A dialogue of the deaf on prime-time TV

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Stuck record Rahul kept harping about bringing democracy closer to the common man, Photo: AFP
Stuck record Rahul kept harping about bringing democracy closer to the common man. Photo: AFP

The one thing that anyone being interviewed on television should not allow is for his interviewer to take control of the interview. This is doubly true for the head of a government; it is quadruply so for an aspiring head of government facing a General Election in three months. But that is precisely what Rahul Gandhi allowed Arnab Goswami to do from the first moments of his hour-long interview.

Television is not about what people say, but how they look and how they behave. Unlike the print media and radio, less than 20 percent of its message is carried by the spoken word. Eighty percent is conveyed by gesture and expression, and this 80 percent is not received by the cognitive 10 percent of the brain but the more primitive 90 percent, where intuition and reflex reside.

Goswami knows this because he spends half his waking life in front of the camera. And he used every trick in the book to establish his total dominance over Rahul — the relaxed, sitting-back stance, the white pencil held negligently close to his eye, ready to swing down as he asked his next question; the gentle, respectful tone and the condescending smile as he relentlessly repeated questions that Rahul could not answer. Goswami left nothing to chance.

As for Rahul, it became painfully apparent within minutes that he had come to make a campaign speech, not to engage in a candid exchange of views. It was apparent that he had been coached to death on what to say and what not to say; that he had been instructed never to show any doubt, to concede any mistake by his party, and never, never, to admit the possibility of a defeat for the Congress, in spite of the growing mountain of evidence of its loss of support in the country.

As a result, the ‘debate’ became a dialogue of the deaf in which Goswami and Rahul spoke but did not hear each other. Rahul was determined to speak about the future. Goswami was determined to keep the debate firmly anchored in the past. Rahul kept repeating set-piece remarks about bringing democracy close to the people, of the entrenchment of corruption, about the need for deep structural reforms in order to save not only the Congress but democracy itself, and what he was doing and wanted to do to bring more Indian youth into politics.

But Goswami kept asking him questions about what the Congress had said about Narendra Modi at various points in the past, how its allegation that Modi had abetted the communal riots in Gujarat in 2002 had been disproved by judgments of the Gujarat High Court, and how the Congress had abetted the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi.

The mutual declamation would have turned into a debate if Rahul answered Goswami’s questions, or Goswami had chosen to follow up Rahul’s leads into the future. But this is where the innocence, not to mention inexperience, of Rahul and the utter cold-blooded cynicism of Goswami came starkly into view. Goswami was not interested in the future, only in the present ratings. Also, having made up his mind that Modi was likely to become the next prime minister, he was intent only on safeguarding his seat in the next Rajya Sabha.

As for the difference between Rajiv Gandhi’s response to the Delhi riots and Modi’s response to the Godhra train burning, it can be summed up by a single contrast: On hearing, during the afternoon of 28 February 2002 that the VHP had called for a bandh to protest the killing of kar sevaks in the Sabarmati Express, Modi promptly announced that the state would sponsor the bandh. This immediately tied the hands of the police and prevented them from arresting VHP and Bajrang Dal activists as a precautionary measure. As a result, on the night of 28 February, while the neighbouring governments of Maharashtra and Rajasthan put tens of thousands of “history sheeters” in jail for the next few days, the tally of the Gujarat Police was just two, and both were Muslims.

What can be said in Modi’s favour is that he probably did not realise what the full consequences of his action would be, because this was the first communal carnage shown live, every hour on the hour, by India’s rating-hungry television channels. He could not, therefore, anticipate what television’s impact would be. But this is at best a mitigation, not an exoneration.

By contrast, whatever individual Congressmen may have done after Indira Gandhi’s assassination, on the night of 31 October 1984, while Delhi was burning after her funeral, a grief-stricken and jet-lagged Rajiv — exhausted by walking for miles behind his mother’s cortege and then lighting her funeral pyre — got into a jeep and spent most of the night, driving from one riot-struck area to the next, directing the police, chasing the rioters, and angrily exhorting them to stop the murder and pillage.

That is the difference between Delhi and Ahmedabad; between Rajiv Gandhi and Narendra Modi; between secularism and communalism; between democracy and fascism. Rahul could have destroyed Goswami if only he had known what to say. But it seems that along with its capacity to govern, the Congress has also lost its collective memory.

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