Candidates 2014: Let The Gossip Stop

Why Modi cancelled on Candidates 2014 and other amazing facts.

WrittenBy:NL Team
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So here it is as promised, the piece that will transparently and clearly narrate what went wrong (or right, depending on your point of view) with Candidates 2014. We will also share what we did and what we learnt.

The biggest and most obvious talking point was Narendra Modi cancelling on us, leaving us heartbroken.

What did we learn?

Always have a Plan B. Advani-ji, when are you free?

Facebook approached us to do a series of townhall conversations in which we would speak with leaders of political parties, a format they have conducted in other countries too. In the United States of America, Facebook Talks Live conducted similar townhalls with Mitt Romney and Barack Obama. Since India does not have a Presidential system with candidates being announced in advance, here we couldn’t speak with only Prime Ministerial candidates. For one, other than Bharatiya Janata Party, no one has announced a PM nominee (besides who would have thought HD Deve Gowda or IK Gujral would ever be PM). Here it isn’t so simple. The show was positioned as a series with leaders who could potentially determine what kind of government is formed at the Centre, even if they are not in the running for the top job.

What did we learn?

Choose a more accurate title for a series. Candidates 2014 suggests everyone we interviewed is a PM candidate. Game Changers would have been good but that phrase is owned by Rahul Gandhi so there is the danger of being called a Congi. And Makers Of The Government would be too full of irony since so many we were speaking with have broken governments.

The format of the show was planned as a townhall meeting of a political leader with an audience which is curious, has questions and wants to engage with political leaders without throwing ink, shouting slogans, stripping off their clothes etc. This civil conversation would be webcast and telecast live. Madhu Trehan would conduct the interaction in an atmosphere of constructive dialogue which would make a leader feel comfortable enough to share his or her view on various policy issues which impact our life. There would be some standard questions to all the “Candidates” so viewers could compare each one’s answers to exactly the same questions. All leaders were told that they should come with their position on the Lokpal Bill (or any anti-corruption measure they suggest), Kashmir problem, Pakistan conflict, Article 370, Uniform Civil Code and how to resolve the conflict between policies to encourage growth figures and ensure social justice. In addition, different questions would be asked by the audience and Madhu Trehan to each guest. No grilling, shouting, fighting. Let’s just try and talk and understand each other. This sentiment was clearly communicated in Madhu’s opening piece in each show.

What did we learn?

It’s hard to convince a leader that a peaceful chat is possible. The bigger the leader, the less they understand the space of sitting together and talking as equals in peace. Also online audiences want fights and ladai jhagdaa and blood on the floor. They want the anchorperson to be aggressive and growling. Nothing less will do.

Since his first meeting with us regarding this show in October 2013, Narendra Modi had made it clear he wanted to be the first in the series. Thus, the speculation that he cancelled because he didn’t want to be clubbed with others doesn’t tally with facts. You can only be first in a line-up if there are others, no? We were okay with this. We are very accommodating like that.

Now to address another conspiracy theory. Why did we go with NDTV as channel partner? Was it a trap? Are we paid agents? We started conversations with three channels at the same time. It didn’t work out with the India Today Group. Others went into long bureaucratic loops. NDTV with the reputation of being slowest on stories was sabse tez! Who would have thought? We had very little time to put this together and no time to deal with red tape and angst. NDTV agreed. They were straightforward, simple and quick.

Once that was settled the dates were confirmed with all parties since banners and posters had to be made, venues booked, invitations printed and sent, promos cut, put on-air and online. We got a re-confirmation from Narendra Modi for March 3, 2014. Madhu Trehan first met him on October 28, 2013 – which seemed like a productive meeting. Madhu met his pointsman in Gandhinagar on November 30, 2013, for more detailed discussions. The last meeting was with Mr Modi on January 14, 2014, in Gandhinagar for an hour-and-a-half. It was at this meeting that we informed him that our channel partner was NDTV. Mr Modi wasn’t jumping with joy to hear that (his dislike was obvious and he did not hide it), but he did not say he would not do the show with NDTV on board.

What did we learn?

That most leaders do not state clearly if they want something done. They just clear their throat or smile or frown or bat their eyelids in a particular way and if you are smart and well-versed with power you will know what to do. And they are used to that kind of obedience.

What else did we learn?

That BJP supporters online hate NDTV as much as children hate kaddu ki sabzee. They will fight, cry, curse – but will not consume it.

Speaking of kaddus, Madhu Trehan had also met with and spoken to the Congress’s unwilling un-nominee, Rahul Gandhi. Madhu met with him in the last week of January and explained the format. After the meeting, Mr Gandhi’s office committed March 8, 2014 to us for the townhall. We were told Mr Gandhi wanted to be last in the series. We had no problem with this. We are accommodating like that.

