NEW DELHI — It was a highly anticipated TV event on Monday night: Rahul Gandhi, the leader of the Congress Party’s election campaign, sat down with Arnab Goswami of Times Now, the most aggressive journalist on an English-language television network in India, for the politician’s first formal TV interview.
That Mr. Gandhi chose Mr. Goswami for his first interview was surprising to many observers. “No senior leader gives a television interview very often,” said Amulya Ganguli, a political analyst. “When was the last time Sonia Gandhi gave a television interview? When was the last time Narendra Modi gave one?”
Earlier this month, the Congress Party hired the global public relations firm Burson-Marsteller, which did not respond to emailed questions about why Mr. Gandhi chose to give his first interview to Times Now. But Mr. Goswami said in an interview with Rediff.com that it was the huge viewership at Times Now that compelled Mr. Gandhi to choose the network for his interview.
So how did Mr. Gandhi hold up against Mr. Goswami’s pointed questions?
“He comes across as a thinker, with a broad Nehruvian outlook,” said Mr. Ganguli. During the interview, Mr. Gandhi said he wanted to change the system, empower women, deepen democracy, open up politics to the young and make India a world-class manufacturing hub.
But he fumbled on the more specific questions, Mr. Ganguli said, pointing at Mr. Gandhi’s comments on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi. Several Congress Party leaders are still on trial on charges of inciting the riots after Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards.
Mr. Goswami asked whether Mr. Gandhi would take responsibility for the 1984 riots. Mr. Gandhi sought to draw a distinction between the Congress government back then and the state government in Gujarat, led by Narendra Modi of the rival Bharatiya Janata Party, in 2002, when nearly 1,000 people died in riots, most of them Muslims.
“The simple difference is that in 1984, the government was not involved in the massacre of people,” said Mr. Gandhi. “In Gujarat, it was.”
He also insisted that the Congress government in 1984 “was not aiding and abetting the riots” but had tried to stop the violence.
Observers took issue with Mr. Gandhi’s take on history. “This was factually wrong. I even tweeted it as the interview was playing out,” said Siddharth Varadarajan, political analyst and senior journalist.
Contradictions were clearly evident in Mr. Gandhi’s answers. He acknowledged that “some Congress men were probably involved in 1984 anti-Sikh riots and they have been punished for it.” But when he was asked whether he would apologize for the 1984 riots, Mr. Gandhi said, “First of all, I wasn’t involved in the riots at all. It wasn’t that I was a part of it.”
Oddly, Mr. Gandhi spoke about himself in the third person at times, like when Mr. Goswami asked him whether the Congress Party didn’t declare Mr. Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate because it wanted to avoid pitting Mr. Gandhi directly against Mr.Modi, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s candidate, who is considered the front-runner in the national elections this spring.
“To understand that question you have to understand a little bit about who Rahul Gandhi is and what Rahul Gandhi’s circumstances have been, and if you delve into that, you will get an answer to the question of what Rahul Gandhi is scared of and what he is not scared of,” he said.
Mr. Varadarajan said it was clear that Mr. Gandhi didn’t want to characterize the national elections as personal battle.
“Rahul Gandhi has never been comfortable looking at the elections in presidential terms,” said Mr.Varadarajan. “He tried to position the upcoming elections as a clash of ideas by talking about decentralization of power and opening up of the system, rather than a clash of personalities. However, that was not done very effectively. Only political analysts might have caught that. To a common man, it just seems like he was just dodging those questions.”
Mr. Gandhi’s answers were brief when it came to questions about corruption scandals that have plagued the administration of the United Progressive Alliance, the governing coalition. Asked why Congress protected the former Maharashtra Chief Minister Ashok Chavan despite a judicial commission’s indictment in a scandal involving sweetheart deals on housing for government officials, Mr. Gandhi said the party had taken action wherever corruption was involved.
On corruption charges against Himachal Pradesh’s chief minister, Virbhadra Singh, Mr. Gandhi merely said, “There is a legal process. Follow it and conclude it.”
Interestingly, when Mr. Goswami was grilling Mr. Gandhi about the big corruption scandals, he did not ask about Mr. Gandhi’s brother-in-law, Robert Vadra, who has been accused of profiting illegally from real estate deals.
“I suspect keeping Vadra out of the interview would be one of the ground rules that Mr. Gandhi would have made himself available for the interview,” said Mr. Varadarajan.
Mr. Gandhi blamed corruption on “the system,” which he said had to change in order to remold India’s politics. But, as Mr. Varadarajan pointed out, it was the Gandhi family members who were responsible to a great degree in creating the political systems in India.
In fact, systemic change and the empowerment of women were his answers to most of the tough questions, added Mr. Varadarajan. For example, to one of Mr. Goswami’s questions about the rising inflation in India, Mr. Gandhi’s answer began with, “I think women are a backbone of the nation. They need to be empowered.”
More than once during the interview, Mr. Gandhi gave the Congress party credit for introducing the Lokpal and other anticorruption bills in the Parliament. However, he did not mention that the party had initially resisted passing the bills, only doing so after huge public protests led by Anna Hazare and his followers.
He also avoided directly answering questions about whether political parties should be brought under the purview of Right to Information Act, saying instead that Parliament should decide if there is a consensus on the issue. But, he said, “my position is that the more openness, the better.”
During the interview, the fiery orator seen at the Congress Party’s national meeting earlier this month was nowhere to be found. Instead, Mr. Gandhi maintained his usual placid demeanor even during the most contentious parts of the conversation.
“He comes across as a sincere, well-meaning guy,” Mr. Varadarajan said, “but not quite up to the mark.”
Published in: The New York Times
Published on: January 28, 2014