“Being in journalism (in India), one has to be quick in reacting to opportunities,” Arnab Goswami told me recently. “You can’t afford to lose an opportunity as it may be the only one in your lifetime,” he said. Even though the reason of the conversation was different, these words had a much deeper sense of connotation. For a journalist today, operating in the most challenging competition, to get the rarest of the interviews of the present times as an exclusive is next to impossible; especially, when the subject of the interview is someone who is known to reject interview requests at the drop of a hat.
As a 23-year-old reporter, I would have expected myself to be treated more as a cub reporter and least of all taken seriously for interviewing the most debated politician in India – Narendra Modi.
For me perhaps it happened twice in the last six months that I stumbled upon two key opportunities, both interviews, with part-luck and part-effort playing an equal role. Both of them different people, with no comparison; yet both so very unreachable.
In July this year Chief Commander of the terrorist group Hizbul Mujahideen Syed Salahuddin spoke to me over phone from Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK), a day ahead of the Indo-Pak foreign secretary level talks. Among other things, Salahuddin spoke to me in crisp English and Urdu about whether the dialogue process was useless and peace will elude Kashmir as the ‘armed struggle’ will continue. On a parting note, he asked me to ring on his landline phone next time to avoid unpleasant disturbance in the conversation. Later, I was told that his phone is kept on surveillance of intelligence agencies of India, Pakistan and the United States.
A month after interviewing Syed Salahuddin, I was commissioned by my editor to try luck for an interview with the Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi for a special issue of the magazine for which I write. I wasn’t alone. Four other editors were asked to use their contacts inside BJP and the Gujarat Government to seek an interview. Even though I knew of the outcome, I wrote an official e-mail to the Gujarat CM’s office to which I’m yet to receive a response.
Effort for the much wanted Modi interview had first begun last year in May when I was working with an Australian media house. A friend with leftist leanings from a popular Indian magazine requested me to take up his request for a profile on Modi with the head of his PR team who I happened to know. As a friend would do, I wrote an e-mail to the concerned PR head, to which I got no response.
Meanwhile, Time Magazine took Modi on its cover which was followed by a brief interview of Modi with the Wall Street Journal (WSJ). Controversy also erupted when journalist turned politician Shahid Siddiqui managed to lobby for an interview with Modi for his Urdu newspaper Nai Duniya. More recently, Modi did an impressive Google hangout chat with lakhs of his followers.
On the eve of the Gujarat assembly elections, Modi shed his ‘stubborn’ attitude towards media and spoke to Tavleen Singh Aroor of Times Now on the campaign trail early in October. Perhaps sensing pressure, CNN-IBN’s Rajdeep Sardesai soon after flew to Ahmedabad for an interview with Modi which many would remember for Modi’s sarcasm and undertones.
All this while, hope of an interview with Modi had taken a backseat. The special issue of the magazine for which he had to be interviewed went to print without the interview. Modi however had begun to intrigue me all the more.
Sometime in November during a friendly twitter conversation I happened to interact with someone I had a long discussion with few years ago on a TV debate in Mumbai. For matters of professionalism I avoid giving intricate details. In the next few days it so happened that the person became a bridge towards Narendra Modi.
In the second last week of November a phone call from Gujarat Chief Minister woke me from an afternoon nap. The CM’s office had to be convinced that it won’t be a hatchet job and the interview would be published without mincing any words.
Consequently, the most elaborate chat with the controversial man happened on wide-ranging issues such as his development plank, the burden of the 2002 riots, Rahul Gandhi as a Prime Ministerial contender and what lies ahead of him.
Following the interview, a well-known commentator of Indian origin in the United States wrote to me asking if the ‘sympathetic’ interview, which clarifying later he said - he didn’t refer as criticism, was fixed. I was shocked at how naive we can be if a young journalist manages to achieve something which editors only dream about.
It wasn’t that I never intended to ask Narendra Modi tough questions. But, I decided to move above nuisance-value news which is more commercially sellable. Moreover, Modi refused to answer two important questions – 1) If he would apologise for the killings in his state during 2002 riots as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh did in the parliament decades later for the anti-Sikh 1984 riots; 2) Reaction to the RSS-BJP turmoil on having Narendra Modi as the Prime Ministerial candidate for 2014.
The Narendra Modi interview was probably just an important opportunity, thankfully I didn’t miss to regret for a lifetime.