The newsman speaks

September 23, 2018

Rajdeep Sardesai celebrates 30 years in journalism this year. As son of a former test cricketer, how does he look at a cricketer becoming the prime minister of Pakistan and the potential it carries for cricket and peace between the two countries

The newsman speaks

Seated in his study, the solitary retreat where he jots down his thoughts on paper, Rajdeep Sardesai, senior journalist and author, speaks to me from his Delhi residence on telephone. I urge him to give me details of the place where he is seated before I begin asking him questions.

Nestled in the study is Sardesai’s personal library that boasts a huge collection of fiction and non-fiction. He says he could eagerly pore over any of John Grisham’s legal thrillers but is equally fond of Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.

"I celebrate 30 years in journalism this year in November," he says. He began his journalistic career as the city editor of the Times of India’s Mumbai edition in 1988. "I studied law at Oxford University and also briefly practised at the Bombay High Court. However, I knew my heart was much more in the written word," he says.

In 1994, Sardesai shifted from print to television when he joined NDTV. He later went on to set up the IBN18 network as founding editor. He is presently the consulting editor to the India Today group. He first achieved prominence as an author with the 2015 publication of his book 2014: The Election that Changed India. In 2017, he published Democracy’s XI, which narrates the story of post-Independence cricket through the lives of eleven Indian cricketers. Launched in July 2018, his recent book is titled The Newsman: Tracking India in the Modi Era. Sardesai affirms, "That’s what I am. I chase news every day."

His oratorical tone is reminiscent of the way he speaks on television shows. The news junkies of the subcontinent have chased him long before he got his strands of silver hair. I had myself binge-watched some of his exceptional interviews before this virtual meet-up, largely to get him to talk about politics as it was shaping in Pakistan.

He talks rapidly betraying his solid intellect, sharp wit and wide berth of knowledge on politics and current affairs; his rare pauses reflective of his steady flow of thoughts and ideas. As we converse, I picture the deep look on his face while posing a critical question during his tv interviews and the triumphant smile that follows when the respondent is thrown off balance.

Sardesai is often criticised and targeted by online trolls for his political stance; yet he maintains his composure with unflappable suavity and poise.

The conversation flourishes as soon as I ask if he had ever wished to be a cricketer? "Yes, very much so. In fact, as I write in my book Democracy’s XI, it was a match against Pakistan that I played for the Combined British Universities in 1987 that made me realise how bad I was at cricket. Abdul Qadir bowled six balls to me and I could barely touch one of them. Qadir was such a master of the craft and that’s when I decided I needed to become a journalist. Because as I keep saying when you have failed at everything else, there is always journalism.

"Today if I advocate peace or better relations with Pakistan, I am told why don’t you go and live there? Why don’t you get a Pakistani citizenship? I say I would love to but please, at least, get me a visa first. We are in a tough situation where the Pakistan High Commission won’t grant us visa to cover elections in Pakistan while the Indians who think we are pro-Pakistan call us anti-national," he laments.

"I wanted to be a cricketer but cricket is about talent. Simply because my father played cricket for India, didn’t mean that I too could."

His father, Dilip Sardesai, represented India in 30 test matches between 1961 and 1971. He is best remembered for his 642 runs on the victorious tour to West Indies that earned him the "Renaissance Man of Indian cricket" title.

Before speaking to Sardesai, I had read a compelling story about his father as narrated by cricket columnist, Makarand Waingankar in the book Guts & Glory. Dilip Sardesai was a university cricketer when he had met his future wife, Nandini Pant in Bombay. They both fell in love and had kept in touch. During Dilip Sardesai’s tour to the Caribbean, they had both exchanged as many as 90 letters -- falling 10 short of completing a century. Speaking about the love letters Nandini Pant had once said, "Half of my love letters used to be spent in correcting Dilip’s English."

I ask Rajdeep if he has seen those letters. A snickering laugh follows and he says he hasn’t but his mother still might have them. "She has certainly not shared them with me. I think my father had gone to West Indies in 1962 on his first international tour. So, they both used to write to each other a lot. My mother is a professor so she is much better at English and my father came from a small town so his English wasn’t that good. That’s what happens in subcontinent, husbands and wives usually have very different backgrounds. And, now that you have reminded me, I must ask my mother for those letters."

Did his father have any friends in the Pakistan cricket team and how was his experience playing against them. "My father’s first test match was against Fazal Mahmood’s Pakistan team as a twelfth man in 1960-61. He was picked to play against Pakistan and since he didn’t make it to the final eleven, he was the twelfth man. Unfortunately, that was the last time India and Pakistan played together before a gap of 17 years."

India and Pakistan had played five test series between 1952 till 1961 but the cricket ties froze for the next 17 years. "So, my father never got a chance to actually play against Pakistan in a test match. However, over the years he made a number of friends among Pakistani cricketers, Mushtaq Mohammad especially, who were of his generation."

Sardesai recalls a benefit match for his father in Ahmedabad in early 1978 to which he had invited Pakistani cricketers. "This was actually much before India went to Pakistan in 1978-79 ending the 17-year freeze. My father invited the Pakistani crickets including Mushtaq Mohammad, Sarfraz Nawaz, Sadiq Mohammad and Imran Khan. And I still remember, in 1977, on the way back from Australia, Mushtaq brought a young Imran for dinner at our house. Imran was 25 years old at that time and had just grabbed wickets against Australia to become a huge star. So, I can tell you that the entire neighbourhood was crowded outside our house when they found Imran was coming," he narrates with enthusiasm.

