Home >mint-lounge >features >Excerpt | 2014: The Election that Changed India

In this manic environment, there is still the hunger for being ‘first’ on air. In particular, who would get the first interviews with the two main actors of the election—Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. The Rahul battle was won, fairly and squarely, by my former colleague at NDTV and now editor in chief of Times Now, Arnab Goswami.

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The backstory of the Rahul interview reflects some of the cross currents in modern-day TV journalism. Several news channels had been hounding Rahul’s office with requests for an interview. Barkha Dutt, another star anchor and also a former colleague at NDTV, had been promised the first interview. She had met Rahul and Priyanka in December 2013 and an ‘agreement’ had been reached. NDTV is seen as occupying a politically left-liberal space—a channel that perhaps the Congress leader felt comfortable talking to. A date, 12 January, was also fixed for the interview. The channel’s producers even went to the location—Jawahar Bhavan, home to the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation—and worked on the lights and camera positioning.

By now, the news had spread in the TV industry that NDTV was poised to get the first Rahul interview. But as D-Day approached, Rahul’s office suddenly changed their plan. The All India Congress Committee (AICC) session was on 17 January and Rahul’s team felt that they’d rather wait till his big speech on the occasion before giving interviews. NDTV was promised that the interview would be done on the 18th, the day after the AICC session.

Arnab sensed an opening. He wrote a long mail to Rahul’s office pointing out that Times Now’s TRPs were much higher than NDTV’s and of other competition in the English news space. ‘We gave them charts with details of our viewership and even told them how in the US presidential elections, the first interview normally goes to the channel with the highest rating,’ Arnab later told me.

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Rahul’s office bit the bait. The NDTV interview was again cancelled at the last minute, and Times Now was given the first interview, on 25 January.

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The interview was aired on the 27th night at 9 p.m. after incessant promos on the channel.... Arnab had come to the interview well prepared; Rahul, by contrast, appeared woolly-headed, ill-informed and hopelessly unprepared for tough questioning.

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His political naivety was also exposed when Arnab grilled him on the Congress’s role in the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and contrasted it with the party’s stand on the 2002 Gujarat riots. Rahul tried to claim, rather foolishly, that the Congress government in 1984 had tried to stop the violence while the BJP had actively abetted them in 2002. Strangely, rather than offer an unequivocal apology for 1984, of the kind that prime minister Manmohan Singh had already issued, Rahul schoolboyishly pussyfooted around it, saying, ‘Firstly, I wasn’t involved in the riots. I wasn’t part of it. I was not in operation of the Congress party.’

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The interview was a smash hit in TRPs. It also got more than 2 million views on YouTube. But even more tellingly, it sparked off a slew of videos and tweets that lampooned and ridiculed Rahul.

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Till that interview, Rahul Gandhi (or RaGa, as he is referred to in cyberspace) was targeted by his critics as ‘pappu’, suggesting he was just a novice, a kid in comparison to Modi (or NaMo). The Congress claimed the criticism was unjustified and Rahul was just waiting for the right moment to prove himself as a leader of substance. But now, the interview only confirmed the caricature of him as a babe in the political woods. In most urban, English-speaking middleclass homes in particular, RaGa was now really a pappu, unfit to be prime minister of the country, woefully short of the muscularity and dynamism that the voter seemed to crave.

The next morning, I telephoned Rahul’s key aide Kanishka Singh to remind him of my long-pending interview request. ‘Now that you’ve done one, I’m sure you can do more,’ I pleaded. ‘Of course, we will do more and am sure you’ll get one. By the way, how do you think the interview went?’ he asked. I didn’t really know what to say. If I was brutally honest, I’d probably lose a chance to interview Rahul. If I lied, I wouldn’t be professional. So, I played the diplomat, saying, ‘It was good to see Rahul take all questions, but maybe he could have prepared himself better.’ Kanishka assured me he would.

Sadly, he didn’t need to. The adverse fallout of the interview meant that Rahul went back into his shell, as did his entire team. He did a couple more interviews during the campaign in Hindi, but they were all soft focus and singularly undistinguished. I would send mails to his office every week but did not even get the courtesy of a response. NDTV’s plight was even worse. They were promised an interview for a third time soon after the Times Now interview, only to have it cancelled again, at 3 the night before. ‘It was all very unfortunate and, frankly, unprofessional, if you ask me,’ Barkha told me later.

I later asked a Congress media manager why it went so horribly wrong. He said, ‘Well, you see we thought that if we gave an interview to a tough interviewer like Arnab and got full coverage across the Times of India group which is the largest in the country, then we would establish Rahul as a politician who was open to public scrutiny unlike Modi who walked out of interviews. I guess we just didn’t know how badly Rahul would end up looking.’

Edited excerpts from 2014: The Election That Changed India (372 pages, 599), with permission from Penguin Random House.

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