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You need Machiavelli, not a Mahatma to outwit Modi, Arnab Goswami told me about Rahul Gandhi

In ‘The Great Unravelling’, Sanjay Jha writes about why Arnab Goswami wanted to go after Rahul Gandhi and the TV debate that truly hurt his credibility.

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Arnab was obsessed with TRPs. During commercial breaks, he would share with me interesting titbits on the audience viewership numbers that he received on his mobile, as well as adulatory messages from adoring fans. And there were many. There is an unsaid understanding that exists between journalists and politicians; the relationship is inherently antagonistic. So, despite the overt camaraderie, Goswami and I maintained a respectable distance.

He would often see me off at the elevator, a show of courtesy that felt genuine even if it was minutes after we had been at each other’s throats. At the time, I do think there was genuine mutual respect. I believed he was a committed crusader for the urban middle class whose causes he espoused (he was not overly concerned with farmers, NGOs, environment or poverty and destitution). But on 17 April 2015, our equation changed irrevocably.

Rahul Gandhi had just returned from his sabbatical overseas, and there was a lot of curiosity about where had he gone for fifty-six days. Rahul had publicly announced that he was taking an extended break, and formally informed the Congress office as well. It was a smart move; his unannounced foreign visits had resulted in a lot of unflattering publicity. I understood the public curiosity about his whereabouts—it is not easy being a Gandhi. The family is under constant and minute media surveillance; one of them cannot so much as watch Star Wars at a multiplex without it becoming news. In our conversations, Goswami had been vocal about his belief that the Congress should back Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra for the top job. He thought Rahul was too decent, too naïve for Indian politics. To outwit Modi, ‘you need a Machiavelli, not a Mahatma’, he once told me. But Priyanka, with her Indira Gandhi-looks and effortless communication, could upset the BJP apple cart, he advised me. On 17 April, Goswami looked intent on decimating Rahul.

Also read: Five lessons for Rahul Gandhi from what Machiavelli said 500 years ago

The other guests that evening included Nalin Kohli, spokesperson of the BJP, and journalists Sankarshan Thakur, Pankaj Vohra, Arati Jerath and Shahid Siddiqui— all accomplished individuals and moderate liberals whom I liked and respected. Unlike so many from his party, Kohli too was a more reasonable adversary. The topic under discussion was, where had Rahul Gandhi gone to and why, and was he not accountable to the people of India when it came to his travel itinerary? Goswami and I greeted each other as usual. The tea served to me was nice and hot. It looked like just another day in the park.

It was a typical Newshour debate, and Goswami made no bones about the fact that he was going after Rahul. He jokingly told me before the programme, ‘This is going to be tough for you, Sanjay.’ Knowing that I had been forewarned so I would tense up with nervousness, I said with a smile, ‘Bring it on!’ I steeled myself.

I had a simple explanation for Rahul’s absence; he had informed the party and the public before leaving, so he had been transparent. How many politicians actually do that? As to where he went and why, he was entitled to his fundamental right to privacy—a right that one does not lose by virtue of being a politician or a public figure. I also added that the Modi government must be aware of Gandhi’s destination because he was under SPG security, which reported directly to the Central government. In my opinion, these were irrefutable arguments in Rahul’s defence. And to put the BJP on the defensive, I posed an inconvenient question: how come no one was discussing why Modi had hidden his marital status till 2014, lied to the Election Commission and misled the public knowingly for years? He was the prime minister of the country, surely the burden of disclosure lies heavier on him? In the US, such a scandal would have tarnished a politician’s reputation beyond repair. In India, everyone appeared tongue-tied. Why? Despite the fact that everyone was critical of Rahul’s opacity, I thought I was on a strong wicket. Then things suddenly took an unexpected and dark turn.

At some point, Goswami referred to Rahul’s ‘mental fitness’—a remark I thought was in poor taste, and also disrespectful towards those who actually suffered from mental health issues. I told him so. He then pulled a fast one on me, saying that a Congress leader from Delhi, Sandeep Dikshit, had said so himself. Now, I knew Sandeep. Although he was one of the few Congressmen to call a spade a spade, Sandeep was far too civil and polite to say something so impertinent about anyone, let alone his own leader. More importantly, I had had a fleeting glimpse of Sandeep’s video bite earlier, and he had said no such thing. So I called Goswami’s bluff and challenged him to show the video right then, adding for good measure, ‘And if you are proved wrong, you must issue a public apology right now.’ The words were strong but we were both combative debaters, and occasionally, I can get stagey myself.