Then in the third week of February, as the promos were about to go on-air, we were informed through emissaries that Mr Gandhi wanted to reschedule the interview for “sometime” after March 12, 2014. Interestingly, between his confirmation of the date to us and this “rescheduling” request, Arnab Goswami’s pre-recorded interview with Mr Gandhi played out on Times Now. Naively, taking the rescheduling at face value we asked for a later date and were told to wait until the matter was discussed once again by his team. We were informed that Rahul had agreed in principle and it was just a scheduling issue. All we were told was that the March 8, 2014 townhall interaction was off. The possibility of a future date was left open. So Rahul Gandhi’s withdrawal, true to form, was an unclear and vague process.

What did we learn?

Samajhdar ke liye ishara hi kaafi hai. Hum samajhdar nahin hain.

Since promos were ready with Rahul Gandhi’s face in them to go on-air, they were re-cut removing him from the series. It was these promos that started running on Facebook, NDTV and Newslaundry on February 19, 2014. Meanwhile, the banner for the series went up on our website and the Facebook India page with NDTV prominently displayed as channel partner.

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We received an e-mail on February 20, 2014, from Mr Modi’s office asking us to replace his image on the banner with the one they sent. On the top is the image we chose and on the bottom the one Mr Modi’s office asked us to insert.

[polldaddy poll=7868685]

We had no problem with this. We are accommodating that way. The banner was recreated with the new image. We had chosen images in which all the leaders were smiling.

What did we learn?

Real leaders don’t smile. It’s not leader-like. Just like real anchors always hold this pose.

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One more fallout of the promos going on-air was founder editor of Manushi and author of Modinama, Madhu Kishwar, texting Abhinandan Sekhri requesting him to call her back. This could be possibly because:

–  She was unable to get through since Abhinandan was on the phone pretty much continuously the week prior to the show promos going on-air.

– Madhu Kishwar does not make calls, she takes calls.

Surprisingly, Abhinandan did not text back with – “Kyun? Mera outgoing free hai kya?” but actually called back as Madhu Kishwar availed the benefit of free incoming. An indignant and outraged Madhu Kishwar told Abhinandan that she is aware that he is responsible for getting NDTV on board for this show, that he is an NDTV agent and if he goes through with this “hum tumhein kachcha chaba jayenge” (We will chew you up raw). Not just Abhinandan ko but also “Modi ko bhi kachcha chaba jayenge. NDTV pe jaane ki himmat karke toh dekho” (We will also chew up Modi raw. Just try and go on NDTV). That was the dare. After those Dawood-like threats, Madhu Kishwar then pleasantly asked, “So, when are we doing a show together? You had said we would do a show on Newslaundry”. Abhinandan cordially answered, while waiting to be chewed alive, “We are a bit busy now. Will get back to you”. Abhinandan was in a fix. Should he warn Mr Modi that the PM-hopeful was on Don Madhu’s menu?

What did we learn?

If you are expecting to be threatened and verbally assaulted, at least don’t pay for it. Use incoming free service and make the other person pay.

This was also just about the time there was an outpouring of grief and angst online, by those who claim to have Mr Modi’s best interests at heart, beseeching him not to appear on the show. Some believe this is the reason Mr Modi cancelled. But, ask yourself, what could have been better strategy than to go into your “enemy’s” lair with an outside anchor who is the sister of one of your “enemy’s” biggest competitors and have one hour to say whatever you please at the expense of your “enemy” who is picking up all the production costs? Duh!

Meanwhile the promos ran continuously online and on air from February 19. Just as we were settling into a smooth ride from here on, on Friday, February 28, we received a communication that Mr Modi has a problem. The problem was that Candidates 2014, his office felt, was being identified as an NDTV Exclusive show. They were uncomfortable with this. This did not come from Mr Modi directly but through his office. The fact is that Facebook Talks Live is an established Facebook format the world over and is not limited to one channel. In the US, their channel partner was MSNBC and CNN, here it was NDTV – but it has always been a Facebook event. This appeared unacceptable to Mr Modi’s office. We were told Mr Modi will come if the show was made available to all channels as an “open event” and was not exclusive to NDTV. We went to NDTV with this problem since we were keen this show goes ahead and begin a process of engaging with our leaders in a peaceful and pleasant atmosphere. We are accommodating and peaceful like that.

