One of the most outspoken voices ahead of the 2018 Karnataka elections has been actor-activist Prakash Raj. He has been a voluble critic of the BJP and he makes a bold prediction: “The BJP will lose Karnataka; Modi will not be prime minister in 2019.” Edited excerpts:
What made you so invested in politics? What was the turning point? They say it was the murder of your friend and journalist Gauri Lankesh.
The assassination of Gauri Lankesh is a very personal, painful loss to me. And, when I saw people celebrating it, I asked questions to our prime minister. They said, “Who are you to ask Modi?” Things like that made me start to think.
Tell us more about your ‘just asking’ campaign? What and whom are you asking, and why are you, as your critics would say, asking questions to only one party?
‘Just asking’ is because when I look at Indian politics, I am sure most of the parties, or all of them, have not lived up to their expectations. And, I feel, it is because, we the people, have not come together to question them.
So will you ask questions of the Congress as well?
Once the election is over, we have to be an eternal opposition party, whoever comes to power.
In this election, are you supporting Siddaramaiah?
Not Siddaramaiah directly. Any party... there is the JD(S)... let people decide. But not BJP. My problem with the BJP is not just corruption. They intend to change the Constitution. I have seen their leaders—how [Union Minister] Anant Kumar Hegde talks. They came with a very futuristic agenda for this country. But, half way through, where did the cow come in from? Where did the narrative of religions come in? Where did this insecurity against the smaller communities come in? And, when you ask a question, you are called an anti-Hindu. You are asked to leave this country and go to Pakistan. Why can’t they send me to a nice holiday resort, why Pakistan? They are mixing Hindutva and nationality, which is not right.
But there is also the principle of democracy and the fact is that Narendra Modi got an extraordinary mandate in 2014. How can you dismiss that?
See, we the people make mistakes. Will you punish us for that? You did not talk about cows then. You talked about the future. Have you delivered?
Your critics would say that you do not focus on the manipulation of religion by other parties. For example, what about the Congress? There is the Shah Bano case, the Ayodhya shilanyas under Rajiv Gandhi, the 1984 riots....
We are questioning everyone. But first stop these guys. They are silencing the very right to question. That is their agenda. Stop that first.
Have liberals made mistakes? I ask you this, because you were, for example, criticised by the right wing for sharing a stage with Umar Khalid, Shehla Rashid, Kanhaiya Kumar.... The BJP says that by joining hands with what they call the extreme left, you are disrespecting a nationalistic spirit.
According to me, Shehla Rashid, Umar Khalid, Kanhaiya Kumar, Jignesh Mevani... They are not anti-nationals. I have called them and had a chat with them.... If they are anti-national, why are they not behind bars?
The BJP will bring in the larger nationalism debate. They will say that Umar or Shehla have a certain position on Kashmir, and ask whether you endorse that position.
Let them say it, they have the right to say it. Give me the right to express my opinion. Let the people decide.
You have said, very confidently, that Modi will not be prime minister in 2019. What gives you that belief?
I am seeing it.
What are you seeing?
They will not win Karnataka.... My forecast is very clear. The BJP will not form the government here.
Not even join hands with the JD(S)?
The JD(S) can never join. If they join, there will be a big retaliation here, because it is a secular party... and we see Deve Gowda saying no. [But,] we have seen them do it before.
Yes, remember that Kumaraswamy has been in an alliance with the BJP.
We have seen the musical chairs. We have seen it all.
What makes you think it cannot happen again?
I have seen the simmering dissatisfaction about them.
How do you see the Modi factor? In his last lap, in Karnataka, there have been huge crowds at rallies, some comparable to rock concerts.
Modi should know this is not a debate competition.
You don’t think it has become a Siddaramaiah vs Modi battle and not Siddaramaiah vs Yeddyurappa?
It is Siddaramaiah vs Yeddyurappa. But, Yeddyurappa has become so silent, he has to retire.... [He] will not rule Karnataka, we know it.
You said you stopped getting work in the Hindi film industry. Can you draw a direct link between your outspokenness and the denial of roles to you?
When something is written on the wall, there is no conspiracy theory. There are no offers coming because there is a fear factor. And I am not against Bollywood for that. There was an ad which was removed, because in UP, they cannot run a car ad with me [on it].... I don’t want to name them.
The right wing has pointed to other critics of the BJP in the film industry, like Mahesh Bhatt or Nandita Das, and say they are still working, so if Prakash Raj is linking his not getting work to his criticism of Narendra Modi, he is making a false argument.
No one has directly said ‘Don’t give work to him.’ It is the ambience you have created. When BJP workers go around, there is no protest. But, when I walk around, or Jignesh Mevani walks around, we don’t know why last-minute cancellations of meetings are done. We have to have two policemen because there have been people who come and shout ‘Modi, Modi’ and they want to harm you. They stop my cars and have stones thrown....
Do you fear for your life?
I have no time to be afraid. That is my problem.
Coming back to how the film industry has responded, do you see a north-south divide?
The BJP does not have much presence here. So they cannot do anything with my films in the south.
And the Hindi film industry? Are they scared?
I am getting no work at all. Not because I am a bad actor (smiles).
You had urged Amitabh Bachchan to speak up after the recent rape and murder in Kathua.
I requested him. It is my right. He has got a wonderful voice. I want him to speak up.... He just said, ‘I don’t want to speak about it.’ But sir, you need to. The Kathua rape took place because there were threats to a group of people to leave the place. And, just because they are in your party, you go and stand by them and protest for them. This is not done.
What did you expect Bachchan to do?
I wanted him to say, ‘Stop this.’ I feel as artists we are also the conscience of society. When an artist becomes a coward, we will be the reason for society to become cowards.
So, do you say Bachchan was being cowardly?
I think so. I respect him for what he is, but I am requesting him to please join hands. It is important. You are not talking against a party. You are talking against an issue which is not right for this country.
Would you consider contesting elections?
No, not at all. Being the catalyst is more important in this country.