Five years ago, I had told a channel in an interview, with much conviction, that television channels and their opinions do not have a considerable impact on the voters’ psyche or the final election result. But now I realise I was wrong, the tide has turned and how.
Television media has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decade. Viewers are spoilt for choice, especially in the election season. Though this fever had waned five years ago, it has made quite a comeback.
How else do we assess Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s first formal TV interview with Arnab Goswami of Times Now, the most aggressive journalist in an English-language television network in India? That Gandhi chose Goswami for his first interview was surprising to many observers as no senior leader gives a television interview very often. If we think about it, when was the last time Sonia Gandhi gave a television interview? When was the last time Narendra Modi gave one? India certainly does not have the tradition of a prime ministerial candidate putting himself up to scrutiny on television.
It is being rumoured that it was the huge viewership that Times Now enjoys, which compelled Gandhi to choose the network for his interview. This is despite another rumour that Gandhi had promised an interview to NDTV’s Barkha Dutt. It is no secret that the channel is pro-Congress. Reports in media claimed that there was confusion in choosing the best anchor as the competition was between two top rival TV news channels anchors.
The bravery in choosing Goswami shows that despite criticism of his gentle and apolitical nature, Gandhi does not run away from tough questions and can even take on the toughest of people like Goswami. Gandhi confidently faced a barrage of questions on his past, his political beliefs, his dynastic origins, and his development agenda. One needs to credit Gandhi for facing Goswami’s often difficult and uncomfortable questions without walking out of the studio or becoming aggressive. His political opponent, Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate of the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, has a reputation of repudiating the interviewer and walking out of the studio the moment unpalatable questions are asked. It also shows that Gandhi strongly believes that he has to change the political system to make it available and accessible to as many ordinary Indians as possible.
The other positive from the interview is the fact that Gandhi finally does seem to have come of age and accept his role in the Congress party and a future leader of the country. A day or two after the interview the strategy became clearer when the Congress party unleashed its much-touted Rs 500-crore ad campaign. The not-to-be-missed message from the campaign is that the party wants to showcase Gandhi as one of the aspirants for the leadership of young India. The campaign’s emphasis on youth, women empowerment and the “system” is in line with what Gandhi was trying to underline in the interview.
“The Congress party is an extremely powerful system and all it needs to do is bring in younger, fresher faces in the elections, which is what we are going to do, and we are going to win the elections,” the Congress Vice-President had said during the 80-minute long interview to Times Now. This has also sent cheers among the youth, who want to see fresher faces in politics, even as Gandhi came across as a thinker, with a broad Nehruvian outlook. He also made it clear that he is interested in taking on ideas, and not individuals.
Gandhi said with pride that the youth wings of the Congress party were now entirely elected, and no other major political party in India could claim that. He went on to take the Opposition head-on by saying, “The BJP believes in concentration of power in the hands of one person. I fundamentally disagree with that. I believe in democracy, I believe in opening up the system.”
Gandhi also propounded the idea of making India a manufacturing hub in Asia, thereby challenging China’s dominant position. He said: “I want to put India on the manufacturing map, I want to make this the centre of manufacturing in the world.” There were also undoubtedly glimpses of an intense desire to change the nature of Indian politics by making it more open. Few can fault him for harbouring such a desire.
Gandhi seemed to have opened up during the interview; he talked of his failures and even his displeasure with dynasty politics. He also showed bravery in talking about the infamous 1984 anti-Sikh riots after the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. He accepted the involvement of some Congress members in the incident, which had claimed hundreds of lives. Gandhi did not come across as a conventional politician. His frank and honest answers, his edginess, and his desire to challenge the existing ways of politics take him apart from established political players.
The interview also sent social media into a tizzy, with the topic attracting nearly three million tweets. Times Now itself had branded the conversation with hashtag #RahulSpeaksToArnab, which had the bulk of the conversation, with around 60 per cent of the tweets with the mentioned hashtag around the topic. The hashtags also used with the conversation were #ArnabVsRahul (more than 15,000 mentions) with other topics such as RTI and Women Empowerment, which Gandhi addressed during the interview. This also shows how digital media platforms, which were prevalent during the last general elections as well, have truly played the role of empowering citizens in India to voice their opinions and make a difference in the way parties are designing their overall campaign strategies.
The interview busted the myth that Gandhi is a reluctant politician. To appear on a television channel before election shows that he is raring to go and wants to do his politics differently. The question that arises is: Now that Rahul Gandhi has subjected himself to intense questioning on TV, will Narendra Modi do the same?