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The nation that wants to know meets Socrates of the real issue

Jan. 27: Rahul Gandhi, arguably the least-understood politician in India, has allowed himself to be interviewed by Times Now editor-in-chief Arnab Goswami, inarguably the most feared inquisitor on Indian television.

The Congress leader’s first television interview was pre-recorded on Saturday and telecast on Monday night, not a “live” conversation where sustained questioning can take unpredictable twists and turns.

The interlude between the recording and the telecast was marked by feverish speculation aided by a blizzard of jokes on Twitter. One wisecrack: “Rahul should be wildcard entry for Republic Day bravery awards for agreeing to be interviewed by Arnab.”

But sources said the Congress leadership wanted to ensure that Rahul’s “outing” should be with a journalist who has a reputation for being unsparing. An off-the-record session between Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and Goswami, over pakoras and tea, also helped pave the ground for the interview, the sources said.

The interview went on for one hour and 20 minutes, included at least 100 questions and saw the exchange of over 13,000 words — something few Congress leaders have ever subjected themselves to.

The Telegraph looks at the takeaways from the interview.

What does the nation that wants to know really know after the interview?

• Rahul is sincere and earnest but short on specifics and high on long-term ideals like “empowerment”.

• Professorial but without the facts or historical moorings to support his case.

• He avoids topics that carry the urgency of the present and find resonance on the street. On prices, Rahul said something that suggested he did not “sense” the situation was grave till women in Kerala told him so. “I felt that price rise is an issue, cylinders were a big issue, I went to Kerala and I got a sense that women were concerned about that and I made that view clear to everybody in the AICC session,” he said.

• His vision draws sustenance from UPA projects known by abbreviations such as RTI, RTE and MGNREGA — a soup of alphabets that worked once but has a predictable ring here and now. He said “RTI” (right to information) at least 30 times. He asked why the media were not under RTI and seemed to retreat when told “the press does not rule the country”. A point not mentioned: the media are not run on taxpayers’ money that bankrolls the government and for which it should be held accountable.

• His economic ideas are confined to setting up manufacturing hubs. “I want to make this place at least as much of a manufacturing power as China,” Rahul said but did not get a chance to explain if he was willing to take the radical steps the giant took to improve productivity.

• He blames the system when it suits him.

Asked why an alliance with Lalu Prasad was being considered when the Bihar leader had been convicted of corruption, Rahul said “these decisions are made by senior leaders” — as if the Congress vice-president was not a senior leader.

When Goswami pointed out that “you are the boss”, Rahul said the Congress allies with parties, not individuals.

• When he did take responsibility, it sounded as if he was fishing for compliments. “I have pushed the Lokpal Bill. I was involved in the RTI.” However, on the general election, he did not beat about the bush: “If we don’t win, I am the VP of the party…. Of course, I will take responsibility for it.”

• Rahul is not comfortable with direct questions. He avoided almost all direct questions by repeating that “the real issue” is….

A sample below.

Goswami: What is your view, would like to expound your views. Your PM accuses Narendra Modi in his press conference of presiding over “the mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad”. Mr Rahul Gandhi, my question to you is this, do you agree with your PM when he says that?

Rahul: Well, I mean, what the Prime Minister is saying is a fact, Gujarat happened, people died but the real issue as far as I am concerned.…

Goswami: How do you accuse Mr Modi of it?

Rahul: Gujarat happened, people died. The real issue at hand here is...

The concept of “real issue”, sometimes clothed in varied forms such as “central issue”, “fundamental issue” or “core issue”, figured at least 15 times in the interview.

Rahul spoke of the Green Revolution when asked a specific question about Modi.

Goswami: …the court upheld the SIT finding and, therefore, legally speaking, Mr Gandhi, you cannot draw Narendra Modi into the Gujarat riots, implicate him personally. Do you believe that strategy of your party is fundamentally wrong?

Rahul: The strategy of the party is very simple. Everything we have done over the last 5-10 years, in fact if you look all the way back to the freedom movement, every single thing we have ever done is empower people. We empowered people in the freedom movement, we empowered farmers in the Green Revolution, and we empowered the citizens of India when we did the telecom revolution. We have empowered millions and millions of people through frankly the most powerful legislation that has ever taken place in this country, called the RTI — right to information. Things that used to be closed, things that were in closed doors, which nobody knew about.

