The book is full of extremely newsworthy and sensational disclosures about personalities such as Narendra Modi, L.K. Advani, Rajiv Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, P.V. Narasimha Rao, as well as foreign heads of government such as General Pervez Musharraf, Aung San Suu Kyi, Margaret and Benazir Bhutto.
I’m often asked which is my favourite interview and I have to confess that it’s an impossible question to answer. There are many that I have enjoyed for different reasons-some because they were challenging, others because I got on personally with the interviewee and even a few because they made news-but to identify just one is extremely difficult.
I’ve tried, but never been able to do it. However, I have no qualms about answering the opposite question: which is the interview I have least enjoyed?
It’s an interview with a politician who was the railways minister in the Vajpayee government but resigned in the wake of the Tehelka scam. Later, she went on to become a fierce and fiery opponent of the Communists in Bengal, ousting them from the government in 2011 with a thumping victory.
At the moment, she’s in her second term as chief minister and is one of the foremost opposition leaders of the country.
Well, if you haven’t guessed after that, I’m talking of Mamata Banerjee. The interview happened in August 2001, some two months after the state elections in Bengal, which she lost to Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee. It was for the BBC programme Hard talk India and the recording was at Jamia Millia Islamia university, a half-hour drive from Parliament.
Mamata agreed to my request for an interview with alacrity. She gave me the feeling that she was keen to do it. The date and time were promptly fixed. I told her that my producer, who at the time was Vishal Pant, would pick her up from Parliament at 11 in the morning and escort her to Jamia.
This was when everything started to go wrong. Vishal arrived on time and found her chatting with other MPs in Central Hall. ‘Give me five minutes and I will be ready to leave,’ she said to him.
This seemed reasonable and Vishal happily waited. Mamata kept her word and five minutes later, walked up to him, saying she was ready.
Together, they walked out of Parliament and Vishal summoned the car. ‘I forgot something,’ Mamata suddenly said. ‘I’m just going back to get it’. With that, and without waiting for a response, she turned and disappeared into Parliament. Mamata never returned. To begin with, Vishal waited patiently. But as the minutes ticked by, he started to get worried.
When twenty minutes had lapsed, he walked back into Parliament to look for her. He searched in Central Hall, knocked on the office doors of the Trinamool Congress party, scoured the corridors and even sneaked into the viewer’s gallery of the Lok Sabha in case she was there.
But Mamata was not to be found. It seemed she had literally disappeared. Meanwhile, I was anxiously waiting at Jamia.
When the first hour passed, I sensed something had gone wrong. I suggested that Vishal drive to all the possible locations where she might have ‘hidden’ herself. So he visited the homes of various Trinamool MPs but couldn’t find her. He also made several trips back to Parliament, but was unable to spot her.
No one seemed to know where she was or, if they did, they wouldn’t tell us. It was as if she had vanished into thin air. Hours went by as we frantically looked for Mamata but in vain. By 6 p.m. we had been searching for seven hours. It was around this time that Vishal met Dinesh Trivedi, a Trinamool MP particularly close to Mamata. Dinesh was the person who had suggested that I do this interview and, therefore, I presume, he felt a certain moral responsibility to ensure it happened.
But it could also have been the case that he was embarrassed by Mamata’s strange and inexplicable behaviour. ‘She’s coming to my house for dinner tonight,’ he told Vishal. ‘Let me speak to her. I’m sure I can convince her to go ahead with the interview.’ ‘But what suddenly happened?’ Vishal asked.
Mamata had simply disappeared without any explanation. No one seemed to provide an answer about where she had gone or why she was suddenly unavailable for the interview.
To be honest, Dinesh had no idea either. However, like many other Trinamool MPs, he seemed to accept that this was par for the course. I assumed Mamata frequently behaved in this way and thus he was not surprised. ‘Will the interview happen today?’ Vishal asked. ‘I hope so,’ was Dinesh’s reassuring reply. But he couldn’t say at what time. Consequently, we kept the arrangements going at Jamia.
After Vishal’s conversation with Dinesh, I felt Mamata might turn up after dinner. Dinesh suggested that Vishal should come to his MP flat around 10 p.m. By then, he hoped Mamata could be persuaded to do the interview.
Vishal arrived promptly but found Mamata in a meeting. Dinesh told him to wait, which he readily did. Now, at least, we knew she was indoors. We had found Mamata. The big question was, would she come for the interview? Or would she refuse? Finally, at 11 p.m., Dinesh brought Mamata to Vishal. She was smiling, Vishal later recalled, like a schoolgirl who had been caught doing something wrong. ‘Chalo, chalo,’ was all Mamata said.
‘It’s getting late and we must leave at once.’ Mamata and Vishal drove in silence through the dark and empty streets of Delhi. She didn’t speak at all. At 11.30, their car swept into Jamia. By then, we had been waiting twelve and a half hours. No previous interviewee had ever behaved like this and I can’t believe anyone in future will.
The interview wasn’t a great success. Mamata didn’t like the questions which, if I recall correctly, were almost entirely about her electoral defeat two months earlier.
She had a frown on her face right through and she snapped out her answers. After a while she diverted her eyes and even turned her head.
So, instead of looking at me, she started looking sideways, seemingly into the distance. She didn’t stop answering, but now it appeared as if she was talking to someone else.
As the interview proceeded, her irritability turned to anger. She wasn’t able to repress or hide it. It was clearly visible on her face, if not also in her tone and manner.
When I thanked her at the end of the twentyfive-minute interview, Mamata snorted, pushed back her chair and left. She got into the waiting car and drove off as quickly as she could.
I can’t swear to it, but I don’t think she even paused to say goodbye. For the crew and I, a dreadful day had come to an end. It was past midnight. Though exhausted, we were relieved that, at least, we had some sort of interview in the can.
It wasn’t one to be proud of and I would accept I have done several that were better-but at least it had been done. That’s all I can say for it. I’ve never asked Mamata for an interview again and I have no idea if she remembers the saga of the last one. So much has happened in her tumultuous life that I would be surprised if she did. However, I can’t forget it.