The arrest of Republic TV anchor Arnab Goswami, regardless of the merits of the abetment to suicide case, is a stunning political development. It would have been unthinkable until recently. This is an act of great daring by Uddhav Thackeray and the Maha Vikas Aghadi government in Maharashtra that needs to be seen in its political context.
Leave aside the Narendra Modi government’s alleged backing to Arnab Goswami or how cabinet ministers and senior BJP leaders came out in his support. Even without it, Arnab Goswami is a very powerful man. He is India’s rabble-rouser-in-chief. He riles people up every night. No single journalist was as responsible for the downfall of Congress-led UPA-2 as Arnab Goswami. In a country where politicians face little to no accountability for mass riots under their watch, Goswami’s arrest comes with a huge political message and far-reaching ramifications.
Neutralising BJP’s prime weapon against MVA
The manner in which Uddhav Thackeray became chief minister and the Maha Vikas Aghadi (MVA) came about despite the BJP’s best attempts — including the 7.50 am swearing-in of Devendra Fadnavis — has been a humiliation for the BJP. The party of Narendra Modi and Amit Shah has doubtless been trying to topple the MVA government just as it has toppled opposition governments in Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka, and came close to doing it in Rajasthan.
Arnab Goswami became a key player in the BJP’s effort to delegitimise the MVA government in Mumbai. As of now, with Goswami’s arrest, we can say the effort is backfiring on the BJP.
On 16 April, two sadhus and their driver were lynched in Palghar. BJP leaders, pro-BJP social media warriors and pro-BJP news media all tried to communalise the incident, trying to bring in a false Muslim angle one way or the other. Leading the pack was Arnab Goswami.
It was only last month that the Mumbai Police issued Arnab Goswami a show cause notice for his communally charged remarks on the Palghar incident. What happened between April and October is the story of the transformation of Uddhav Thackeray from Mr Nice Guy to the fighter who is ready to take on the Modi government at the Centre. In Mumbai’s political circles, he’s being called Uddhav 2.0.
As the Election Commission was not holding polls in May due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Uddhav Thackeray faced a peculiar situation of not being able to become a legislator within six months of his swearing-in. He had to make a call to the prime minister to make that happen.
The time has come to decide whether the opposition has to fight or cower in fear, Uddhav Thackeray said in an online meeting of opposition chief ministers with Sonia Gandhi in August. “Darna hai ya ladna hai,” he said.
Even if the BJP eventually manages to topple the Uddhav government, the chief minister has made it clear he’s not going down without a fight. That is the message in the arrest of Arnab Goswami.
Arnab Goswami famously decided to base himself in Mumbai rather than Delhi because he wanted to be away from the ‘corrupting’ influence of Lutyens’ Delhi. He didn’t want to hang out with politicians in Delhi so that he does not get entangled in the power corridors of the national capital. Ironically, he has trapped himself in Mumbai’s power games in a much more insidious way.
Goswami had been daring Uddhav Thackeray for a while. After the Palghar incident, there were protests by migrant labourers in Bandra, which again Arnab Goswami tried to communalise by linking it to a nearby mosque. There was the Sushant Singh Rajput’s death case in which Arnab Goswami tried to suggest the role of the Shiv Sena, referring to malicious and baseless rumours of Aditya Thackeray’s involvement. Goswami’s attacks would be directly aimed at Uddhav Thackeray: ‘You will lose your job,’ speaking in a manner harsher than any opposition leader does.
— Arnab Goswami (@ArnabGoswamiRTV) August 7, 2020
Perhaps Arnab Goswami thought the Maharashtra government won’t be able to touch him. He was too big to be jailed. He had the backing of Delhi. Most of all, the Uddhav government wouldn’t arrest him for fear of looking vindictive. So he kept raising the stakes. Uddhav would look weak if he didn’t go after Arnab and he would look excessive if he did — this seemed to be his calculation. Uddhav has done what Arnab seemed to think was impossible: put India’s most feared TV news anchor in jail.
