The Importance of Not Being Earnest: What Arnab Goswami’s Modi Interview Revealed

On 27 June, Times Now aired what was billed as the “interview of 2016”—an exclusive conversation between Narendra Modi and Arnab Goswami. {{name}}
30 June, 2016

On 27 June, the news channel Times Now aired what was billed as the “interview of 2016”—an exclusive conversation between the prime minister Narendra Modi and Arnab Goswami, the channel’s editor-in-chief and the anchor of its primetime show, The Newshour. Through the day, the channel fanned the buzz by releasing short clips of the duo’s pre-taped interaction. The interview was the prime minister’s first exclusive since he rose to power over two years ago—a fact that Goswami was quick to point out.

But nearly 48 hours later, almost no trace of it has remained in the news cycle. The reason for this fleeting effect is clear. What should rightly have been a landmark interview was a vapid conversation lacking any newsworthy content—save for the prime minister’s comments supposedly ticking off the maverick MP Subramanian Swamy. In utter contrast to his trademark combative style, Goswami composedly asked the prime minister only questions that allowed him to reinforce the ruling party’s public message, and to steer clear of all controversy—a telling choice on the anchor's part.

Though Modi didn’t name Swamy, in response to the anchor’s questions about the MP’s recent criticism of the RBI governor Raghuram Rajan and senior bureaucrats, Modi said, “Whether it’s someone from my party or not, I think such things are inappropriate. The nation won’t benefit from such publicity stunts.” “If anybody considers himself above the system, it is wrong,” he added.

Even the next day’s papers did not find much else worth writing about in the interview. “Modi raps Swamy, says none above the system,” wrote The Hindu, while the Indian Express ran with “PM snubs Swamy: It is inappropriate, a stunt.” Only the Kolkata-based The Telegraph—which has, in the past, forensically questioned Modi’s attempts at image management and blatant media spins—called a spade a spade. The paper termed Modi’s remarks “mild—and implied—rap,” a “gentle rebuke” made without even mentioning the offender’s name.

More galling than the prime minister’s refusal to name Swamy was the certificate of patriotism he issued to Rajan. He could have said a word or two about Rajan’s attempts to clean up bad debts or contain inflation, and Goswami could have pushed him to do so. Instead, Modi merely said Rajan was “someone who loves his country” and “will continue to serve” it—comments uncannily similar to those of the RSS ideologue S Gurumurthy. In an interview published in the Economic Times just a day before Goswami’s, Gurumurthy said that “culturally, Rajan is perhaps mentally more Indian than some of our liberals.” It appears that the stamp of approval for the governor was originally issued by the Sangh Parivar.

In keeping with the tenor of the Modi government’s public relations, the interview focused on the prime minister’s image and achievements. Consistent with everything Modi has said over the past 25 months—in parliament, in speeches in the nation and abroad—it spared no opportunity to criticise the political opposition, or to enumerate the failures of previous governments. As it has been through these myriad speeches, the narrative was tightly controlled and well-rehearsed: before the Modi government came to power, India was both filled with untapped potential and an international pariah. It is only with the election of Narendra Modi that the country’s future has been illuminated.

Consider these quotes, from the Indian Express transcript of the interview:

World leaders have changed their perspective towards India.

People of India have confidence that if there’s someone who can do this [bring back black money] it is Narendra Modi and he will do it.

The sad part is if somebody is running away from debate or don’t let discussions happen it is a cause of worry in democracy.

In the run up to the 2014 general elections, Modi had made a series of appearances on private news networks. The interviews that followed—including one with Goswami—were tame and uncontroversial. Reportedly, both the networks and the questions were carefully handpicked and vetted. Goswami’s latest interview was no different. It was clear that Modi was using Times Now to cement his public image in as much as he was talking to the Uttar Pradesh electorate, which goes to polls next year. Modi successfully fed the anchor a line, and he dutifully toed it. The prime minister that emerged was affable, unprotesting and a good-natured pradhan sevak—the foremost public servant, and yet an uncompromising crusader against evils such as black money and corruption.

But what of Goswami? The anchor who fancies himself India’s answer to England’s Jeremy Paxman behaved like a fan, a supplicant gently coaxing Modi to laugh, giggle and crack jokes. He did not ask a single counter-question—a rarity for him, to say the least. Sample these comments from the anchor: he termed the prime minister’s speech in the US Congress “historic” and “fantastic,” and stated that there has been “no major corruption or scam” in the BJP government since it rose to power. When he was not complimenting the prime minister, Goswami was setting the stage for Modi to criticise the Congress: “Many say Modi is being held back from achieving his goals because of non-stop parliamentary logjam?” he asked. In his response, the prime minister said, “There is one party which has problems. And the whole world knows that party.”

Goswami’s tone was markedly different from the one he employed during his 2014 interrogation of Rahul Gandhi—an interview that went viral, likely costing the Congress a significant share of votes. The vicious anti-minority rhetoric employed by the ruling party—including by its president Amit Shah, at the same platform where the prime minister delivered homilies on vikas­, or progress—did not merit any searching queries by the anchor. There were no questions on Kairana—the site, a BJP leader recently claimed, of an ongoing Hindu exodus—or farmer suicides. The anchor rarely brought up any issues that the prime minister had yet to make a public comment on—the events that transpired this year at Jawaharlal Nehru University, or at Hyderabad University, or the army of Modi supporters that regularly spew poison at detractors on social media, to name a few. Instead, he posed a question to the prime minister on the comments from various sectors that added “communal colour,” and might distract from the BJP’s “development” agenda in UP. The question set Modi up to pontificate on development, a discussion that ended with him requesting the media to “not make heroes out of those people who make such comments.”

Interesting reactions came from within the media fraternity. Goswami’s former NDTV colleague Rajdeep Sardesai congratulated him for getting an interview with the PM, albeit with the rider that “chamchagiri”—sycophancy—“or not, let people judge.” Shekhar Gupta chided fellow journalists for mocking Goswami, saying it was a case of “sour grapes.” The journalists, it appeared, though the interview’s occurrence itself was worth celebrating. But the issue is far more serious. It is inextricably linked to the bane that is “access journalism”—where access to a subject often becomes more important than the story itself.

Goswami’s weak interview has come at huge cost to his credibility as well as that of the network that he presides over. Over the last two years, he has regularly amplified government positions: he has attacked those opposing Jaitley, Modi and Shah, and ignored issues that have embarrassed the government and the BJP, such as disagreements among senior leaders and issues like the Delhi and District Cricket Association’s financial irregularities. Goswami has also remorselessly attacked non-BJP governments—from the CPM, to those led by Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, Akhilesh Yadav and Nitish Kumar. There has been little to no mention on Times Now of the 2002 Gujarat riots, the Madhya Pradesh Vyapam scam, or Chattisgarh’s rice scam. I am not certain journalists have much to gain from going down the route Goswami has done, only for a sit-down that reveals more about the anchor than the subject he is interviewing.

Correction: An earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that the interview did not include a question on drought. This has now been amended. The Caravan regrets the error.

Sandeep Bhushan was a television journalist for twenty years. He is currently an independent media researcher.