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TV knows what works. Get Rahul Gandhi to speak against Modi and Adani

The debates on the Adani stocks dealt briefly with the impact on stakeholders before the goalpost shifted to theories on the motives behind the Hindenburg report.

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In how many ways can you describe the political fallout over Gautam Adani and the Hindenburg report on his alleged stock manipulation and accounting fraud?

Let me count the ways – with a little help from my friends at television news: ‘Adani showdown’ (Times Now), ‘Brawl in Parliament’, ‘The Adani Fireworks’ (CNN-News 18), ‘Storm over Adani’ (India Today), ‘Deadlock over Adani in Parliament (Republic TV), ‘Uproar against Adani’ (Times Now Navbharat), ‘Opposition at war on Adani’ (ABP News), ‘Halla bol politics against Adani’ (India TV), ‘Hungama in Parliament’ (News24), and then, ‘Adani bahana, Modi nishana’ (TV9 Bharatvarsh).

And once Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in the picture, can Rahul Gandhi be far behind? No, because Rahul Gandhi ke paas MA hai—Modi and Adani to grab the attention of television news. He went “all out” against the PM in the Lok Sabha during Tuesday’s debate on the vote of thanks to the President’s address. Once Gandhi began to speak, the headlines – news and views—became about how ‘Rahul takes on PM’ (India Today) and how ‘BJP counters Rahul’ (CNN-News 18).

Ruling the news cycle—first Rahul then PM

All the channels telecast his speech live, with headlines on his ‘war’ on Modi (ABP News). All except for Republic TV, which waged its own offensive against the “Vadra Congress”— that’s anchor Arnab Goswami’s description of the grand old party.

The channel chose to track how Adani’s shares were faring at the Sensex and claimed that they had risen 16 per cent even as Rahul Gandhi spoke. So, now we know how to profit in the market: get Rahul Gandhi to speak against the PM and a company.

From the standpoint of Congress, it didn’t matter what Republic TV or any other TV said, as long as they said things about the Congress, Rahul Gandhi, its leaders’ speeches and its protests regarding Adani.

Of course, the prime minister gave better than he got when he spoke in Parliament on Wednesday afternoon. And he immediately took over the news cycle. But by then the Congress had accomplished what it had probably set out to do: equate Adani’s fortunes with the PM, hit the headlines 24×7, be the newsmaker and the subject of prime-time TV debates. Excerpts from Rahul Gandhi’s speech were repeatedly telecast till Wednesday afternoon.

The BJP’s counter-offensive asking for proof of the charges is in right earnest. This means that Rahul Gandhi and Congress are likely to receive even more media coverage. Already most news channels have interviewed GV Sanjay Reddy, vice chairman of GVK group, where he denied there was any pressure on his company to sell the Mumbai airport to Adani as claimed by Rahul Gandhi. And on Tuesday evening, TV news debates questioned Gandhi’s allegations against Modi and Adani: Is there any substance to the accusations, asked Amish Devgan on News 18 India. “Are there only lies, lies, lies against Adani?” questioned India TV. “Where’s the evidence?” fulminated a Republic TV anchor.

Times Now went from the serious to the silly: In ‘Adani to Attire’, the channel said that the PM wore a jacket made of recycled plastic bottles while Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge displayed a Rs 56,000 scarf – or so they’re saying.

What will the negative publicity do for the PM, Rahul Gandhi or Adani? Will it help or hinder their public image? We will have to wait for those answers.

But it’s instructive to remember that when he appeared in TV interviews with India TV and India Today several weeks ago, Adani said his success story began under Congress governments.

Also read: Budget 2023, BBC, Bageshwar Dham have a common link – being ‘high’ on TV channels’ agenda

Buying the attack on India

Whichever way this ‘Mitr-Kaal, Kiska Rishta Kiska Dost?’ (Times Now) plays out, news channels are more interested in the ‘Politics over Adani’ (CNN-News 18) than Gautam Adani himself – or indeed, the Hindenburg report.

The debates on the Adani stock market crash dealt briefly with the impact on all stakeholders before the goalpost shifted very quickly to theories on the motives behind the Hindenburg report. Many channels carried interviews with Adani’s Chief Finance Officer Jugeshinder Singh who rubbished the report. Have there been any interviews with Hindenburg for its side of the story? If there have been, they’ve been well hidden. 

Times Now’s anchor Rahul Shivshankar raised an alarm over possible external powers attempting to sabotage India’s growth. He cited the Hindenburg report and the BBC docu-series The Modi Question on the 2002 Gujarat riots and the communal divide since 2014. There was a ‘sentiment’ in certain quarters of the government and the media, he said, that these are part of a “carefully orchestrated hidden media war” by vested interests.

In another prime-time show, ‘The Nation Wants to Know’, Times Now wanted to know what was Hindenburg’s motive in releasing the report. Er, to make money perhaps?

On ‘Desh Nahin Jhukene Denge’, Aman Sharma (News 18 India) saw the Adani ‘mess’ as an opportunity to attack PM Modi.  He emphasised that the exposure of the Life Insurance Corporation (LIC) and State Bank of India to Adani was minimal. So, what’s all the fuss about? On News24, financial experts argued that Securities and Exchange Board of India (SEBI) was best placed to investigate the issues. And Amish Devgan on News 18 India wondered about who was telling the truth in this “hit job.” At NewsX, there were demands to investigate Hindenburg and discover the identity of those who benefitted from its report – this was the larger scam.

Rajdeep Sardesai (India Today) consulted Ashish Damodaran of Stern Business School, USA. He felt Adani was no “con job” but corners were cut and there ought to be greater transparency in its dealings.

This brings us to Arnab Goswami and Republic TV. The trajectory here tells a story of its own. On 2 February, when Adani stocks tumbled, Goswami said the development raised questions: if the Adani stock was leveraged, at what stage would this “hit” Indian banks? Why had LIC shown such “absolute faith” in Adani stock? What was the geo-strategic impact—had strategic projects been overleveraged on Adani? And why did India’s wealthiest become so generous to Adani? He also dismissed the Adani case as an attack on India.

In subsequent debates, Goswami suggested that the decline in Adani shares could only benefit China. He also claimed that the “pro-China Vadra Congress” was working to help China on account of a “secret understanding” between them.  So too BBC. On 6 February, Goswami announced ‘Adani storm over’ though there were “things to sort out.” India was shining, he added, there’s nothing to worry about.

Maybe we ought to have a Joint Parliamentary Committee to investigate all of this?

The author tweets @shailajabajpai. Views are personal.

(Edited by Ratan Priya)

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