New Delhi: His is one of the many voices in the cacophony that marks most television news debates these days, but Gaurav Bhatia, a lawyer who represents the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in supercharged studio arguments, stands out.
A sworn critic of the Congress dynasty, he once sought to insult its party president Rahul Gandhi by calling him a “chaprasi (peon)”.
Earlier this month, when Congress member Rohan Gupta interrupted him on a debate about the Lok Sabha election, he retorted, “You’ve been interrupting me constantly. If you’re so scared, go wear a petticoat and bangles.”
In December last year, his argument with a fellow panelist, Anurag Bhadoria of the Samajwadi Party (SP), descended into a free-for-all aired live on televisions around the country.
The episode made news all over the world, and veteran news anchor Ravish Kumar said of the incident, “All that’s left now is for someone to pull a revolver out in the TV studio.”
Thanks to TV news rooms where decibels increasingly trump debate, Bhatia, a prime-time regular, has become as much a talking point as a talking head.
Bhatia is being hailed as a rising star on the BJP’s spokesperson circuit, assuming a mantle that has gained much notoriety under the party’s no-holds-barred talking head, Sambit Patra.
People who have interacted with Bhatia say his actual demeanour is different from the one seen on TV debates. He is calmer, they say, and more accommodating than one would expect.
Bhatia, the son of the late Samajwadi Party (SP) parliamentarian Virendra Bhatia, is an alumnus of Lucknow University and Bridgeport University, a private American institute.
He has twice served as honorary secretary of the Supreme Court Bar Association, and is now an advocate-on-record. He is among the lawyers defending realty giant Amrapali group, accused of cheating homebuyers, which represents his only big-ticket legal engagement currently.
He is also the petitioner behind a PIL moved in the Supreme Court in August 2018 that seeks a CBI probe into the death of a West Bengal BJP worker — a death Bhatia claims was a political murder by members of the ruling Trinamool Congress. The petition — dismissed by Congress leader Kapil Sibal, who is representing the Trinamool, as “politically motivated” — will be taken up on 26 March.
A former legal eagle of the SP, he joined the BJP in 2017, after the party swept the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh and formed a government under Yogi Adityanath.
The circumstances of his exit from the SP are not exactly clear.
Bhatia served as additional advocate general (AGG) for the Akhilesh Yadav government (2012-2017), which he represented in the Supreme Court, but the position was revoked in March 2016, a factor rumoured to have played a role in his exit.
It was an altogether tough time for the SP: It had been reduced to its lowest-ever tally in the 403-member assembly (winning 47 of the 311 seats it contested, compared to 224 out of 401 in 2012), and the party seemed to be in a shambles amid a cross-generational tug-of-war between Akhilesh and his father Mulayam Singh Yadav.
In a Facebook post announcing his resignation on 5 February 2017, Bhatia said his decision was “firmly entrenched in my principles of democracy & socialism”.
“Despite having devoted over one and a half decades, it is hard for me to continue serving the party when it is compromising the very principles of democracy, secularism & socialism that I have always believed in,” he added.
Aggression in the news room
Bhatia first appeared in the TV news studio in 2012, representing the SP, at a time when public discourse was admittedly much calmer than it has been of late.
Speaking to ThePrint, a news anchor said a lot of the aggression shown by party spokespersons these days is driven by a social media space where trolls hold much sway.
Social media and trolling tend to egg on panelists and bolster their rhetoric, leading to a vicious cycle, the anchor added.
In this context, Bhatia is as much a product of his times, as a maker, earning frequent comparisons with Patra, who has been accused of taking the political discourse to new depths with his Islamophobia and derogatory comments.
Patra once addressed a Congress spokesperson as “Pidi”, the name of Rahul Gandhi’s pet dog. And much like Patra, Bhatia has no qualms about name-calling.
Conduct on air
In November 2018, at a conclave organised by India TV, Bhatia told Congress spokesperson Ragini Nayak, a co-panelist, that if she called PM Modi a “chor (thief)”, he reserved the right to call Rahul Gandhi a “chaprasi”.
It was just a month later that Bhatia and Bhadoria of the SP engaged in a scuffle during an anchorless debate on Zee TV involving six panelists. The fight lasted approximately four-and-a-half minutes before the two were pulled apart, with intervening shots showing pure bewilderment on the faces of audience members.
Despite being the politician son of a politician father, he often takes potshots at the prominence of the Gandhi family in the Congress, with his distaste taking on a new fervour since he joined the BJP.
Among other things, he has called Rahul Gandhi a “khandani chor”, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra “the mother of future Congress presidents”.
Bhatia maintains that he upholds the highest standards of respect when live on air, but a spokesperson from the SP said there were certain channels that no longer invited him to their shows.
The debate where he lobbed the sexist “petticoat and bangles” remark at Rohan Gupta of the Congress took place 5 March on ABP News.
The anchor, Rubika Liyaquat, immediately called him out, asking him to apologise “right now”.
He didn’t. Instead, Bhatia apologised on air, on the same show, the next day, saying his words “weren’t intentional”. If he had hurt even one woman in the nation, he added, it was his responsibility to express regret.
Liaquat praised his “courage”.