There is a reason why Narendra Modi does no television interviews, except a few “fixed” ones. Unlike high-rise podiums during election campaigns, party forums and election rallies, where politicians can do and say as they wish, including reading from a prepared text or even regurgitating a mugged speech – or using a teleprompter, as Modi often does – television interviews demand instinctive and quick responses.

TV hates pauses or pregnant silences. And even the best-prepared interviewee can be caught off guard by a tricky inquiry. Cameras are focused firmly on the face, and minute expressions can convey more than words might. It is not for everyone.

Rahul [Gandhi] had not given a formal interview to any television channel thus far. He had given short sound bites infrequently, of course, but this was an entirely different proposition. I had been at the Talkatora stadium in Delhi when he delivered a superlative speech, bursting with unbridled aggression, with cool aplomb. He looked in command as the Congress bugled its war cry for the 2014 general elections at the well-attended and boisterous AICC general session.

Expectations were running high, and the Congress needed a monumental perception shift to catch up with the BJP, which was galloping ahead, with Modi looking triumphant in the saddle. Times Now began to advertise Rahul’s interview with Goswami a day in advance. A reticent, reluctant Rahul Gandhi, seen as a future prime minister of India, was to be in conversation with India’s celebrity TV anchor, known to spare no one.

It promised to be great television. Gandhi was biting the bullet. Would he suddenly seize the political story away from Modi and the BJP? The snippets promoting the programme made Rahul look thoughtful, cerebral and leader-like. But the film itself was nothing like the trailer.

‘Important to prepare’

The thumb rule for doing an interview well is to get your key messages out. It is important to prepare an FAQ list that assumes the most difficult, personal or unexpected questions possible, and be prepared with short, crisp answers to them. A lot of people asked me why the Congress or Rahul chose Goswami, and I had no answer to that.

Goswami’s show was easily the most popular at the time, even if it was insufferably noisy and intentionally cacophonic. But then again, Goswami was a maverick and not to be trusted, and besides, he was not an admirer of the Gandhi family. The decision to go with him for Rahul’s interview debut left me nonplussed.

There were better editors who conducted tough interviews with great élan, and would have been by far better options: Karan Thapar, Rajdeep Sardesai, Barkha Dutt, Dr Prannoy Roy, among them. I feverishly hoped that Rahul was sure about his ability to steer the interview. India would be watching with bated breath to hear Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s great grandson articulate his vision for leading 16 per cent of the world’s population to a better future.

But by the time the interview reached the halfway stage, two things were clear – Rahul was unprepared on his biggest night out, and Goswami was directing the interview towards his predefined destination: Rahul’s annihilation.

When I saw Goswami being uncharacteristically polite, I was immediately on alert; Rahul was in trouble. His advisers had utterly failed him. Did they not know that if things went badly – and they did, horribly – it could seriously impact the public perception of both an untested leader as well as a party fighting on the backfoot? The first factor that established Congress’s unpreparedness was the length of the interview.

Any TV editor would have happily agreed to reasonable preconditions for an interview with an elusive high-profile interviewee in the midst of an intensely fought election. The interview should have been at most thirty minutes long, which would have given Times Now the flexibility to make a one-hour capsule using promotions and fillers.

In the interview post-mortems that followed, Rahul was accused of repeating himself ad nauseam, looking distracted, not making enough eye contact and appearing generally unprepared; in a briefer interview, that would not have happened. Rahul would have looked good, sensitive, willing to take questions, giving priority to the issues that he felt India needed to grapple with, and biting the bullet on the dynasty and the 1984 riots. Instead, as the interview dragged on, exactly the opposite happened.

A well-meaning, sincere Rahul got ridiculed for sounding repetitive (RTI, women’s empowerment, MNREGA, systemic failures, etc.) and appearing dodgy. Goswami showed characteristic gracelessness, of course. Soon after the interview, he invited guest speakers to mock the man who had given him, in good faith, a breakthrough interview. It was journalistic immorality, but only expected, and it begged a serious question: why did the think tank closest to the topmost leader of the Congress party take such a vacuous decision, imperilling his political stature?

‘Its own worst enemy’

The BJP went to town calling Rahul ‘Pappu’ – a tag that suddenly caught on and would end up destroying Rahul’s personal brand, with a cataclysmic effect on the Congress. Even as I messaged Rahul, telling him that he had done okay, I knew that would not be the overwhelming public verdict.

Overnight, Modi had leapt a thousand miles closer to 7, Race Course Road.

The Congress is its own worst enemy, the saying goes. Infighting is in the party’s DNA, and internecine feuds are exhausting. Scurvy wheeler-dealers forget that the real adversary is the BJP, the default beneficiary of the Congress’s self-destruction.

The party has been in power in a sustained fashion over decades, both at the Centre and in various states, and this has fashioned it into a gargantuan entity infected with lassitude and sloth. It also gave members a sense of invulnerability as they waited and watched for the BJP to fold in on itself – an attitude that betrayed not only colossal arrogance but also political myopia.

The magical Gandhi family charisma had made a national hero of many a substandard politician in the Congress. Many did not even have to campaign hard to triumph in the elections. And so they swore allegiance to India’s unofficial first family in a show of cringe-worthy genuflection. Dynasty politics thus became integral political strategy, seen as divine compensation for the brutal tragedies that the Gandhis had encountered and, with prodigious strength, endured.

This faith is also what blinded Congress members to a harsh reality: the party had begun to wither away, its organisational muscle atrophying. A toxic combination of indolence and hubris during the UPA years had caused the rot to spread more rapidly.

Poor internal communications, large and unwieldy committees that existed only to massage the egos of senior leaders, the absence of a clear direction for the future, opaque appointments and personal aggrandisement had become the party’s core culture.

The Congress was once a well-oiled machine that ran on daily contact with grassroots workers, took public feedback, delegated powers right up to the district level and fought for social justice. But it had now morphed into a giant bubble, divorced from its social environment and changing times.

The top leadership of the party was being told that all was hunky-dory. It was not. All of this is also evidence of the truth that the party had indeed become hostage to the “Delhi darbar politics” it was accused of, puffed with palace intrigues and shady conspirators.

The Great Unravelling: India After 2014

Excerpted with permission from The Great Unravelling: India After 2014, Sanjay Jha, Context/Westland.