There was plenty of buzz around Arnab Goswami’s rare TV interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Monday. The intense conversation on the Times Now’s upcoming editorial made perfect sense given that our prime minister is known for his abhorrence for two way interaction with the media.
While most were not surprised on Modi’s choice of Arnab as the host for his first TV interview since becoming India’s prime minister, one could not stop being inquisitive about the content of this much-publicised editorial.
The interview was broadcast at 6 PM on Times Now and media outlets up and down the country began to provide prominent coverage with many going live with the updates on what Modi had to say. Quite unprecedented coverage even for a prime minister’s interview indeed! But that’s the expected outcome when your prime minister detests giving interview for the fear of being asked uncomfortable questions. This also amply corroborated just how badly Indians wanted the prime minister to hold two way conversations even if it was a journalist of his choice.
Senior journalist Sagarika Ghose spoke for millions when she tweeted, “Dear @PMOIndia pls hold an open press conference rather than bestow favours on individual journalists. Let there be free and fair exchange. (sic)”
Sagarika also highlighted that Arnab had curiously ‘forgotten’ to ask some difficult questions that may have given potential grief to the prime minister.
She wrote, “Essar tapes? Vadra? Relations with delhi govt? relations with RSS? Would have liked some tougher questions. #PMSpeaksToArnab.”
But Sagarika was being chivalrous even in her criticism for what was nothing but an utter disgraceful display of journalism.
It’s not to say Arnab doesn’t necessarily possess the required quality of a good journalist. Having worked in the Indian media I must reveal that Arnab has fans even in his rival channels and they are often owners and promoters.
I too have informed Arnab about my admiration for his journalism on occasions whenever he displayed moments of sheer brilliance.
But on Monday his performance came as a massive let down. Not only did he justify his critics who often detected glaring biases in his channel’s editorial, he also single-handedly demolished his own claims on high impact journalism.
One didn’t have to be a journalist to conclude that Arnab’s interview with Modi came as a ‘fixed match.’
Throughout the interview Arnab appeared to have lost his voice and his usual aggression mysteriously absent. My psychologist wife tells me that this is usually a manifestation of deep nervousness coupled with the fear of adverse consequences from the guest (Modi in this case). On other occasions this is because of the interviewer’s ideological similarities with that of the guest.
Many would wonder why Arnab loses his voice only when he’s interviewing Modi or Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. Different journalists have different interviewing styles. For example, seldom would you see Shekhar Gupta being aggressive with or giving a difficult time to his guests. And yet often he manages to get a newsline or two from his interviews.
I also usually tend to rely on the art of diplomacy to make my guests commit to something he or she wouldn’t have been prepared to do otherwise. Arnab’s breed usually tend to rely on sheer aggression. And we’ve seen that after watching his Newshour and Frankly Speaking for years.
Those who watched Arnab’s famous interview with the Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi just before the Lok Sabha elections were bound to be left shocked at the blatant discrepancies in the approach adopted by the Times Now’s editor-in-chief vis-a-vis Modi on Monday. As a good journalist, he had indeed managed to get the weaknesses of Rahul out in public. He simply refused to do the same with Modi on this occasion.
Just consider the following questions and the manner in which they were asked;
On China, Arnab simply couldn’t muster up the courage to ask Modi whether his government’s inability to secure the NSG membership was a sign of failure of his foreign (jhoola) diplomacy. Instead, he began his question by showering praises on Modi’s foreign policy towards China. The journalist declared that Modi government’s approach towards China had been very ‘proactive.’ Then he went on to ask the ‘question.’ In response, the prime minister didn’t have much to add other than just to agree with most of what Arnab had to say. This pretty much remained the hallmark of the rest of the interview.
On Modi’s speech at the joint session of US Congress, Arnab once again made sure that the Prime Minister was aware of his admiration for his eloquence. He mentioned it twice. Right in the beginning he said, ‘by the way that was a fantastic speech.! Was it extempore?’
And if Modi was not fully convinced just how much Arnab admired him, Arnab repeated towards the end when he said, “I thought it was impromptu. It was a wonderful moment when you were speaking… You should not lose your sense of humour Mr PM.”
On relationship with Pakistan, Arnab fondly remembered how on 8 May 2014 he had the ‘opportunity to interview’ Modi, who according to him ‘had an uncompromising view’ on the neighbouring country. And if you thought this led him to ask Modi’s glaring U-turn on Pakistan, you were left disappointed. The following question was asked, “Do din pehle our 8 soldiers were killed. Do you think we’ve become too generous towards Pakistan?”
Cute isn’t it?
Arnab asked Modi questions on Pathankot Air Base attack too but it wasn’t about intelligence failure and his government’s inability to neutralise the terrorists for 80 hours.
He asked, “Were the movements (by terrorists) happening before the attack in October, November, December?”
Modi evaded even this innocuous question and, as expected, Arnab chose not to counter the prime minister.
The economy too was on Arnab’s mind, but not about devaluation of rupee against US dollars, rising inflation and growing number of joblessness in the country.
Instead, we were witness to this tribute, “Social agenda appears to be the core of your economic philosophy?…You’ve managed to grow the economy at 7.5 % despite weak economic outlook…Food inflation is not coming down. People have high hopes in you. Food inflation has reached 7.5%. Does it create perceptional issue for you? Or is it just seasonal?”
And while asking this question, not many noticed that Arnab addressed Modi as Mr Prime Minister at least five times.
In response, Modi claimed the pace with which price rise took place during the UPA was not happening now. Once again Arnab remained quiet and felt no need to challenge him. Even when Modi indirectly blamed the state governments for price rise.
This was soon followed by another bout of rich tribute for ‘Mr Prime Minister.’
He said, “Mr Prime Minister, if I may say, you are speaking as straight as you had spoken a year ago.”
He then went on to glorify the steps Modi had taken through transparent taxation and shrinking black money market.
Arnab added, “Yes, you had said that in February that the then finance minister (P Chitambaram) was merely doing a lip service on black money.
On Modi’s promises of transferring Rs 15 lakh to every Indian’s bank account, Arnab did not remind him the ‘jumla’ jibe by the BJP President Amit Shah. Instead, he very respectfully asked, “what will you say to the opposition?”
But Arnab had saved a gem for the last, when he declared that “in your entire tenure there’s been no major scams. Is it because you keep a tight vigil on things?”
We are not sure why the Times Now’s famous anchor forgot the endless number of debates he had held on Vyapam, Khadse’s resignation, Lalit-gate involving Vasundhara Raje Scindia her son and Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj.
I thought he was simply brilliant in his debates all throughout Lalit-gate scandal demanding the resignations of Swaraj and Scindia. Unfortunately, his own memory didn’t serve him well on this occasion!
In short, Arnab’s interview was everything you would encourage a budding reporter never to emulate. If anything, his interview with Modi should form an important case study on ‘How Not To Do An Interview.’
So, next time he says he fears nobody, you can be guaranteed giggles in living rooms of households around the country.