Mindful that I am reduced to analyzing other journalists’ interviews, I might as well do a professional job of it. Since I had done an analysis of Rahul Gandhi’s first major news interview with Arnab Goswami of Times Now in January this year, it is only fair that I do something similar about Narendra Modi’s interview with the same news anchor. In that post I had mentioned how Rahul Gandhi came armed with Rahul Gandhi as if he was a doppelganger whom only he could see and explain to Arnab. That was because in the first 15 minutes or so of the interview Gandhi kept invoking a certain Rahul Gandhi.
In contrast, Modi came as a singular figure, very aware of himself even while not being particularly attentive to his interlocutor. I do not have to be an admirer of Modi to acknowledge that he is a politician of extraordinary self-assurance and self-belief. He is also someone whose power of enunciation of his political philosophy is unrivaled by any other contemporary Indian politician with the exception of Arvind Kejriwal. In all of Modi’s interviews I have watched, the overriding sense is that in his mind the person engaging him in the conversation is of no particular consequence. He knows what he knows and it does not particularly matter to him whether the interviewer shares that. This is a trait typical of all those who believe unflinchingly that they have what it takes to lead a large mass of people. In my over three decades of reporting I have not come across any politician, with the exception of Indira Gandhi, who harbors such a flaming desire to be in charge of the destiny of a nation as Modi. It is not necessarily a bad thing or a good thing. It is what it is. I draw no inference from that other than saying that he really, really wants to be prime minister.
Speaking of Modi’s self-assurance and self-belief, while talking about how he has delegated and decentralized authority in Gujarat—a claim that many in Gujarat may find incredible—he said something that he knew would jump out. I am saying he knew it would jump out because he says so explicitly in Hindi. “आपको सुन के हैरानी होगी की मैं कुछ नहीं करता जी,” he said. (It might surprise you to know that I do nothing). He also says that he has no work in Gujarat and added that other politicians would be reluctant to say that publicly. In the same answer, Modi speaks of the importance of “institutionalizing ideas” in the sense that all good ideas need to be given an institutional structure. It is possible that Modi has institutionalized ideas and delegated power to such an extent in Gujarat that he has no hands-on work left to do other than just showing up at various events. I cannot be the judge of that because I have not lived in Ahmedabad for an extended length of time since 1981. However, I do know a lot of people who have either completely contrary or concurring views of that grand claim.
It has long been my case that such interviews do not really matter in so much as people are waiting to see politicians squirm in the face of withering questioning. Politicians such as Modi or for that matter any reasonably crafty politician is able to present a version of reality that he or she has created and believes in with steadfast conviction. It is being discussed whether Goswami, known for his brass-knuckle, if eventually risible, style of anchoring was deferential or even diffident while dealing with his Alpha male interview subject. Arnab seems to know that television news interviews are a performance art and he has to calibrate his performance according to who is sitting in front of him. Whether Modi answered the question in the spirit they were asked or whether he spun his way out of it is a matter of opinion. I do not watch these interviews with the expectations of being enlightened or discovering something fresh or waiting for the interviewees to be entangled in their own web of tailored approximations of various truths. I watch them with the awareness that they serve no purpose other than giving the interviewer a transient sense of importance in the scheme of things. I have done enough of these—unfortunately, for the print media—to tell you that they achieve absolutely nothing.
I was interested to find out how Modi would answer a question or two about Pakistan, which to him and his ilk is the embodiment of all that has gone wrong with the great Indian civilization. He came across as reasonable when he refused to be drawn into expressing a particularly machismo-laden foreign policy toward the neighbor. When Arnab persisted with asking whether talks with Pakistan should happen despite Islamabad continuing with aiding the infiltration of terrorists through the Kashmir border and export of terrorism, Modi said, “Aap negative kyun sochte ho? (Why are you thinking negatively?) Agar desh majbooti ka ehsas karaygea to saathi bhi badlenge, padosi bhi badlenge, mahol bhi badlega. (If the country exudes a sense of strength, then people will change, neighbors will change and the atmosphere too will change).”
Arnab then asked, “Agar badley nahi to batcheet kaise ho sakti hai? (If they don’t change, can there still be talks?)” To which Modi said something surprisingly upbeat, “Aap ka nirasha mein paida hua sawal hai. Main ashawadi jawab de raha hoon. (Your question stems from pessimism. I am giving you an optimistic answer).” During this particular exchange, one could read on Modi’s face an expression of condescension tinged with mild amusement at an anchor otherwise known to breathe fire trying to rev up the conversation within decorum. (See the photo below).
In this particular context he dismissed the issue of the presence of India’s most wanted man Dawood Ibrahim in Pakistan as not of the level at which the Indian election had played out. In fact, he was so dismissive that he said, “Jahan aaj desh ka chunav pahuncha hai, agar aap isi khilone se kheloge to aap acchha nahi kar rahe ho. (The level at which the country’s election has reached, if you want to play with this toy you are not being wise).” That was quite a smack-down from someone who, in a different avatar as a blow-hard, might have relished the idea of lambasting the Indian government for its inability to compel Pakistan to hand over Ibrahim, anted for many alleged crimes in the country.
On balance, it was a useful interview for both Modi and Goswami, much more so for the latter than the former because the former is at a stage of his political trajectory where it makes no difference at all to him. It would be foolish to view such interviews as conversations of any major consequence. They do not change the course of anything other than providing some short-lived edification if that’s the kind of stuff you are into.
With this I have fulfilled my wholly self-assigned duty as a detached observer of the human race.