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The first person to call me that September morning in 2002 was a friend who had been present at a political (NDA) dinner the previous night and said I was under attack there from many BJP ministers. Apparently, the only ones to rise to my defence instinctively were Sushma Swaraj and Arun Shourie, also members of the Vajpayee cabinet. The first, my friend since 1977 and a distinguished senior on the Panjab University campus but an exact contemporary professionally: she won her first election to the Haryana assembly and became a junior minister almost the same month that I joined this paper as a cub reporter in the same city, Chandigarh. The second, much more than just a friend, philosopher and guide, a teacher through life and to whom I owe, among many good turns, the most wonderful of them all, my tour of duty in the Northeast between 1981-83 for this paper. The conversation at that dinner was about something I was supposed to have said in a speech in Pakistan. And it wasn’t nice. L.K. Advani had complained, in particular, that I had boasted that I, and this newspaper, would “sort out” Narendra Modi, so nobody need worry about him. Also, that George Fernandes (then defence minister) had brought it up in the cabinet earlier that week, even passing around some printouts that showed I had described him in Pakistan as a “buddhu rakshas (stupid monster)”. The speech was delivered in the course of a series of public events in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to mark the launching of the Daily Times, edited by Najam and Jugnu Sethi, among the bravest and most liberal journalists you’d find anywhere, and owned by Salman Taseer (later assassinated by religious thugs). I was only the third and the least significant or eminent of the three speakers invited from India, N. Ram of The Hindu and Arundhati Roy being the other two.
Since Advani is one of our most accessible leaders ever, I called him to check what had caused this. He said, besides whatever else I may have said, two things stood out as objectionable in particular. One, “George was really upset” with my description of him, and that I had boasted I, this newspaper and the Indian media would fix Modi. And then Advani said he wouldn’t have been so disappointed if Arundhati or Ram had said such things. “Kintu