Rahul Gandhi's maiden television interview showed that while his heart is in the right place, his brain tends to wander from time to time. Flubbing on the handling of the 1984 riots in Delhi, avoiding a direct answer on Narendra Modi but holding forth on 'institutional mechanisms', policy and 'changing the system', Gandhi gave the impression of a man who is not in a hurry. And that's where the disconnect lies, because both, his party and the country, are in a tearing hurry.
In his interview with Arnab Goswami, Rahul Gandhi came across like Hamlet in the TV age, wanting his soliloquies to be discussed, to become part of the nation’s mainstream discourse. Arnab, on his part, was stuck in a groove: “You are avoiding a direct face-off with Narendra Modi …… with Modi…… Modi”
In the course of his 137 questions spread over 90 minutes, Arnab implored, requested, urged, dared Rahul 28 times to meet Modi in an one-to-one. Rahul lamented that the media discussed only superficial issues. This lamentation was aired 10 times. On 45 occasions he tried to navigate Arnab towards a discussion on the need for transparency, to change the system, to empower youth and women.
The transcript of the interview runs into 12,800 words. Rahul is granted speaking time for about 7,000 words. Arnab takes up 5,000 words to ask his questions, making it an interviewer-interviewee ratio of 40/60 percent. This near parity in wordage between Arnab and Rahul in what was billed to be a historic, super primetime interview must be a path breaking style in the annals of interviewing.
Or it may not be because Arnab has already established himself as a cross between a circus ringmaster and a cock-fight pit owner in Lucknow’s Nakkhas of yesteryears. In this genre of television, a knack for sustained harangue and not intrepid questioning is the accepted form.
Earlier in the week, Barkha Dutt of NDTV and Rajdeep Sardesai of CNN-IBN quizzed Arvind Kejriwal methodically to enable us understand the AAP leader. But I gather TRPs chase harangues.
Rahul has a handsome, clean, trustworthy, face of a Greek god but he will never make it as a romantic hero in Bollywood. He does not emote. He doggedly stated his case but he could not, by sheer force, leave an impression that he had done so.
He thought he would give Arnab an opening on which a brief question and answer session would follow. He said it was his “first formal interview of this type” because he had been busy “on internal party work and that’s where most of my energy was going”. But Arnab began to outline his rules for the interview. “I have one request to you right at the start: let’s be as specific as possible on the subjects we deal with today. Do I have your agreement on that?”
Rahul: “Yes we will be specific but if I like to sort of explain things in a broader fashion, I think that will be okay with you?”
But Arnab would have none of it. He unleashed his agenda. “Modi… Modi… Modi.” The first 22 questions were on Modi.
Rahul sang a parallel tune. He was distressed that a handful of people selected all candidates for parliament and the state assemblies. He found in AAP a kindred spirit. They were involving the people in all the processes, something he has had to make heavy weather of because the systems within the party and outside it were extremely resistant to change and innovation.
He referred to his grandmother and his father’s death not necessarily as a tear jerking device but to tell his tale. “My father was a pilot thrown into the political system by circumstances” and “I saw my father in constant, constant combat with the system and then I saw him die actually”.
And so “I have an aim… I do not like what I see in Indian politics, it is something that is inside my heart. It is like in our mythology when you talk about Arjun, he only sees one thing, he does not see anything else. You ask me about Modi, you ask me about anything in the system and the only thing I see is that the system in this country needs to change. I am blind because I saw people I loved destroyed by the system”.
This is powerful stuff and would have made for great copy had Rahul not lost sight of the script and made that insensitive remark on the 1984 riots. That is where his inexperience showed up.
Whether it is his obstinacy or his consistency, one cannot be sure, but he continued with Arnab where he had left off with the Confederation of Indian Industry last April. Only 200 people select 5,000 candidates to all legislatures. Beyond these are 2.4 hundred thousand village Panchayats. It were these that had to be “empowered”. Legislatures and policy makers have to develop institutional mechanisms to liaise with the Pradhans who implement policy at the village level.
While the party is contemplating the coming elections in a state of heightened anxiety, the party vice president, with “2,000 workers” he “is proud of”, is busy with his own pilot project, that of choosing 16 candidates for parliament through a system of primaries. If successful, this system will be expanded for wider application in 2019 when Rahul will be only 48. By the 2024 elections Rahul will still be only 53. As for 2014, the party maybe in a state of panic on where Rahul is going but, with his eyes only on his chosen target, he is on his way.
(A leading commentator on political and diplomatic issues, Saeed Naqvi can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org. These views are personal.)