Rahul Gandhi’s 30-minute chat with ex-RBI governor Raghuram Rajan on a video call has made the former Congress president look better than any interview or press conference he has ever done.
He would do well to engage in many more such interactions on video call chats and put them out for public consumption. He could have such chats with Congress chief ministers and workers, with experts around the country and the world. This format suits Rahul Gandhi for many reasons. For one, it is not designed to make him face tough questions.
Raghuram Rajan is not going to make Rahul Gandhi look bad. That’s not his job. He’s not a journalist. And Rahul Gandhi is not on test to prove himself. For once, Rahul Gandhi is asking questions, thereby acknowledging he doesn’t have all the answers. This makes him look humble, especially in contrast to Modi who projects himself as the man with all the answers.
Raghuram Rajan is a talented Indian economist Prime Minister Modi shunned. And Rahul Gandhi is asking him, how much money will it take to help the poor? Rs 65,000 crore, says Rajan, and it’s doable. Such a conversation is far more effective opposition politics than what Rahul Gandhi has been doing so far.
Brand Rahul Gandhi has been so down and out that even if he says something wise it does not carry much weight. But today, the headline is that Raghuram Rajan tells Rahul Gandhi the poor need Rs 65,000-crore package. Now if Rahul Gandhi starts to persist with this demand from the Modi government, it will carry weight.
Controlling the narrative
Right-wingers on social media are quick to make jokes out of anything Rahul Gandhi does. Today, all they can point at is the clock on the wall behind Raghuram Rajan. The clock, they claim, shows the conversation lasted over an hour. But only 28 minutes have been put out. In other words, there’s been editing and possibly re-takes. That’s great, it shows Rahul Gandhi is learning from Modi.
Scripted events, produced like TV serials or films, is how Modi likes to communicate with the people. And not through press conferences.
Modi does give interviews once in a while, which often appear scripted, not least because the journalists interviewing him are so obsequious one feels embarrassed for a section of media. Largely, Modi likes to stick to scripted events to communicate “directly” with the people, wherein he decides what he speaks.
Modi is a politician with decades of experience and can certainly handle any question the media throws at him. One might recall the aggressive The Indian Express interview he gave just before the Lok Sabha election in 2019, an opportunity he used to lash out at liberals.
Modi doesn’t like surprises in interviews because he wants to be able to control the narrative coming out of the interview. It’s the headline he is bothered about. Is this really the headline he wants to make?
When you let someone ask any question they want, they may not ask you the questions that show you in a good light. Indeed, a good journalist won’t ask Modi how you work so many hours a day. A good journalist allowed to ask Modi anything will want to know why his government allowed the export of Personal Protective Equipment for healthcare workers till 19 February when the coronavirus pandemic was rearing its head.
The infamous Karan Thapar interview of 2007 shows this clearly. Modi walked out when Thapar was virtually forcing him to express regrets for the 2002 Gujarat riots — or clearly say he doesn’t want to express regret. Thapar could have asked him anything about Gujarat’s development after that but the headline would have been ‘Modi refuses to regret 2002’. By 2007 Modi wanted to pretend 2002 never happened. He had already moved on to projecting himself as a development messiah.
A lesson Rahul didn’t learn in 2014
Modi’s walking out of the interview with Karan Thapar has clearly had an impact on how he perceives the media. It has meant that Modi doesn’t put himself in a situation where he could be grilled by a journalist. So either it’s one-way communication (social media, scripted interviews, speeches and events) or through interviews where he knows the questions beforehand or at any rate, knows the journalist won’t ask tough questions.
Rahul Gandhi also had a defining bad interview moment. The questions Arnab Goswami asked him in 2014 weren’t that tough, but Rahul Gandhi came across poorly. At one point Rahul Gandhi complained, “We have had a 1-hour conversation here, you haven’t asked me 1 question about how we are going to build this country, how we are going to take this country forward, you haven’t asked me one question on how we are going to empower our people, you haven’t asked me one question on what we are going to do for youngsters, you are not interested in that.”
Just like Modi, Rahul wanted to control the narrative. In both cases, two very different politicians had the same concern: can we talk about what I want to talk about?
An interview is by definition a situation in which the interviewer decides what questions will be asked. The interviewee is on test. This makes it a very powerful thing for a journalist to be allowed to interview a top politician. Someone like Modi can’t give someone else such power over himself.
Modi learnt his lesson and stopped putting himself in such situations. But Rahul Gandhi has kept repeating the mistake. He does press conferences and interviews where he isn’t able to set the agenda he would like, ends up making gaffes, and the BJP quickly cuts short videos, often out of context, to show him in poor light.
“I have no problem in giving TV interviews,” Gandhi told Ravish Kumar of NDTV in an interview in 2019, “The worst thing that can happen is I will make mistakes but it’s human to make mistakes,” he said.
Sure, but then don’t complain if people judge you for the mistakes and don’t vote for you. Truth is, making mistakes in an interview is not ok. That’s the sort of thing that turns elections.
Poor optics overshadow good content
Recently, Rahul Gandhi did a Zoom press conference on the Covid-19 crisis. He said all the right things. He was consciously making a shift in his tone from the angry young man always out to bring Modi down. He now wanted to be the mature opposition leader doing constructive criticism. This was a step in the right direction. He also said all the right things: lockdown is but a pause, where’s the testing, where’s the PPE, look at the suffering of migrant labourers, and so on.
But as usual, the optics became the focus: Rahul Gandhi trying to figure out Zoom, repeating the word strategic again and again, the poor lighting, and so on. Once again, the optics tend to overshadow the content. You may not necessarily get this impression from watching the 9 o’ clock news or reading the newspapers, but the site of image-making and destroying of politicians today is social media, from WhatsApp to TikTok.
That’s why Rahul Gandhi needs the power of scripted video, following in the footsteps of Modi. They can help you edit out those very human mistakes and look like a leader.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.