Media Matters

Rajdeep Sardesai on his relationship with Arnab Goswami, and other anecdotes from his book

The TV journalist's book on the 2014 elections also has some revelations about the media.

Journalist Rajdeep Sardesai’s book, 2014: The Election That Changed India, is a gripping account of the general elections that made Narendra Modi India’s prime minister. Among other things, the book reflects on the role and the use of the media in the elections.

Here are a few anecdotes about the media from the book.

1. On Arnab Goswami: That the two star news anchors are not on good terms is well known. A profile of Goswami in The Caravan magazine two years ago had said, "Goswami had worked under Sardesai for almost a decade, and despised him so deeply that his son had made a charming drawing of Goswami triumphing over his former boss. Goswami is a dedicated father, and he proudly displayed it in his office.” The coldness between the two when they came together on stage in June this year was noticeable.

 

Sardesai gives his side of the story in his book. He writes, “Arnab and I go back a long way. I remember a slim, floppy-haired, bespectacled youngster visiting my house in the early 1990s to inquire about TV opportunities. I had then been a mentor of sorts to him. We worked together for almost a decade and even co-anchored a show. But television news can be maddeningly competitive, and a personal relationship based on mutual respect can easily descend into a slightly troubled professional equation revolving around constant one-upmanship.”

Having made it clear who the guru is, Sardesai goes on to give his verdict on Goswami’s style of news anchoring, which wins his channel, Times Now, the TRP game. Sardesai writes that he finds Goswami’s "the nation wants to know" rumbustious style “disturbingly chaotic and sensationalist".

Sardesai describes how Arnab Goswami snatched the first Rahul Gandhi interview from NDTV. Goswami wrote Gandhi's office an email explaining that his channel, Times Now, had the best television rating points, and thus more reach than other news channels including NDTV. In the United States, Goswami explained, it was the usual practice that the channel with the best TRPs got the first interview of the election candidates.

2. On Rajat Sharma: Narendra Modi addresses Rajat Sharma of India TV as "Panditji", which is what he’s called him since they knew each other in the 1970s. Back then, Modi was a young RSS pracharak, and Sharma was with the Akhil Bhartiya Vidyarthi Parishad, the youth wing of the Bharatiya Janata Party, When their mutual friend Arun Jaitley became president of the Delhi University Students Union, Sharma became the general secretary. Sharma sat on the stage with Modi during his swearing-in as Gujarat chief minister after the December 2002 elections.

Sardesai writes that Narendra Modi loves the camera, and was media savvy until the Gujarat 2002 violence. In fact, Sardesai used to often have him on his shows before Modi became Gujarat chief minister in 2001. Modi retreated into a shell, painting himself as a victim of the media, which blamed him for the 2002 violence.

During the election campaign, Modi gave his first TV interview to Sharma.  He was tired at the end of a long day and intended to spend only 15-20 minutes recording the Aap Ki Adalat show. However, the studio audience was so enthusiastic about Modi even after waiting for hours that the charged-up candidate answered questions for 90 minutes. The interview was such a smash hit that Modi embraced the media once again and gave several interviews after that.

3. Modi hates NDTV: While Narendra Modi did not give Sardesai an interview during the election campaign, he promised one to the journalist  over the phone. “Arre, tumse koi dustman nahi, Rajdeep,” Modi said to him. But Modi is open about his animosity towards NDTV. Sardesai recounts how during a Network 18 event, Modi had said about NDTV’s Save the Tiger campaign that it got sponsorship because "the tiger was secular and maybe the lion was communal". He did not give NDTV an interview.

4. Who leads Modi’s social media charge? When Modi attended a function for computer engineers in 2009, a computer glitch was instantly solved by a computer science lecturer from Rajasthan, called Hiren Joshi. Joshi was hired as an officer on special duty to the chief minister and led his social media charge. Joshi led a team of hired professionals, and also gave Modi an update every night on what was happening on Twitter. Modi was so clued in to what people were saying on Twitter that when Sardesai’s wife and colleague Sagarika Ghose tweeted about Modi’s wife, Modi said to Rajdeep over the phone, “Arre, tum aur tumhari biwi aaj kal bahut Twitter pe ho! (You and your wife are a lot on Twitter!)”

Those tweets by Sagarika Ghose, Scroll.in had reported at the time, had led to a rebuke from the channel’s management. She was asked not to be critical of Modi on Twitter.

5. Why Modi reached out to Rajesh Jain: The infotech entrepreneur started the pro-Modi website Niti Central and used the web in a variety of ways to campaign online for Modi. Jain caught Modi’s eye in 2011 when he wrote a prescient blog post arguing the BJP needed to give up its strategy of drumming up numbers with regional allies and needed to work hard to win the next election on its own. “The party must change its approach from winning 175 seats to winning 250 to 275 seats,” the post had said.

6. Did the media help Modi win the election? Sardesai admits the problems with showing Modi’s rallies live, four times a day, sometimes even dropping ads to broadcast Modi’s speeches. In contrast, journalists did not examine Modi’s claims about the Gujarat model. Part of the reason, he hints, was that Modi was good for television rating points. “There is no denying the massive viewer interest every time Modi was on air," Sardesai writes. "The TV camera, I have always believed, is an amoral technology - it covers both good and bad, and it simply goes where the action is… Modi was the man who created the action…”

7. On Raghav Bahl and Reliance: Sardesai writes that Network 18 founder Raghav Bahl had developed a liking for Narendra Modi, especially for Modi’s thoughts on the economy. When Bahl wanted to organise an event where Modi would be the lead speaker, the platform was called "Think Right." Sardesai persuaded Bahl to rename it "Think India" as "Think Right" would have sent out “a wrong message,” especially with Modi as the lead speaker.

Persuasion wasn’t as easy when it came to Reliance Industries, which had given Network 18 a loan. Sardesai writes that there was pressure to play down coverage of the Aam Aadmi Party after its government filed an FIR against Reliance on the issue of natural gas extraction. Reliance sent advance legal notices and warnings to media organisations not broadcast a Google Hangout with Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal. Without using the word boycott, that is what Bahl and Reliance, Sardesai suggested, wanted him to do to the Aam Aadmi Party.

Thereafter, “a well-networked banker friend” from Mumbai called up Sardesai and told him that he should now expect “a rough time” from Reliance. Sardesai writes that he did not know that after the elections would be over, Reliance would take over Network 18, “a move that would eventually spur my resignation from the channels I had helped create”.

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