Indian High Commissioner Ajay Bisaria recently gifted a cricket bat to the newly elected Prime Minister Imran Khan signed by the entire Indian cricket team after their meeting to discuss the prospects of good relationships between India and Pakistan. I ask Sardesai if he thinks the gesture could lead to Pakistani cricket team playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL)? "I think it was a great symbolic gesture. Because for the average Indian, Imran Khan is not just a prime minister of Pakistan, we also see him as a great cricketer and as a remarkable, charismatic, captain."

Sardesai doesn’t think any other Pakistani leader has as much goodwill and as many friends and admirers in India as Khan does. "That’s a huge plus to start with. The prime minister has travelled and met people across the spectrum in India, and is much loved for what he did on the cricket field."

However, he thinks there is a huge question mark as to whether it could lead to Pakistani cricketers playing regular cricket series in IPL. "I am a romantic so I would love to see India and Pakistan play, also in IPL. Unfortunately, the harsh reality of politics is that cricket is used both to unite and divide. At the moment, those who use cricket to divide seem to have an advantage and, therefore, I don’t see Pakistani cricketers playing in the IPL right away. I would like to believe that in the coming five years, Imran Khan’s goodwill and his ability to work together with the Indian leadership might help build bridges. It would be fantastic if we could have a Mohammad Amir bowling to Virat Kohli in the IPL final."

How does he think Imran Khan would shape Indo-Pak relations? "Many Indians remember him from the great cricket series in 1980s and the world cup win of 1992. That’s at an individual level. Unfortunately, at the end of the day, it’s the institutions and not individuals that can drive India-Pakistan relations. So, it depends on the Pakistan army and the Indian political establishment. If they can strike a relationship, it can move forward.

"I hope he can build on the good will that results in some kind of an institutional arrangement between India and Pakistan. We have to maintain and uniterrupted dialogue between the two countries, irrespective of who holds power in Pakistan or India. We must be able to talk to each other, continuously."

Sardesai thinks it was a positive sign that Navjot Singh Sidhu attended Imran Khan’s swearing-in, as it was a gesture of goodwill that would hopefully be reciprocated. "A number of people in India felt that Sidhu should have stayed away till Pakistan showed signs of acting against the 26/11 terrorists. But, personally, I think it sent out a strong positive message."

The heated Indian reaction followed by Sidhu’s Pakistan visit grabbed more media attention in Pakistan than his strong message of peace and friendship. I eagerly ask Sardesai what he thinks about the persistent media war between the two countries?

"I think it is terrible." He quotes the example of his recent interview with Sunil Gavaskar. "Gavaskar wished Imran really well and spoke very fondly of him, but said he could not go to the swearing-in because of the commentary commitments he already had for the India-England series. Immediately, some channels interpreted that interview to suggest that Gavaskar had snubbed Imran Khan, he had put ‘India first’, and others who had been invited should follow suit and boycott Imran’s swearing-in."

Sardesai goes on to explain, "Gavaskar was praising Imran Khan, saying how much he would miss being there. Nowhere did he snub Imran, but because it suits a certain narrative in the Indian media to portray Pakistan as the villain, hence, going or not going to the swearing-in becomes a patriotism test."

He mentions Narendra Modi’s invitation to Nawaz Sharif to his swearing-in ceremony that Sharif had accepted. "These are ceremonial occasions that provide moments to build good will and should not become a test of patriotism."

I take the liberty to comment on how similar the situation was in Pakistan where Nawaz Sharif was bashed with slogans like "Modi ka jo yaar hai, gaddar hai" (Any friend of Modi’s is a traitor) for reaching out to Narendra Modi.

"I have always said India and Pakistan in many ways mirror each other; only because we are bigger, so sometimes it tends to get magnified in the Indian context," says Sardesai.

"Today if I advocate peace or better relations with Pakistan, I am told why don’t you go and live there? Why don’t you get a Pakistani citizenship? I say I would love to but please, at least, get me a visa first. We are in a tough situation where the Pakistan High Commission won’t grant us visa to cover elections in Pakistan while the Indians who think we are pro-Pakistan call us anti-national," he laments. He thinks we live in a very polarised world but "this kind of enmity has to end".

Sardesai has visited Pakistan around ten times starting in the mid-1990s. It was mostly as a journalist covering the country. "I have always said Pakistan is the best country for an Indian journalist to track because it’s one country that is obsessed with India! And, I have always been greeted with warmth in Pakistan even when the two countries were at war with each other during Kargil." He then cheerfully tells me that he had WhatsApped Imran Khan to ask if he was inviting him to the swearing-in ceremony.

Replying to a question about what should be the media’s role between the two countries, he suggests they should focus on areas of commonality. "Media can’t bring peace between the two nations but can at least create an environment in which peace might be possible. So, let’s focus on people to people contact. The media must cover when Pakistani children visit India or when Indian children visit Pakistan. They are the future so they must talk to each other."

The newsman speaks