Also read: The emergence of Uddhav Thackeray 2.0 in Arnab Goswami’s arrest

Goswami, however, was not used to being taken on aggressively; he was the insuperable showman of his turf, the unconquerable hero. I suspect he was very peeved with me for escalating the tension and issuing an ultimatum; that was his prerogative alone. He stunned me by saying that I was misbehaving and he would throw me out of the show if I didn’t behave. Goswami rebuking anyone for poor conduct was rich. I realised just how cornered he felt. The others looked stunned too. At any rate, Goswami had no choice but to play the Sandeep Dikshit video. He took a deep breath and, in all fairness, let his panicky producer play it; it was obvious that Dikshit had said no such thing. I could have rubbed his face in it, but I let it go. Goswami had had a bad hair day.

When the programme ended, he turned to me, his face a contorted mess, and hissed, ‘Why did you make it personal?’ ‘Personal? When did I get personal with you?’ I asked, stupefied.

‘You mentioned my son!’

For a while, I was too shell-shocked to respond. During the debate, to establish the fact that Rahul did not ‘bunk’ as Goswami kept saying, I had said, ‘If your son—’ (and I would have gone on to say, ‘took permission from school for leave, how is that the same as bunking?’). But he never let me finish that statement on live television, and here he was, accusing me of dragging his son into the national debate. It was an asinine remark, and honestly, a lie. It was clear to me that Goswami was disconcerted by my aggressive salvo, and the video challenge had hurt his credibility. We had spent considerable time since 2008 on onscreen and offline conversations. I genuinely thought he was someone Indian politicians could not ignore, no matter how vehemently they disagreed with him. In fact, I had even endorsed him on a television commercial that Times Now had made for their principal protagonist. But after that night, we would never meet again.

This excerpt from ‘The Great Unravelling: India After 2014’ by Sanjay Jha has been published with permission Westland Publications. 

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  1. If this the way The Print is promoting Sanjay Jha’s book it is a bad publicity. People would give it a miss. To show Arnab in bad light requires huge amount of verbal acrobatics and even then it doesnt appear credible. Arnab is far too honest, nationalist and uncorrupted unlike the congress and old lackey Sanjay Jha. Even The Print which is promoting Sanjay Jha and his book have no credibility since people who know Indian politics know what Shekhar Gupta is. What perverted pleasure both Jha and The Print get by speaking bad about Arnab. Arnab has sea of Indians behind him. If tomorrow police or some govt hounded Shekhar Gupta or Sanjay Jha like the vindictive Maharashtra govt did to Arnab, there would be no one to support Shekhar or Jha except the usual known Lutyens cabal. Credibility, respect is to be earned. And Arnab has earned it. He doesnt need certificates from those who have none.

  2. You need Machiavelli to outwit Modi and it would be a serious challenge even for Machiavelli,.
    But even a donkey can outwit Rahul Gandhi.

  3. What a sad, pathetic piece. What’s the whole point of this article? To show Arnab Goswami in a bad light? Every other person is doing that anyway. This seems like the rant of a deeply hurt 6 year old who’s trying to convince people how innocent he was and how the world was being unfair to him. Laughable…

  4. “But Priyanka, with her Indira Gandhi-looks and effortless communication, could upset the BJP apple cart, he advised me. ”

    It appears to me that Sanjay Jha is trying to use Arnab Goswami to promote Priyanka. when in reality Priyanka stand even less chance than Rahul Gandhi, being bought up as Christian and married to a Christian she can not even pretend to be Shiva Bhakta or Janoishari.

  5. A very interesting piece on the meeting and debate with the BAD BOY of journalism. Also clearly underlines the arrogance and egoism of Arnab when cornered. He is a compulsive liar.

  6. Are you sharing kitty party discussion in public? Shame on.. Just writing articles for name shake so that people can open the article and print can be viewed .

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