Just about a month after Narendra Modi swept to power in 2014, journalist Saba Naqvi got a mysterious call from a publisher inviting her to her Jorbagh home in New Delhi. At the time, Naqvi was still news magazine Outlook India’s political editor who had covered the BJP extensively, through the Vajpayee years and beyond. But despite her experience, she didn’t recognise the gentleman whom she met at the publisher’s home.
“I found Prashant Kishore waiting for me. I didn’t know who he was then, and he was still with the Narendra Modi team,” she says. 40-year-old Kishore wasn’t just a member of Team Modi, but also touted to be one of the key minds behind the winning election strategy. His role was yet to become the common knowledge it is these days—and he would go on to jump from the Modi brigade to help Nitish Kumar land the stunning 2015 Bihar win as Chief Minister, before landing his current role with YS Jaganmohan Reddy, opposition leader in the Andhra Pradesh legislative assembly. But when he met Naqvi that summer of 2014, he was still working to boost the new Prime Minister’s image.
“He told me that they were looking for someone to write a book on how Modi won the election. They had a list of three names that had Fareed Zakaria too. I told him I would consider it if I got access to the PM. But I never heard from them again.” Naqvi smiles now thinking about the improbability of that request being granted. Access to Modi is a mission impossible for political writers, even the ones seen to be right-wing or perceived as closer to the BJP. She all but forgot about the encounter until 2017, when Yogi Adityanath became the first expectation-busting, saffron-sporting Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. “That is was when I thought I should do a book on the BJP because I do know a lot and should put it down,” she says.
Naqvi attempts to pack all that knowledge into the 264-page Shades Of Saffron: From Vajpayee To Modi (Westland; on stands now). Written in the conversational style that is the signature of a veteran journalist, the book is a mix of analyses and her personal insights. Naqvi throws in excerpts from her outlook pieces, which keep reminding the reader how the BJP has transformed in just two decades. The build up of the NDA 1 where Atal Bihari Vajpayee is sworn in as prime minister in a modest ceremony, to the corporate behemoth of a political party that is led to victory by Narendra Modi. In reading the quick succession of events, you see the startling transition of the BJP from a family-style organisation where Modi is just one of the many interesting characters—into a modern, giant, insular unit which wants to deliver its message without prying eyes. Apparently, when then-PM Vajpayee once skipped an important function at the party office, Modi told reporters, “Once a man gets married, he will naturally pay more attention to his wife than his mother. The mother may feel hurt but her importance isn’t diminished.”
Naqvi may be a print journalist, but thanks to her opinion pieces in all the leading dailies, she’s also a favourite for prime-time TV, where she routinely provides relief from the abundant manels talking politics. But speaking her mind leaves her open to plenty of attacks too from supporters of the ruling party. “They are now so personal in their attacks. Some say I have taken a bribe from the Congress, some say from AAP. It’s all the newcomers in BJP, the new spokespersons who have a different culture,” she says. So how does she cope? “Every time Sambit Patra [National Spokesperson, BJP] and I meet, we hug. It’s to make up for all the fighting that we do on air.”
As Naqvi’s book tells you, it wasn’t always like this. When the Vajpayee PMO suspected her of doing a negative story, they made calls to her editor asking for her to be removed from the beat. She writes, “Despite the PM’s complaint, I must say that he continued to be pleasant with me and did not publicly show any resentment towards me. I remember once while walking in the lobby of parliament outside the PMO, I’d turned round a corner and walked straight into his entourage. Vajpayee stopped, hit my hand in an avuncular fashion, and said to me in Hindi, that I was a very good girl, but the things I wrote, ‘Kya kya likhti ho!’ My access to the PM was never curtailed.”
Speaking to ELLE, Naqvi said, “What I did with the Vajpayee period, no one can do with Modi. Even if I was a loyalist, would someone be able to walk into Modi’s PMO?” The answer is an obvious no. However, instead of ranting against the current dispensation, in her book, Naqvi tries to understand where the current crop have come from. There are those that she knows well who are common between both regimes—HRD Minister Prakash Javdekar, National General Secretary Ram Madhav and most importantly, Minister of Corporate Affairs Arun Jaitley. But the most colourful bits are about personalities that are no longer there like the late Pramod Mahajan, former Minister of Communications and Information Technology; her conversations with him give insight to the workings of a political party.
Was she ever made conscious of the fact that she was a Muslim covering a Hindutva party? “I was always Saba for them,” she tells me, but her book does mention an anecdote with Modi. “I had gone to Narendra Modi’s room with other journalists, when someone mentioned Kashiram Rana’s name. Modi responded by saying, ‘Woh maans khane wala'( He is someone who eats meat). I felt strange as I knew that with my Muslim name, I would also be seen as a meat-eater, and was there a problem with that? However, I don’t think Modi was being nasty, it was an unguarded casual remark.”
In this age of intense acrimony between the establishment and the media, where journalists and politicians constantly trade charges publicly, Naqvi remains extremely fair in her narrative. The characters in her book may be polarising figures, but she always draws them out objectively. Her readers may take a different view.