I MUST BEGIN WITH a confession. I like Arnab Goswami. I also know him slightly. He’s feisty, fearless, fearsome. And, as if that is not good—or bad—enough alliteration, he can be ferocious, facetious and frivolous too, as the occasion demands.
In the world of Indian media, he is somewhat of a phenomenon. He stands alone, a sort of crusading colossus. He’s almost singlehandedly created a new brand of rambunctious and bellicose journalism, which is as entertaining as it is informative. I would call it the blood sport of infotainment. But more than that, he has become a brand himself. He’s a self-made media-Moghul, a one-man institution.
From practically nothing, he’s pushed his Republic TV, a free-to-air bilingual network with twin English and Hindi channels and an accompanying website, to one of the most watched and successful media operations in India. About a year back, on May 9th, 2019, he bought out most of his backer Rajiv Chandrashekhar’s shares to assume complete control of his company. Republic TV’s motto may be, ‘You are Republic, we are your voice’, but it’s mostly Goswami’s voice that is beamed day and night from his channels.
He has the uncanny knack of going for the jugular as far as figures (pun intended) are concerned. He has the ability to singlehandedly and consistently make his television rating points (TRPs) shoot through the roof mostly by targeting carefully chosen personalities.
He is arrogant, bratty and witty. He can hector and demolish his opponents. He loves name-calling and personal attacks. He reduces many a distinguished panelist to a helpless puddle of fright or fear on his show. Some are so provoked that they scream their lungs out, making complete fools of themselves. Others so cowed down that they hardly get a squeak through, let alone speak their minds.
I myself have been on his show a couple of times. I neither cherished nor relished the experience. To me most of what he calls his debate is only a shouting and slanging match, with little opportunity to make a rational or sustained argument. It is more like a publicly staged show trial, with Goswami managing both the views and the abuse.
Observing the proceedings, however, was both edifying and entertaining. Goswami has a carefully concealed earphone through which he probably receives prompts and points. Whoever is behind the scenes has really done their homework because an endless stream of accusations and invectives are supplied to Goswami to spew out, in addition to essential factoids.
Goswami himself is a past master at the theatrics of situation. He can modulate his voice from a soft, gentle, soothing caress, to an obnoxiously derogatory sneer, to outright out-shouting his hapless antagonists. I would hesitate to call the latter panelists, let alone guests. ‘Atithi devo bhava’—the guest is like unto a god—the ancient Upanisadic injunction certainly does not apply to those he invites on his show.
After a couple of appearances, I realised that to be on Goswami’s debate was more of a trap than an opportunity. Sooner or later, you were bound to lose credibility. To be in the midst of a gaggle of rabble-rousers, screaming to have one’s voice heard over the cacophony, in addition to Goswami’s hectoring, is nothing short of distasteful if not disgraceful. The dressing down he gives his opponents could easily be directed at his allies. Even if you happened to be among the latter, you would not be safe. And if you were one of the former, then God help you!
A few appearances on his show and you would stand the risk of being reduced either to a buffoon or nincompoop, a person of little consequence or credibility. I have long since, I believe wisely, dodged his invitations till I stopped receiving them altogether. But does that mean I don’t watch his show? You bet. I do, like so many other Indians, all his fans. Goswami delivers a punch like no other TV anchor. More bangs for no bucks, so to speak.
Recently, as we all know, Goswami’s fame reached its zenith on April 27th, 2020 when he was reportedly interrogated by the Mumbai police for some 12 hours. This unhappy, if excessive, questioning follows several FIRs lodged against him for his alleged defamation of Congress’ interim President Sonia Gandhi in his programme following the lynching of two Hindu monks and their driver in Palghar on April 16th, 2020.
Goswami had, some would say with deliberate incitement, asked why Sonia Gandhi had been silent on the gruesome murder of Hindu sadhus: “Would Sonia Gandhi have been quiet if Muslim preachers or Christian saints had been killed instead of Hindu sants?” he asked. As if that were not needling enough, he added, “She’s quiet today, but I think she feels happy that Hindu sants were killed in a state where Congress has a stake in the government. She will send a report to Italy about the fact that she is getting Hindu sants killed in aharashtra” (as reported by ANI).
In the next few hours, as many as three FIRs and 11 complaints were registered against Arnab in states as varied as Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Telangana, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand. Luckily for him, the Supreme Court granted him anticipatory bail for two weeks on April 17th in all the complaints except the Nagpur FIR filed by Congress minister Nitin Raut, who said, “Using derogatory language against someone is not acceptable… . [Goswami] also tried to insult Gandhi.” The apex court transferred the matter from Nagpur to Mumbai. Goswami’s questioning at the NM Joshi Marg police station was a consequence.
Arnab Goswami stands alone, a sort of crusading colossus. He’s almost singlehandedly created a new brand of rambunctious and bellicose journalism, which is as entertaining as it is informative
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On the previous evening, Goswami and his wife, Samyabrata Ray, were attacked while returning home from work. As Goswami himself described it, two motorcycle-borne assailants rode beside, overtook, then stopped his car. They banged on his window, damaged his car, throwing some substance which looked like black ink in the photos. After that Goswami proceeded to challenge Gandhi, naming her and her party, hollering, “Bring it on.” He said he would not be cowed down by threats.In the end, as usual, it became, quite narcissistically, about Goswami, not the Palghar lynching or, indeed, even Sonia Gandhi.
The next morning, a slew of journalists, from all shades and stripes, supported, in the name of freedom of the press, Goswami’s right to air his views.
The Mumbai police also arrested the attackers, later releasing them on bail.
Goswami, from reporting news, was not only making news. He was in the news—in fact, he was the news himself. He needed no other subjects. Republic TV could be said to be by Goswami, of Goswami and for Goswami.
By making his parking lot his pulpit to attack Gandhi, Goswami raised his game to a new height. It was not polemics any more but pure politics. Goswami’s brand of demagoguery is certainly not standard journalism or even business as usual in a time of polemical or pugilistic TV journalism. Instead, the journalist is now larger than life, more politician than journalist. Of course, this charge may also be levelled against other leading journalists such as Rajdeep Sardesai or Ravish Kumar.
It is, therefore, as politics rather than journalism that this whole chain of events must be understood. When it comes to politics, we ought to know that both the Congress as well as the ruling Maharashtra Vikas Aghadi led by Uddhav Thackeray are not in pole position. The latter’s continuation as Chief Minister hinges on his nomination as a Member of the Maharashtra Legislative Council by Governor BS Koshyari or election before May 28th, 2020, both of which seem unlikely.
The more the Congress targets Goswami, the more the latter becomes hero or martyr, depending on the outcome of the cases against him. As to the Congress, whose own track record of muzzling the press and stamping on freedom of expression is atrocious, it stands little to gain in its leader’s name being dragged through the mud.
The one clear winner regardless of which of these two comes out on top is the BJP. It is waiting in the wings to return to power in Maharashtra.