Sunday, December 30, 2012

Arnab wins Bharat as 'nation wants to know'

By Swapan Dasgupta

It may sound flippant but if I was to name the Indian of the Year for 2012, my choice would be Arnab Goswami of Times Now. The reason has nothing to do with the fact I am an occasional participant on his Newshour debates. Nor is it connected with his hectoring style which I find enthralling at times and quite exasperating on other occasions. Arnab’s foremost contribution to the public discourse (at least the English language discourse which still sets the tone for others) is his unending search for what “the nation” wants to know.

The definition of his imagined community is important. Hitherto, the media was reasonably modest in its inquisitiveness. Its rationale for demanding answers was invariably couched in terms of either ‘viewer interest’ or, at best, ‘the public interest’. In projection the ‘nation’ as the inquisitor—and I notice that even in rival channels ‘nation’ is fast becoming a substitute to the more passive use of the ‘country’—Arnab has succeeded in doing something quite remarkable: he has successfully made ‘nationalism’ the core attribute for assessing public life.  

This is a remarkable feat. For long, the English language media was in real danger of being overwhelmed by a spurious liberalism, borrowed from the ethos of the New York Times, Guardian and BBC, and complemented by the insidious political correctness of the American campus. Those who subscribed to this ‘idea of India’ became members of a privileged club; those who persisted with alternative approaches were relegated to the fringes and barely tolerated. The defining feature of this ultra-liberalism was its profound intellectual arrogance and its characterisation of other perspectives as base ‘prejudice’.

In positing the ‘nation’ as the ultimate arbiter of the larger ‘national good’ and doing so with passion, verve and eloquence, Arnab managed to create a constituency of people who refused to be patronised by the superior assumptions of a handful of the ‘enlightened’. On issues relating to Pakistan, he refused to be cowed down by the mushy sentimentalism of the Aman ki asha pseuds and on China he ruthlessly questioned the ‘nuanced’ sophistry of the professional prevaricators in South Block. On corruption, he was single-minded in his determination to cut through the obfuscation and piffle. And on mundane political fights, he was both sceptical and irreverent.

It is not that on every issue he got the tone right. He didn’t. To me what was important was the yardstick of national interest he set for judging issues. In an environment where others were highlighting the values of cosmopolitanism, internationalism, liberalisation and oozing concern for the human rights of every extremist who sought the vivisection of India, Arnab re-popularised the validity of proud nationalism.

For helping India recover this eroding inheritance, ‘the nation’ must be thankful to him. He has been the best corrective to the babalog media.

There was an additional feature to Arnab’s discourses each week night that I find both amusing and encouraging: his polite insolence. India may well have a long tradition of being argumentative but in recent times this free spirit has suffered on account of an educational system that discouraged scepticism and promoted the inculcation of every form of received wisdom.

In the mid-1970s, just prior to the Emergency, there used to be huge hoarding on the inner circle of Connaught Place which proclaimed “The leader is right, the future is bright”. It had been put there by one of those disagreeable publications that existed on the patronage of the first families of India, Iran, Libya and, of course, the great ‘progressive’ bloc around the Soviet Union. The message was crass but it was an accurate description of what the rulers expected from the ruled: unquestioning docility.

That is the way Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, for example, sees the world. Why, he asked a TV channel, were the protesters still persisting with their gatherings on India Gate? After all, some of them had a midnight meeting with Sonia Gandhi.

Actually, he wasn’t being disingenuous. To a very large section of India’s establishment, politics is all about, first, bringing an issue or a grievance (preferably through an intermediary) to the proverbial attention of those entrusted with the responsibility of governance and plead for a solution. Then there is the process of waiting patiently and often indefinitely for the system to creak into action. The voting classes are not expected to be either insistent with their demands or insolent in their engagements with professional politicians. In particular, netas don’t believe in being buttonholed by a TV anchor and informed that the “nation demands to know”. 

At best, politicians don’t mind the occasional convivial chats with ‘reasonable’ people—just recall the you-gush-and-I-gush interviews that the Delhi Chief Minister gave to two channels last week after Sonia’s darshan left the nation underwhelmed. Arnab, unfortunately, is ‘reasonable’ only off camera. On air he becomes a voice of indignation, anger and even insolence. These are qualities which the little man doesn’t possess in abundance. He wants to kick the errant netas. Since he can’t, he is happy for Arnab do it for him.

Arnab didn’t create the hatred for the political order. He just helped the little man feel that a larger community of Indians shared his frustrations and his unwillingness to settle for the second-best. Full marks to him for helping India lower the bar of forbearance. 

Sunday Pioneer, December 30, 2012

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