Who swung his unexpected interview in an Urdu daily? Who all stood to gain? And what’s the BJP cadre saying in Gujarat? Brijesh Pandey on Shahid Siddiqui’s Modi scoop
WHEN URDU weekly Nai Duniya came out with a four-page, interview of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, it kicked up a storm in political circles. The headline on the front page screamed: “Hang me if I am guilty”. The interview was done by editor-in-chief Shahid Siddiqui, who also happened to be the spokesperson of the Samajwadi Party (SP).
The timing of the interview, six months prior to the Assembly elections in Gujarat, has led many to call it Modi’s political gambit. With this, he is seen to be reaching out to the Muslim community without compromising on the core issue of Hindutva, a stance that many in the Gujarat BJP are unwilling to accept.
Such has been the impact of this interview that within 48 hours of its publication, SP leader Ramgopal Yadav came out with the statement that Siddiqui had nothing to do with the party. “Forget being a spokesperson, he is not even a member of the Samajwadi Party,” said Yadav.
SP spokesperson Rajendra Chowdhary has even accused Siddiqui of using journalism to further his political ambitions. While that may be true, it cannot be denied that Siddiqui was well within his rights as a journalist to interview Modi. In fact, he is vocal about his dislike for the Gujarat CM. “This is like shooting the messenger,” he fumes. “I have always maintained that Modi is a criminal and he should be punished. The Samajwadi Party and Congress are getting Muslim votes by raising the bogey of Narendra Modi.”
So how did this interview happen?
According to Siddiqui, it was all made possible because of Zafar Sareshwala, an Ahmedabad-based businessman close to Modi. Doing television debates on issues such as the denial of a US visa to Modi, to how Muslims should get over the 2002 riots, to backing Ghulam Vastanvi, a Bohra Muslim who was forced to quit as the vicechancellor of the Darul Uloom in Deoband because of his pro-Modi utterances, Zafar was a familiar face on TV, telling the world how things have changed for the better for Muslims in Gujarat. Along with his brother Owes, Zafar belongs to that select group of people who have direct access to Modi.
It was Zafar who suggested that Siddiqui interview Modi. “I was at Zafar Sareshwala’s place with Mahesh Bhatt and Salim Khan, when Zafar said that Muslims are being treated properly in Gujarat,” says Siddiqui. “I got very angry, called him (Modi) a murderer. Zafar was convinced that the situation was different. Anyway, Modi doesn’t give interviews to anybody. He then enquired whether I had approached Modi for an interview. I gave him my mobile number and email id, and asked him to give it to Modi’s office and let them know that I was interested in interviewing him. Soon enough, I got a call from Modi’s office asking me about the nature of questions that I was going ask. I told them that my questions would be spontaneous and that the interview would be completely open. They said then you have to publish every word of it. I agreed. That’s how the interview was fixed.”
Not everyone is buying Siddiqui’s story. According to Zafar Islam, editor of The Milli Gazette: “I get that newspaper through my hawker but I didn’t get it that day. However, the interview was everywhere, on every channel. Even The New York Times published the extracts. It’s very clear that a lot of work has gone behind it. Otherwise, tell me honestly, who notices the Urdu press in India? Being a journalist, it is his right to interview anybody but it should not become a public relations exercise. The way Modi’s photo was printed on the cover surely smacks of something else. Otherwise in the same Nai Duniya, Modi has always been shown as something of a devil.”
Criticism has also been levelled at the intent of the interview. “It’s laughable that Modi hopes of reaching out to the Muslims through an interview when over a lakh Muslims are still languishing in camps and living a life worse than animals,” says Khan Mohd Aatif, a renowned Muslim intellectual and former two-time BJP MLA from Lucknow. “Some kind of give-and-take must have happened between Modi and Siddiqui. But they don’t realise that the Muslim awam is not a fool.”
A senior Muslim leader of the Samajwadi Party admits that the party, especially the Muslim leadership, was taken aback by the interview. “When Muslims form a core of your vote bank and one of your spokespersons goes ahead and interviews Modi, what more needs to be done to rile the community?” he says on condition of anonymity. “Modi might have thought of this as a wise move, but I don’t think the community that has seen such a massive pogrom, is going to be fooled by this interview. Just saying I am ready to be hanged, does not change anything. You are ruling the state with an iron hand, who will hang you?”
Interestingly, the interview has not only incensed the Muslims of UP, the Gujarat BJP, too, seems upset and has gone to party president Nitin Gadkari over it. Party insiders feel that in an attempt to portray an inclusive image for himself, Modi has risked the party’s votebank in Gujarat. Senior leaders in the state unit have asked Gadkari to instruct Modi to chalk out a strategy for the upcoming Assembly elections, and not concentrate on the general election. A senior minister known to be a Modi rival has told Gadkari that they risk losing the Gujarat election if Modi carries on with his campaign for the 2014 Lok Sabha election, as the BJP will then be seen to have compromised on its Hindutva stand.
In fact, Gadkari has reportedly told a senior RSS leader close to Modi that he should first save his chair in the state. Only then can he have the luxury of appeasing the minorities in 2014.
While many in the capital are hailing this interview as a Modi masterstroke, Khan Mohd Aatif says the wounds are too deep to be healed by interviews alone. “If it is a question of Modi hoping to appease, then he is up against it,” he says.
Brijesh Pandey is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.