NDTV agreed to let the Facebook feed of the show be open to anyone who wanted it (which meant all their rivals), free of cost, while they picked up the production cost. Even they’re accommodating like that. An additional demand of allowing an ANI camera to be placed inside the auditorium to shoot what they wanted was also agreed upon. This was communicated to Mr Modi’s office by Friday (February 28) evening. Mr Modi, we were told, would take a final call that night. We were expecting a favourable response since from our point of view all his demands had been addressed. A rhetorical question was then communicated to us – “why was NDTV still part of this?”. It was suggested we’d have to do this show with everyone except NDTV.

What did we learn?

We aren’t all that accommodating like that. Zyada ho gaya.

It seemed clear to us by now that Mr Modi was cancelling. The confirmation of his attendance had come directly from Mr Modi, face-to-face. The cancellation happened through an official from his office. Mr Modi did not speak directly to us regarding the cancellation. We can only guess what the final reason was. The sequence of events has been made completely clear in the interest of transparency. From here on we can merely infer whether there was a particular reason to cancel or a variety of reasons or were we not accommodating enough, no matter how we perceive ourselves to be.

What did we learn?

That the Lord and leaders move in mysterious ways.

There were other eventful episodes from the Candidates 2014 experience.  Mamata Banerjee’s handlers were paranoid about what we could ask her and what we couldn’t. We got a list of questions, which we could (read, should) ask her, with the warning that if we asked any other questions there was a possibility of upsetting her – and then god knows what may happen. Yet, during the townhall, Madhu Trehan asked her everything that she had been warned against and Didi didn’t seem to mind – and she didn’t walk off.

What did we learn?

Often a political leader is way nicer than those around him/her make them out to be.

Another crisis was Lalu Prasad Yadav’s townhall. It was to happen in Delhi like Arvind Kejriwal and Akhilesh Yadav’s. A couple days before the scheduled interview, his party started to fall apart with leaders defecting or threatening to. He told us over the phone that there was no way he could come to Delhi for the interview in this time of crisis. So we had to pack and head to Patna, find a hall, invite an audience and do the show there – which we did, since we are accommodating like that.

Another learning from Candidates 2014 was seating arrangements have a hierarchy which is taken very seriously by “captains of industry” and corporate leaders. Our audience consisted of a cross-section of society that we thought represented India. There were daily wage earners, journalists, rickshaw drivers and pullers, lawyers, corporate executives, household help and maids, bankers, street hawkers, industrialists etc. They were evenly spread across the hall. But some demonstrated their egos are as needy, if not more, than politicians. As if the complications exploding in our face were not enough there was now the challenge of accommodating some who wanted to be either seated in the front row for the Modi and Rahul session or wanted to be part of the receiving line-up. Typically, these were not the brick-layers, labourers, rickshaw pullers, lawyers or even journalists (Surprise! Surprise!). The fact that journalistic events do not have “receiving line-ups” of people giving garlands or bouquets is not quite understood by many.

What did we learn?

Very often, the net worth of an individual is inversely proportional to his/her dignity and self-esteem.

Getting the series together was a huge logistical exercise. More importantly, an exercise in patience. There has been (the unlikely) suggestion that Mr Modi’s online support base flexed its muscle and delivered results by flooding him with requests to cancel his attendance since there is some deep-rooted hatred for the channel partner for this series – NDTV. There is online chatter of exultation as well as disappointment from his supporters.

We will say this: we at Newslaundry believe in free-flowing conversations with all. It is a platform where all voices will find space. We critique everyone and we do it with a spirit of engagement and fun. We welcome it upon ourselves. We like to involve all. It is only through a complete freedom of expression and a willingness to engage and exchange ideas that better and smarter solutions and ideas emerge. We strongly oppose untouchability in all its forms. It shrinks the mind, shrinks space for conversations and stunts growth. There must be criticism as well as engagement with politicians, media, you and us. It is healthy and desirable. Only hearing paeans and odes about how great you are is damaging to the mind. Where there is criticism, especially online, there will be hysteria and venom. It is a part of the space where those with no voice find one – and often, they go overboard. There will always be extreme reactions in the fringes. There is nothing unusual or surprising about that. It only becomes unusual and surprising and even slightly worrying if that fringe can set the tone of interactions for leaders.

Big question is: What effect does this have on Indian journalism? Do we have the freedom to ask questions, or is this subterranean control through giving or not giving access and laying down conditions going to manipulate news organisations and journalists?

At Newslaundry, we are disrupters. We are not here to ask “How high?” when told to jump, and we are not here to toe the line of a politician, corporate house, loony group or our own peer group. Newslaundry was not set up to maintain the status quo. We’re here to rock the boat. We are not in this for patronage or favour. We will grow as disruptors or perish.

What did we learn?

Narendra Modi’s official Twitter account is now following Newslaundry on Twitter. Hey Narendra bhai. Kemcho? Maja ma?


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