Shrewd Politician vs. Subdued Journalist

Ravi M Khanna, former Voice of America South Asia Bureau Chief, comments on how a seasoned politician outmaneuvered a seasoned journalist on Frankly Speaking with Arnab

e4m by Ravi M Khanna
Updated: May 12, 2014 8:07 AM  | 5 min read
Shrewd Politician vs. Subdued Journalist

The first reaction to the much awaited Arnab Goswami interview with Narendra Modi was that it was a flop and that it was Arnab who was subdued and soft. And also there weresome allegations on the social media that it was a “fixed interview” in which Modi was given a platform to say whatever he wanted to. And then came an open charge by former TV anchor Ashutosh, now an AAPcandidate, who said on a liveshow on Aaj Tak TV that anchors and editors are under constant pressure from the channel owners who have been covertly influenced by big political parties.

All these un-confirmable charges forced this reporter to watch the interview again. But even then due to the vague answers given by the shrewd politician, none of his policies – domestic, economic or foreign – were clear. What hits you is Modi’s sarcastic smile and Arnab fumbling for words.

Once you deconstruct the interview, you will find that Modi seemed well prepared with crafted, safe and vague answers for every question because he had already done several interviews with selected TV channels.But Arnab seemed subdued and sometimes even handicapped because he did not know Hindi and its subtle nuances. For example, at one stage, he did not know the meaning when Modi said “teekhi baat” (meaning personal attacks), and asked him if he meant “divisive issues”. Modi just smiled sarcastically.

Arnab also missed several chances where he could have cornered Modi with a follow up. While responding to Arnab’s question about how he twisted Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s comment aboutlow-level politics, Modi, with a cunning smile, pretended to be a “garib aadmi” having no rights against the ruling family. At that point Arnab could have told Modi that he twisted the word “neech politics” to indirectly bring the caste factor in his UP speech, but he just moved to the next question without saying anything.

Needless to say that Modi was also weak on understanding Arnab’s English and its subtle nuances. So wherever he could, he snubbed Arnab to put him on the defensive and it worked.Modi even snubbed him when he asked him tough questions about the “Snoopgate”, by saying “Don’t try to trap me. Your job is not about trapping me but just asking me questions that I will answer.”

So basically the interview went round and round or (gol gol) the Hindi words used by Modi when he said “Aap baat ko gol gol na ghumao”. But the fact was that Modi himself was giving him vague (gol gol) answers and Arnab could not (or some allege “did not”) corner him as he did when he spoke some weeks ago toCongress leader Rahul Gandhi.I was reminded of the saying about “a blind man trying to find a black cat in a dark room.”

There was another problem. Even when Arnab spoke in English, he was seen reading long drawn questions from his notepad as if they were given to him by someone else.

The crux of the interview, as I see it, was a battle of wits between a seasoned journalist and a veteran politicianand the politician proved tobe more shrewd than the journalist. In fact, as in the Gandhi interview we found that Arnab was more shrewd than the young scion of the Gandhi family, this timeModi proved to be much more shrewd that Arnab. The journalist didn’t even question him when Modi, with a dead pan face, claimed that there is no difference between a pro-market reformist economic policy and the Swadeshi economic approach of the RSS.

Why Arnab was not aggressive, why he gave up on some of the questions after a few weak follow ups and why he just let Modi go scot-free at crucial junctures by shifting to a new question, is anybody’s guess.But to give the devil his due, there were also moments when Arnab in his persistent style kept on asking the followup questions despite Modi trying to avoid answering them. Arnab’s persistence came during the questions he asked why Modi was bringing caste and religion factors in his campaign “24 years after the Mandal Commission and 22 years after the Babri Masjid episode”. But overall the interview lacked the spark because Arnab was not his usual self and not as assertive and emphatic as he was during his interview with Gandhi. To me, it was not the same Arnab who, speaking last week at the Marketing White Book launch of the Business World, said his kind of journalism comes from the “heart”.  His Modi interview was definitely not from the heart.

Modi was so smart that he even exploited Arnab’s weakness about Hindi to evade several answers by saying that he should get a translator to understand what he was saying. Arnab’s lackof knowledge about Hindi also became apparent when he asked Modi if as a prime minister he will continue talks with Pakistan. Modi tightened his jaw and replied in Hindi, “Bomb, bandook aur pistaul ke dhamakon mein awaz sunai nahin de sakti”. The literal English translation will be that no one can hear anything during the loud blasts of bombs and guns and what he meant was that if Pakistan wants a dialogue then it will have to stop anti-Indian militant attacks. But Arnab kept on asking if Modi, as a prime minister, will be ready to hold talks with Pakistan.  That clearly gave Modi an upper hand.

We were also expecting that Arnab will ask Modi where is he getting all the money to run innumerable TV and Radio Ads and for an unlimited use of the fancy helicopter that fetches him from rally to rally. But he simply did not.

Author/news analyst Ravi M. Khanna is a former Voice of America South Asia Bureau Chief who now freelances from New Delhi.

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