Preparing for the backlash
This is a message from Uddhav to Modi: stop messing with me. The message is daring to the extent that the Modi government is bound to react. Not only will the BJP do whatever it can to save Arnab Goswami, it could also strain relations in far-reaching ways between the Centre and the Maharashtra government. Isn’t Uddhav Thackeray afraid of the backlash? Has he chewed off more than he can bite?
The MVA government seems to be preparing for this backlash by playing the Marathi card, launching corruption investigations against the previous BJP government, and beginning to poach BJP leaders to weaken the party in Maharashtra. In other words, the MVA government is dealing with the challenges in the same manner that the Modi-Shah’s party does.
The Shiv Sena is presenting Arnab Goswami as an outsider who was hurting Marathi pride by attacking Uddhav Thackeray day in and day out. The more the Centre goes after the MVA government, the more it will strengthen the Marathi pride card of Shiv Sena, much like Narendra Modi used to speak of Gujarati ‘Asmita’ when he would face legal threats or media criticism from Delhi.
This is why associations of journalists in Maharashtra have refused to condemn Arnab’s arrest, while pointing out that he has been arrested in a case that has nothing to do with journalism or free speech. Even in the Sushant Singh Rajput case, Uddhav Thackeray responded to attempts to malign Aaditya Thackeray by playing the Marathi card: “Those crying for justice for Bihar’s son are indulging in character assassination of Maharashtra’s son,” he said.
From Bhagat Singh Koshyari of Uttarakhand to Kangana Ranaut of Himachal Pradesh, those attacking Uddhav Thackeray are, for the Shiv Sena, outsiders out to hurt Marathi pride.
Poaching mass leaders
The Shiv Sena and the Sharad Pawar-led Nationalist Congress Party (NCP) have been weakening the BJP in Maharashtra in other ways. The BJP had shed its Brahmin-Baniya image in Maharashtra by carefully cultivating an OBC leadership but then made a Brahmin, Devendra Fadnavis, the chief minister. This helped the NCP in the 2019 Maharashtra assembly election. Now, the NCP has poached the BJP’s OBC leader, Eknath Khadse, a Leva Patel. The Shiv Sena is rumoured to be in talks with Pankaja Munde. Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar are doing to the BJP in Maharashtra what the BJP has been doing to opposition parties nationally: poach BJP leaders with some mass base.
The MVA government has already set-up a special investigation team to look into corruption charges in the Devendra Fadnavis government’s flagship scheme to raise ground water level in drought-prone districts, and has promised to investigate an alleged recruitment scam under Fadnavais’ watch.
When Arnab is out on bail…
What happens when Arnab Goswami gets bail, which he might get sooner than people ordinarily do, given that he can hire the best of lawyers who will also have the BJP’s support. Arnab Goswami will go back to his studio and continue his agenda against the Uddhav government. He’s practically the main opposition leader in Maharashtra now.
It is not as if Arnab Goswami wasn’t already attacking Uddhav Thackeray. He can’t do any more of it because he was doing that 24×7 anyway. The MVA government must be hoping that some cooling off time in jail will make Arnab Goswami wonder if it is worth it. It might help that a bevy of cases have been lined up against Arnab Goswami, and the Maharashtra government can keep arresting him.
Republic without Arnab
Putting Arnab Goswami away in jail for a single day also serves the purpose of hitting Republic where it hurts. The English and Hindi channels both have Arnab Goswami as their main attraction. It is Arnab’s screaming and shouting that gets the TRPs and thus the advertising. With Arnab in jail, there will be no prime time entertainment. With so much else on the news cycle, how long will people watch anodyne anchors play victim on behalf of Arnab Goswami? The story will bore people and Republic TV and Republic Bharat’s ratings, rigged or not, will crash.
Uddhav Thackeray launched a blistering attack on the BJP and the Modi government recently in his Dusshera speech. He said, “It has been a year now. From the day I became the CM, it was being said that the state government will be toppled. I challenge and say that if you have the courage, do it and show.”
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.
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