How did Rahul field questions on Modi?

He did not, initially. Goswami had to repeat the question several times.

When he did address the question, Rahul meandered into his vision to change the system and fell back on the Mahabharat. Rahul said: “It is like in our mythology when they talk about Arjun, he only sees one thing, he does not see anything else. You asked me about Mr Modi, you ask me about anything and the thing that I see is that the system in this country needs to change. I don’t see anything else and I am blind to everything else.”

What was Rahul’s weakest moment?

Rahul accused the Gujarat government of abetting the riots. But on the anti-Sikh riots in Delhi, Rahul appeared confused and diffident. He said the government was not involved in the anti-Sikh riots, unlike in Gujarat. But Rahul did not use the best available defence: that Manmohan Singh had apologised and Sonia Gandhi had expressed regrets. Goswami had to remind him of the Prime Minister’s apology. Rahul skirted a question whether he would apologise for the anti-Sikh riots if someone sought such a step, saying he was not involved.

Did Rahul clear the air on the Prime Minister candidate of his party?

No, Rahul stuck to the Congress’s refrain that elected MPs will choose the Prime Minister. “Members of Parliament are to be elected by the population and members of Parliament are to elect the Prime Minister. All I am doing is respecting that process,” Rahul said, referring to the Constitution.

But the Westminster model allows sitting (or outgoing) MPs to choose the face who will lead them in the next election and the government if the party wins. The fundamental principle is that people should be told who would head the government if a particular party wins the election. Nothing in the Constitution prevents people from knowing who will lead the country.

What else do we now know about Rahul?

• Rahul knows Goswami is from Assam. “You come from Assam and I am sure that you also, in your work, feel the unfairness of the system,” Rahul told the interviewer.

• Rahul can reverse roles and interview Goswami. Asked about Modi, Rahul kept asking Goswami what drove him to become a journalist, possibly to explain how ideals-driven goals had led him to politics. Rahul managed to get in a gem, telling Goswami what the anchor usually tells others: “You are not answering my question.”

Rahul can get answers from Goswami.

Rahul (asked about Subramanian Swamy’s swipes at his degree): Were you in Cambridge?

Goswami: I was at Oxford.

Rahul: But you spent some time at Cambridge?

Goswami: I was a visiting fellow at Cambridge for a while.

Rahul: So where were you at Cambridge?

Goswami: At Sydney Sussex college.

Rahul: So I was at Trinity in Cambridge, I spent a year there, I did my MPhil there.

Goswami: I want your response to Subramanian Swamy, how do you deal with this?

Rahul: You want me to show you my degree; I can show you my degree.

Was Rahul the lamb in the television lion’s den?

No, if you mean literally. The interview was recorded at Jawahar Bhavan that houses the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation on New Delhi’s Dr Rajendra Prasad Road.

Symbolically, Goswami’s style was distinctly different from that on his signature, daily Newshour programme where no quarter is given or expected. The interview was done for a programme titled Frankly Speaking, a one-on-one format where the interviewee gets more deference than those on the pugnacious Newshour. However, Goswami’s reputation was such that many were expecting fireworks. He was polite to a fault — so much so that Omar Abdullah tweeted: “I want this version of HIM if HIS channel ever does an interview of mine again.”

After the interview was telecast, Goswami said in response to a question from this newspaper: “It was challenging to bring him back to specifics. I asked him over 100 questions — if you count all of them — during the interview and that is almost as many as one can ask. He got an opportunity to answer as specifically as possible. But he kept going back…. He was focused on the broader issues while I was focused on the specifics.”

Asked about the impression earlier that a lamb was in a lion’s den, Goswami said: “For me, the subject of the interview does not change the nature of the interview. I asked him questions like I would ask anyone else. I sometimes asked him the same question persistently six or seven times.”

Post-tweet: “There are questions on this Rahul Gandhi interview and there are answers but I am searching for a connection,” Harsha Bhogle tweeted.