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.
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.
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.