap bolte rahiye, aap karte rahiye…Dekho mein dostana sambhand banana chahta hoon (They are your ideas, you keep speaking … I want to maintain friendly relations with you).’
The odd part is that I must have spent at least an hour thereafter with him. He plied me with tea, mithai and Gujarati dhoklas. In these difficult circumstances, his hospitality was exceptional.
I spent that time trying hard to convince him to continue. I offered to redo the interview and put the questions about 2002 at the end. I assured him that I had many other matters to raise and only started with Godhra and the Muslim killings because, for both of us, it would have been wrong to avoid the subject. It was best to get it out of the way at the start.
None of this logic worked with Narendra Modi. I then said that if he left me with just three minutes the channel would show it repeatedly the next day. It would be treated like a news story. It would probably feature in every single bulletin. On the other hand, if he did the full interview, it would be broadcast once and repeated once and then forgotten, probably forever. But even this didn’t work.
Modi kept saying that his mood had changed. He said he would do the interview some other time. But, simultaneously, he also repeated we must be friends. ‘Dosti bani rahe,’ which he had said earlier, was repeated again and again.
When an hour was over, I said I had to leave otherwise I would miss the plane to Delhi. We shook hands and I departed.
The following Sunday the channel released the interview and it instantly became a headline story. As I had predicted, it featured in every bulletin. Modi’s walking out was big news and because it happened in the middle of the Gujarat campaign, the Congress party made merry with it.
On Monday afternoon Modi called. ‘Mere kandhe pe bandook rakh ke aap goli mar rahe ho.’ I said this was exactly what I had predicted. Indeed, this was why I’d felt he should have finished the interview rather than walk out.
Modi laughed. I will never forget what he then said.
‘Karan brother, I love you. Jab main Delhi aaonga bhojan karenge (We’ll have a meal together when I’m in Delhi).’
The truth is that these were just clever parting words. I’ve never met Mr Modi since. We’ve not even spoken. And there is no question of being invited to share a meal.
However—and this is important—for the next ten years after this interview it did not affect my relationship with the BJP in any way. To begin with, most of the party’s senior leaders wanted to personally hear the story and I have to admit that I enjoyed telling them. More importantly, none were put off from giving interviews or, even, reluctant to agree.
This was the case from 2007 right up till 2015 or, possibly, early 2016. Even during the first year or eighteen months of Narendra Modi’s government, the BJP’s attitude towards me did not change. Its spokespersons and ministers always agreed to appear on my shows or grant interviews. It was as if the interview had never happened or was forgotten, as it deserved to be because by 2014 it was seven years old.
This is why when the period of ‘untouchability’ began I was initially unwilling to accept that it was because of the interview. Indeed, it took me a while to realize that that was in fact the case. Then, on 18 October 2017, Pavan Varma, the well-known diplomat, author and politician, gave me proof. What he said corroborated the impression Nripendra Misra had given me. The story Pavan told me was clinching.
Sitting in my office, his eyes happened to fall on a photograph of Narendra Modi. It was one of a group of former prime ministers whom I’ve interviewed. The Modi picture, however, was grabbed from the television screen and it’s the precise moment that he starts to take off his mike and end the interview. A CNN-IBN caption, which was visible on screen, is part of the photograph. It says: ‘Can’t do this interview.’
‘Do you know what Prashant Kishor told me about that interview?’ Pavan suddenly asked. ‘He said he had made Modi watch it thirty times as he prepared him for the 2014 elections. His team used your interview to teach Modi how to handle difficult questions or awkward uncomfortable moments.’
What followed was even more surprising as Pavan gave me further details of his conversation with Prashant Kishor. Modi told Prashant that he deliberately kept me for a whole hour after the interview so that I would leave his home convinced there were no ill feelings on his side. The cups of tea, mithai and dhokla were part of a strategy to disarm me. When I told Pavan that Modi had been extremely friendly and seemed by no means upset by the outcome of the interview, Pavan said this was deliberate. It was conscious strategy.
‘But do you know something else?’ Pavan added. ‘Modi said to Prashant that he will never forgive you and when he gets an opportunity he will take his revenge. This is something Prashant repeated at least two or three times. It wasn’t just an occasional comment made by Modi. Prashant was convinced that this was Modi’s intent and he wouldn’t rest till he had got even with you.’
I have no reason to disbelieve Pavan. He has nothing to gain by misleading me or even embellishing the truth. More importantly, what he said seemed to explain the way the BJP has treated me since around early 2016. This, no doubt, is why party spokespersons have been told not to appear on my programmes, why ministers started to decline interviews and, ultimately, why Amit Shah, after his initial reassurance, failed to get back or even take my calls. Perhaps this is also why, when Nripendra Misra spoke to him, Modi refused to meet me and resolve matters.
Excerpted with permission from Devil’s Advocate by Karan Thapar, published by HarperCollins.