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LUNCH WITH BS: Rajdeep Sardesai, television presenter

The television presenter Hindutva supporters love to hate tells Bhupesh Bhandari why he is willing to give Narendra Modi the benefit of the doubt, despite being labelled an implacable critic

Bhupesh Bhandari  |  New Delhi 

Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai has a booming voice tailor-made for India's high-octane television and the sunny face of a smiling interrogator. But his photograph on the jacket of his recently-out book, 2014, The Election That Changed India, shows the journalist frowning irately. (The front has in the foreground waving his hand in triumph, and in the background, a vacant expression on his face and his finger in the air pressing a non-existent doorbell). The photograph, Sardesai says, was taken by his secretary, Surinder Nagar, who felt it should reflect his annoyance with politicians. That explained the knitted eyebrows and stern eyes.

On the book jacket, as on television, Sardesai, 49, is nattily dressed, complete with a striped tie and pocket square. Today, he is in denim trousers and a striped shirt. The S18 at the Radisson Blu in Noida is almost empty. A gaggle of middle-aged women has descended on a distant table. I fear many of them will interrupt our lunch to click pictures with Sardesai. But Sardesai doesn't look bothered; he has learnt to live with such public adulation. We order food right away - lal maans, yellow dal, chicken tikka, raita and roti baked on a tava - and Sula Sauvignon Blanc to go with it.

The title of the book promises insights into how India has changed after the 2014 elections. Instead, it is an account of the elections, peppered with anecdotes from Sardesai's 26 years as a political journalist. He concedes the point: a more apt title would have been how the election has the potential to change India with a more robust and authoritarian leader in charge. One noticeable change, I point out, is the growing intolerance to dissent. Sardesai agrees that the space for alternate narratives is shrinking. He should know best. The social media is inundated with hate messages for him. A couple of hours before our meeting, I had checked his Wikipedia profile: it called him a journalist, author and "news trader". When I point it out to Sardesai, he replies, with a smile, of course, "I will ask my secretary to change it." Surely, within 24 hours, it would change to news presenter and author.

The internet has innumerable videos of his fracas with a bystander during Modi's visit to New York, followed by a barrage of unsavoury comments. Sardesai says he lost his cool after the man said something rude about his kids and asked him to go Pakistan. While there is anger against the media in general, Sardesai says the worst is reserved for the English media, which is seen as supportive of the "pseudo-sickular" forces. What also bothers him is the rising intolerance among overseas Indians. He calls it "long-distance nationalism".

The food arrives: the tikka is succulent, the mutton is heavy and the roti is delightfully thin and soft. Sardesai tucks into all of it wholeheartedly; he doesn't fold the roti into a dainty roll and leaves the cutlery unused. It's a delight to watch him have a go at it with his fingers. Some mutton gravy lodges itself on his palm, but he is blissfully unmindful of that. A hearty eater is always a sight to behold. One reason could be the book's success: in less than a week of the launch, it has gone into reprint. Hindi, Marathi and Malayalam editions will follow soon.

Rajdeep Sardesai
Sardesai's book revolves around Modi. He calls Modi a bundle of energy, great orator, authoritarian like Indira Gandhi and strategic thinker. "Like a true Gujarati, he calculates the cost and benefit of each move." He lauds Modi for his conduct after the blasts at his election rally in Patna. "He could have bolted and panicked, which would have caused a stampede. Instead, he came to the function and gave a stirring speech." This, he feels, was one of the turning points in the election. He also finds him capable of reining in the Hindutva hardliners - as he did with Pravin Togadia as the chief minister of Gujarat. And, in spite of all the bad blood online, Sardesai is willing to give Modi the benefit of doubt in the Gujarat riots of 2002. "Let's face it, he was new to the state and everybody knows Togadia was the most powerful man in the state at that time."

In his book, Sardesai mentions a chilling incident in Gujarat soon after the riots when things appeared to be back to normal. One night, he was returning after recording an interview with Modi, when, not far from Modi's house, his car was stopped by a mob that wanted all occupants to drop their trousers to check if there were Muslims among them. Sardesai discloses in the book that his parents had circumcised him in childhood for hygiene's sake and the driver was Muslim. This was trouble. When all entreaties didn't work, Sardesai flashed his press card and showed the mob the interview he had just recorded. Only then did they let them pass.

On Rahul Gandhi, Sardesai says he has received conflicting reports. Some people have told him that he is indecisive and aloof, while others have said he is well-meaning and attentive. That's why, unlike The Economist which called him a dud, he stops short of calling him incompetent. Sardesai says in his book that Gandhi took a different name while studying in the UK as security cover. This has only been talked about in whispers till now. Sardesai says he was told this by someone "very close" to Gandhi, though he does not remember the name he took.

His advice to the Congress is pretty straightforward: there is no time-bound cycle in politics, so don't wait for Modi to trip; go out to the field and rebuild the party organisation from scratch. "Send Sachin Pilot to Rajasthan, and tell him that he will live in Jaipur for the next five years. Send somebody to Lucknow." But there is no senior leader from Uttar Pradesh in the Congress, I counter. "Then he (Gandhi) should camp in Lucknow for the next five years. He has, after all, called Uttar Pradesh his karmbhoomi in the past."

Like the Congress vice-president, Sardesai too studied in the UK. At that time, he was keen to follow the footsteps of his illustrious father, Dilip Sardesai. He played first-class cricket for Oxford and was a member of the joint Oxford-Cambridge team that played the visiting Pakistanis in 1987. "After I played 10 deliveries from Abdul Qadir, in which I made two runs, I decided I needed to look for a career elsewhere."

The next year, he joined The Times of India in Mumbai. Six years later, he relocated to Delhi because Kolkata-headquartered The Telegraph wanted to start an edition in the city. But when he saw no sign of the launch (it hasn't happened even now), he switched to television and joined NDTV. In 2005, he joined hands with Raghav Bahl of Network 18 to launch CNN-IBN, a general news channel. Subsequently, the bouquet expanded to Hindi (IBN7) and Marathi (IBN Lokmat).

In July, Sardesai announced he was leaving the channel. In his farewell email to colleagues, he made two important points: one, "Editorial independence and integrity have been articles of faith in 26 years in journalism and maybe I am too old now to change"; and two, CNN-IBN was a "remarkable success" in terms of ratings as well as revenue. Since his exit came soon after Reliance Industries acquired Network 18, were there issues with editorial independence and integrity, I ask. Sardesai says it bothered him, though there was no interference from the new owners. And so far as finances are concerned, he says the channel has become cash positive. And what's happened to his stake in the channel? "I was given shares but am waiting for them to rise further before I sell," he says.

He is clearly not in any financial hurry. That's perhaps why he said no to two television channels that approached him after he quit and took time out to finish the book, which he had started in June, by September. He then joined Headlines Today as consulting editor, where he hosts a one-hour show at 9:00 p m. The work hours here look easy - after lunch, Sardesai heads home for a siesta.

First Published: Fri, November 07 2014. 22:32 IST