STRANGE that I had just finished reading George Sylvester Vierick’s landmark 1923 interview with Adolf Hitler when Indian TV channels went viral over a fellow Indian journalist’s meeting with Narendra Modi.
Shahid Siddiqui, a well-known Muslim editor of an Urdu daily, a description he seems comfortable with, was being accused of letting down India’s Muslims.
How could he do an interview with the man seen by his community as a murderer of their men, women and children? It was their burnt and mangled remains that he flaunted to win the 2002 elections in Gujarat, Siddiqui was reminded.
The Samajwadi Party, which counts on Muslim support for its success in Uttar Pradesh, was quick to announce Siddiqui’s dismissal from its ranks. He was once its MP in the Rajya Sabha. There is evidently a subtext to the story but we can put that on hold.
Much of the mainstream media has been quietly supporting Modi in recent months, not the least because their corporate owners are aligned with his pro-business politics. Manmohan Singh is suddenly passé. TV channels found in the Modi interview a chance to show him as a sympathiser of Muslims, not their enemy. Siddiqui struggled hard to underscore that he had asked Modi ‘tough’ questions and that he was still opposed to his politics.
Modi, as far as one could tell, didn’t shed new light on any of the charges he faces. He was asked by Siddiqui to apologise for the death of innocents under his watch. If that was a tough question, Modi’s answer deflected it neatly. He would prefer to be hanged ‘if’ found guilty rather than apologise for a crime he didn’t commit. That looked like a clean pair of heels, not the trapped quarry of an intrepid journalist’s guile.
Interviewing the famous and the notorious is one of the few privileges that good journalists live for. Their motives can be many and varied but it is their right to meet people whose views count. Oriana Fallaci gained fame with her Khomeini interview, something unthinkable with the galaxy of celebrities she had cross-examined earlier. David Frost revived his sagging career by paying for a series of interviews he did with the dethroned Richard Nixon. Muammar Qadhafi’s last interviewer was going to be busy soon after the life-time scoop, moving on with professional ease to the next assignment to report his gruesome death, all in the line of duty.
I have had my share of celebrity interviews but the one that haunts me was of a poor condemned Indian tailor in a prison cell in the Emirate of Ras al Khaimah. Abdul Aziz Parker pleaded his innocence to me. He showed a letter he had written to Indira Gandhi to help him out. Unfortunately, the text of the interview got leaked to prison officials and the man was executed by a firing squad moments before his story hit the newsstands. I have not been able to live it down, to put it mildly.
While journalists make and mar reputations of those they interview they seldom risk engaging with a cause that could harm their professional prestige. It would be harmful for journalism to imply that Shahid Siddiqui attempted some sort of public relations exercise on behalf of the man still shunned by a majority of Indians as suspect.
If there is something more eerie about Narendra Modi than his association with the state-backed massacre of Muslims it is his popularity with India’s middle classes. This is the surest tell-tale sign of a fascist surge. It is dangerously popular as opposed to other dictatorships.
A sample of how India’s Murdochian media is primed to stand with Modi’s brand of ultra-nationalist vigour came in the Mumbai terror nightmare. Popular TV anchors were happy to project as national sentiment the yearning of socialites, talk-show hostesses and advertising buffs who called for a range of responses — from the carpet-bombing of Pakistan to the suspension of the Indian parliament and the elevation of business tycoon Ratan Tata as prime minister.
Returning to Siddiqui’s meeting with Modi, there are more effective ways to expose someone’s culpability than to interview him. The matchless Tehelka sting operations in Gujarat come to mind. They caught key players in the pogroms, including Modi’s close associates and party leaders, either incriminating themselves or pointing the finger at him.
In the final analysis no amount of energetic journalism can uproot fascism. The last time someone made a serious attempt to weed it out from anywhere, the long and bloody battle carried the sobriquet of World War II.
There is practically no political air cover for the ground troops who are mainly selfless individuals determined to take a last stand against the juggernaut of bad blood. In a cynical vein, Modi’s candidature for the prime minister’s race will suit the listless Congress, which is eyeing his notoriety like a cat regards a bowl of cream. The man from Gujarat will usefully polarise the votes on communal lines, the party calculates — just what Rahul Gandhi needs to be projected as a secular alternative after Manmohan Singh.
General elections, however, are due only in 2014 and Modi has to pass a stringent test in Gujarat to become eligible for the big arena. The state goes for its five-yearly assembly polls in December this year and while the Congress is not likely to bother him seriously, some of Modi’s own right-wing satraps have dug in their heels to deny him a walkover.
Let’s see what was happening in Germany in 1923, seven years before Hitler became the Fuehrer. “When I take charge of Germany, I shall end tribute abroad and Bolshevism at home,” Hitler told Vierick in the hugely insightful interview.
“Bolshevism is our greatest menace. Kill Bolshevism in Germany and you restore 70 million people to power.”
When Adolf Hitler announced this programme, “the advent of the Third Empire, which he proclaims seemed still at the end of the rainbow. Then came election after election. Each time the power of Hitler grew,” wrote Vierick, a German-American poet who became a Nazi partisan. It didn’t take away from the importance of the interview that both men belonged to the same side.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.