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Media as judge and jury.

Aijaz Zaka SyedTHE feeding frenzy over Rahul Gandhi's first ever television interview is yet to end. Every single sound bite and every imaginable angle and contour of the media outing of the Gandhi scion has been examined and analyzed to pieces.

And pundits have been unanimous in their verdict -- that he flunked a great opportunity to present his case effectively before the electorate ahead of a do-or-die election.

While just about everyone has minutely analyzed the responses and body language of the interviewee, the real story was indeed the interviewer and his overwhelming missionary zeal and incredible hostility.

It was not an interview but an inquisition. The judge, in this case Arnab Goswami, having already established the guilt, was determined to burn the accused at the stake whatever the defense.

As Saeed Naqvi points, in the more than 12,000-word interview, Arnab's questions took up more than 5,000 words. And he came across, in Naqvi's words, as a "cross between a circus ringmaster and a cockfight pit owner in Lucknow's Nakkhas." He was there to fight someone else's battles and fight them dirty.

As for Rahul's performance, I do not think it was so bad considering this was his first ever media encounter. With his contemplative answers and a combination of Hamletian self-doubt and sincerity, he appeared more human than the monster that he is pitted against.

He reiterated again and again what he has been saying for some time. That Indian politics needs change and a fresh approach, a paradigm shift if you will: "I do not like what I see in Indian politics, it is something that is inside my heart. Like Arjun, he only sees one thing; he does not see anything else. You ask me about Modi, you ask me about anything in the system and the only thing I see is that the system in this country needs to change." Coming from the scion of a family that has ruled India for the better part of post-Independence decades, this 'need-to-fix-the-system' talk is rich. Nonetheless, it was hard not to catch some of his infectious, if rather naive, idealism.

But like I said, it was not about Rahul Gandhi. This was all about Arnab Goswami and his hero Narendra Modi. It may have been an interview with Rahul Gandhi but it was as if Narendra Modi conducted it.

"What is your view of Narendra Modi? Are you afraid of losing to Modi? Are you afraid of being compared to Modi? Are you avoiding a direct face-off with Modi? Is there a fear of loss because this election is not looking good for the Congress? If Rahul Gandhi has not picked up the challenge officially that means there is a fear of loss, he is avoiding a direct one on one battle with Modi?" Modi, Modi, Modi! And all hell broke loose when the question of the 2002 pogrom was brought up -- by Arnab himself asking if Rahul agreed with Manmohan Singh's description of Gujarat chief minister as someone who presided over "the mass massacre of innocent citizens on the streets of Ahmedabad." And when the Congress vice-president said what the prime minister said was a fact -- "Gujarat happened, people died"--the mauling got even fierce with Arnab tearing into his quarry again and again, like a crazed bull.

"How can you say that? How do you accuse Mr. Narendra Modi of it? How is Mr. Modi responsible? Modi has been given a clean chit, in the Gulbarg massacre case by the SIT and the court. Can the Congress sustain its attack on Modi on this issue when he has been given the clean chit by the courts in the Gujarat riots?" "How is Modi responsible for the riots when the courts have given him a clean chit, politically your party's tact is to criticize Modi and draw him into the Gujarat riots?" "Your party criticized him for the 2002 Gujarat riots, and how can you do that when he has been given a clean chit by the SIT of the court?" "You say that Modi was CM during the Gujarat riots and the BJP was in power. The BJP was as much in power in Gujarat during the riots as much as Akhilesh is in power in UP or for that matter the Congress party was in power when the 1984 Anti-Sikh riots happened." What is this? Is this really journalism? It turns all that we learnt years ago as the basics of journalistic ethics on their head. And this is the network that claims to be 'No. 1 By Far' and "fair and balanced"--like Fox News! Yes, fair and balanced to the powerful and corrupt and their powerful friends in high places.

And you thought media's job was to report the truth, check the abuse of power and confront injustice and falsehood! Above all, stand up for the voiceless and vulnerable sections of society -- not join forces with their tormentors.

Indeed, a collaborative media, most of it today owned by the big money and corporates, has played a decisive role in building the lore of Narendra Modi, the Development Man and the architect of Hindutva glory.

As for the much hyped "clean chit" that Modi is supposed to have received from the Supreme Court appointed SIT, the SIT did no such thing. Although it claimed it did not have "enough evidence" to prosecute the chief minister, here is what the SIT led by former CBI chief Raghavan actually said: "In spite of the fact that ghastly and violent attacks had taken place on Muslims at Gulbarg Society and elsewhere, the reaction of the government was not the type that would have been expected by anyone. The chief minister had tried to water down the seriousness of the situation at Gulbarg Society, Naroda Patiya and other places by saying that every action has an equal and opposite reaction." And Raju Ramachandran, the Amicus Curiae appointed by the top court around the same time, clearly stated in his report that enough grounds existed for "the offences which can be made out against Shri Modi, at this prima facie stage" and they include "promoting enmity between different groups on grounds of religion and acts prejudicial to (the) maintenance of harmony." But we have been here before, ad nauseam, haven't we? Yet some go on defending the indefensible. What is more disturbing is that such elements, although our friend is an extreme case, are now not far and few in between and certainly not exception to the norm.

Sitting in powerful positions in a burgeoning media empire, they virtually set the national discourse and agenda. And it's not just traditional media that has become a captive of a single, all-consuming ideology. Color saffron pervades cyberspace, including social media, too.

All voices of dissent are stifled and smothered as soon as they are raised. Look at the case of Hasiba Amin, a young Congress activist from Goa, who featured in a slick television campaign advert making a pitch for Rahul Gandhi.

Soon a storm of abuse and vitriol broke out in cyberspace, accusing the Goa NSUI president, of all sorts of things, from felony to scams to drug trafficking. Her crime was not so much as her audacity to pitch for Rahul against their hero but her identity that she flaunted. How dare she stand up and speak when she, as a Muslim and a woman at that, is supposed to remain in the shadows and on margins of the mainstream? Is this what the future has in store for us? This is a question that all Indians need to ask themselves.

n Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asian affairs and Editor of 'Caravan' online newspaper.

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Publication:Arab News (Jeddah, Saudi Arabia)
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:Feb 7, 2014
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