There is a minor celebrityhood that comes with occasionally appearing on Arnab’s show. In the oddest of places, strangers will walk up to me and ask, ‘Don’t I know you from somewhere?’ There was a time when I would seriously consider the possibility, but I’ve come to realise that many people are really at home only in front of their TV watching Arnab, and in that sense I am an old acquaintance.
I had little inkling of this fate when I first started appearing on television to defend Open magazine’s decision to publish the Radia tapes. After that memorable television encounter where Barkha Dutt and Manu Joseph replayed the same conversation 20 times over, I was left to fend for the magazine on other channels. Initially, I agreed to continue appearing on Arnab’s channel because the magazine’s publisher insisted this was good publicity; it was only later that I saw some journalistic sense in doing so.
I say this despite harbouring no illusions about the nature of the show. It is a performance with Arnab as the director and the main character, and an audience swept along by the drama of what transpires. The form is defined by Arnab, the substance born out of the audience. This is an audience that comprises the section of the middle class which is comfortable watching news on television in English. It is socially liberal, hence the anger against ghar wapasi or those opposing Valentine’s Day, but it is xenophobic in its nationalism, hence the noise about Pakistan or Greenpeace. If NDTV was the product of the scions of a particular elite telling the rest of the English-speaking class what to think, Times Now gives voice to what this class actually thinks, which is why this Prime Time clash was never much of a contest.
In this theatre, journalists like me have a prescribed role: to endorse Arnab’s opinion. Journalists perceived to be affiliated with a political party can’t carry this off with any conviction. Those who remain are likely to endorse Arnab only when they genuinely agree with him, forcing the channel to cherry pick. I know I won’t be asked to appear on a show about offloading a Greenpeace activist, because I’d then be at odds with Arnab.
In Arnab’s theatre, journalists like me have a prescribed role. We are called upon to endorse Arnab’s opinion.
What does this role offer those who accept it? The increased visibility lends their work greater value at a time personal branding is increasingly defining value in journalism. But I also see it as an opportunity to point out to a largely apathetic country that in 1984, Kamal Nath was at the head of a mob that burned two Sikhs to death a few 100 metres from Parliament. Or voice my apprehensions about Narendra Modi to a mass audience at a time the country seemed besotted with him. This is possible because Arnab’s sole interest is his play, he is not a participant in the games most other anchors play out in Delhi. Interestingly, the roles come with no strings attached. No one’s ever asked me not to be critical of Arnab, as I have been, or Samir Jain, as I continue to be.
While this may explain why journalists appear on the show, it does not quite explain why others do so. The cast for a good Indian drama is never limited to a hero and a few others in supporting roles, it needs villains and court jesters. The roles are reserved for spokespersons of the various political parties, who have figured it is better to add to the uproar than be castigated in their absence. This leaves the villains. The show is never meant to arrive at a conclusion, it begins with one. The issue at stake and Arnab’s predetermined stance determine who they will be. Take the recent case where Vrinda Grover et al have taken strong objection to how they were treated on the show. I agree with their outrage but they were never participating in a debate, they were playing villains in a scripted drama.
Of course, the metaphor of the theatre, like all metaphors, is only partially true, because this audience is not passive. The show is also a trial with a predetermined verdict. Arnab is the judge, the audience the jury. Those viewers of the show who take me for an acquaintance often offer me this non sequitur, “I never watch Arnab, but you must really tell him to let others speak.” It is clear they do not mean this seriously. They are also posturing. Like any good jury, they have to pretend they were not in with the judge on the predetermined verdict. They have to pretend they do not enjoy the punishment that is meted out every night in keeping with this verdict.
(The writer is political editor, Caravan.)