Monday, July 4, 2016

The Modi Interview: 'I had to send my questions to PMO for prior approval'

Here is the post, Bobby Naqvi shared on his Facebook wall:
New Delhi: The interview of Prime Minister Narendra Modi with the editor-in-chief of leading English news channel Times Now has been making all the waves, good and bad, on social media.
While some people are hailing Arnab for at least being able to score an interview with the honourable Prime Minister, others are criticising him for not taking up the controversial issues.
Meanwhile, the national editor of Gulf News located in Dubai, Bobby Naqvi recalls when he had scored an interview with the PM at 7 RCR. In his post, he remembers how arranging the interview with the prime minister can be a long drawn and cumbersome process.
In his detailed explanation, he also remembers that he was told to send his questions for prior approval to the PMO which is why he was not surprised to read that Times Now interview questions were sought in advance.
Arranging an interview with the Prime Minister can be a long drawn and cumbersome process. I had the opportunity to experience it first hand last August. 
Ahead of his visit to the UAE, I requested an interview on bilateral relations between the two countries and India's role in the Arab world. After exchanging several emails with bureaucrats for several days, I received a call from a very senior official saying: "Bobby, I have good news and bad news. Which one you want to hear first?" 
I didn't know what to say. Before I could speak, he said that the "PM has agreed." 
Then he mentioned two other publications would also be present. I was hugely disappointed as it was no longer an exclusive interview. I had no option but to grudgingly accept it with some protest. 
Then I was told to send my questions for prior approval. And then followed several requests for security clearance: name of my driver, car registration number, photographer's details and a list of his equipment etc. 
Till the last moment I had no clue about the venue and time of the meeting. All I was told was that it could be anytime after his Red Fort speech on the Independence Day. After frantic calls on August 14, I was given the phone number of my point of contact in Delhi. This person, a young officer, asked me to be in the capital before noon and said the exact time and venue would be provided later. 

Just before I boarded the flight on August 14, I got a strange phone call. It was from a prominent Muslim personality who is considered close to the PM. "Kar Lijiye PM Sahab Ka Interview, Bade, Bade log line Mein Bhaithen Hain Unse Milne Ke Liye."
I was shocked and couldn't figure out how he found out about my meeting as this person is not part of the government. 
Next morning in Delhi, another shock awaited me. My liaison officer informed that my photographer would not be allowed and that pictures would be taken by the PM's official photographer. I decided to put my foot down and told him I can't do that. Tense conversations followed back and forth and a few hours later the photographer was allowed on one condition - that he will spend only five minutes inside. 
The three of us -- my driver, my brother Saify and photographer Pankaj drove to India's most famous address. It was raining cats and dogs that day. At the first checkpoint at 7 RCR we faced another trouble. A huge flashlight almost blinded us when a heavily armed man in a raincoat approached the car. The sound of heavy downpour made it impossible to hear him. All he could understand was that we are "from Dubai", words he repeated several times to make sure he heard them right. 
He then went back to the security office. After a few minutes he returned and told us to move the car away from the barrier and signaled me to follow him. An officer again took our details and radioed them to his superiors inside the office-residence complex. After several minutes, he said the photographer had no security clearance. I then contacted my liaison officer again and explained the problem. Several anxious moments later, we were allowed inside and directed to the visitor parking, a few meters away from the reception hall. 
After intense security checks inside, we were told to wait in another room where a sniffer dog was brought in. Soon after, we were transferred to the main building in a shuttle car driven by a SPG man. 
Inside, we were taken to a room overlooking a lush green lawn where I was briefed on the "order of the interview". 
"After photos and handshakes, the prime minister will look at you, and then you start your conversation," an official told me in a tone that was polite but firm. Another shocker -- that I can ask only one question and answers to my remaining questions would be provided in writing after the meeting. 
After the briefing, we were introduced to the PM's team members, including a Muslim officer from Bihar ( This officer, I was told, wrote the PM's famous Silicon Valley speech).
The meeting went as per the script. After a warm handshake, we spoke in Hindi about my late night flight and his Red Fort speech earlier that day.
Another journalist who was scheduled to speak next (he came from US and picked up a gift for the PM from duty free) spoke in English via a translator, a senior woman official from publicity division. An hour or so after the meeting was over, I was given printed transcripts of the conversation and answers to my questions that I couldn't ask. 
Today, I wasn't surprised when I read that questions for Times Now interview were sought in advance. I am not sure if this is a standard procedure for all PMs or unique to this govt.

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