When does a joke stop being funny?
Arnab Goswami has always been something of a joke. For Anglophone India, its highest-rated newsman has always been entertainment – less a real person, more a parcel of self-righteous hot air trapped inside an awful suit. When he comes up in conversation, we roll our eyes. “Too much shouting,” we say smugly, or “too many guests”. We speculate on whether he gets tired of playing the part of a sanctimonious scold, and make jokes about the “voice of the Nation”. Sure, he’s powerful – but he’s also a joke.
At some point in the recent past, the joke stopped being amusing.
This week, Goswami set the Internet and the airwaves afire with a four-minute rant about Pakistani agents in the Indian media. “Pseudo-liberals”, he declared, “should ask themselves whether they have a right to comment, to speak or to write one word on the Kargil bravehearts…” This is a typical Goswami question: it has only one answer. Also typically, the correct answer isn’t the one that Goswami wants us to imagine it is. (The correct answer is: Yes, anyone has the right to speak or write any number of words about anything. Goswami’s answer appears to be: No, my fellow journalists have no right to speak or write one word on Kargil, unless they first pay obeisance at this little shrine to bottomless hate I’ve set up, and to which I sell tickets every evening at 9 o’clock.)
“Vested interests”, continued Goswami, “in some parts of the media have been openly and shockingly trying to echo the Pakistani line. In the guise of backing Kashmiris, these sections – including sections of the media – are doing everything possible to support Pakistan, sitting here in India… Directly or indirectly, they are supporting the ISI, supporting Rawalpindi, they are supporting Hafiz Saeed.” Helpfully, Times Now at this point flashed a video of Hafiz Saeed looking villainous, and even more helpfully circled the terrorist mastermind – I’m not sure why Saeed is on the Newshour so much he practically co-stars with Goswami, as if it’s some sort of dystopian odd-couple sitcom.
The problems with Goswami’s logical inference in the previous paragraph are many. The first, and perhaps most important, is that it makes so little sense that it would actively make his listeners stupider if they tried to follow it. Fortunately, comprehension is not the point of the Newshour. The point is this: to hear Goswami shout impressively, and to hear him try to get “liberals”, “support” and “Hafiz Saeed” into the same sentence. There is, after all, no reason whatsoever to suppose that “supporting the Kashmiris”, by for example “asking whether Kashmir police needs to use crippling pellet guns on protestors armed with stones”, is “directly or indirectly supporting Hafiz Saeed”.
Were one in possession of a brain cell or two, one could easily note that supporting Hafiz Saeed involves signing up to Sharia law, global jihad, the destruction of India, the murder of innocents, and untrimmed beards; and that these issues are of a slightly different nature from discussions about crowd control methods.
After all, if we were to take Goswami and his argument seriously for even a second, we would be forced to conclude that he is even worse than the “pseudo-liberals”: he would be a supporter of ISIS, doing the bidding of al-Baghdadi. The reasoning is, as Goswami would no doubt shout at you, simple. A few days earlier, Newshour had done a story about beef violence; Goswami disapproved of it. But demonstrations have been held in Kashmir about beef bans. Clearly, therefore Goswami is, in the guise of discussing beef, backing Kashmiris. Further, the participants in one such demonstration reportedly waved ISIS flags. Thus, directly or indirectly, Goswami is implementing ISIS’ agenda in India, and supporting Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (insert video of crazy Iraqi jihadist here).
Frankly, the only fix for this conundrum would be for Arnab Goswami to viciously and volubly attack Arnab Goswami for being a traitor, and to declare that Arnab Goswami had no right to comment on patriots like Arnab Goswami since Arnab Goswami continued to do ISIS’ bidding. Now that is an episode of the Newshour I would watch with considerable enjoyment, and it would be only marginally less confusing than most other episodes.
In his glorious little rant, Goswami went on to say: “You have heard this group, pro-Pakistan activists operating out of India carrying an Indian passport, some of them posing as some kind of journalist, starting to drum up a campaign orchestrated and planned across the border for azadi in Kashmir. They are writing articles, they’re giving interviews, unstopped.”
Now, this is brilliantly argued. You see, Goswami first tells you: “You have heard this group, pro-Pakistan activists…” What he does here is turn the act of hearing some set of people express their opinions into proof that those opinions are “orchestrated and planned across the border”. It is a rhetorical device of considerable ingenuity, made only somewhat less impressive by the fact that Goswami employs it almost nightly.
Note also that word “unstopped”. In the video, Goswami endows it with awesome weight. “Unstopped” is a call to arms for all patriotic beard-hating Indians. In effect, it asks of these fine men – they are men, trust me, regardless of the photos they use on their Twitter accounts – Why are Pakistani agents still speaking in our country? Are you not a man? Why have you done nothing to stop them?
Goswami’s defenders claim that he has not called for anyone to be silenced; these people clearly do not understand the meaning of the word “stop”.
Goswami went on to urge his viewers to not let this pro-Pakistan lobby “get away” because they “compromise our national security”. Again, I’m not sure what he means by “get away”. Get away un-sued? Un-imprisoned? Un-trolled on Twitter? Or unharmed? Like all demagogues from Caesar to Trump, Goswami likes to allow his mob to decide on its preferred form of “direct action” on its own. It is only fair; this is after all a free country.
I was struck, watching this video, by how far Goswami has come. When I used to watch his show regularly, as a television critic back when Anna Hazare was a thing, he was not quite as puffed up in self-consequence as he was in this video. He did not stray quite so far from logic and common-sense; he did not shout with so much confidence – or with such sudden stridence, in his very first question. Indeed, I do not remember this speaking-to-camera editorial style at all.
In the years since that heady summer of fasts, Goswami has gained immensely in power, and knows it.
That power, however, has come at a price. During the hapless UPA’s frustrating last years, Goswami’s tirades of righteous indignation against government policy were at least entertaining to watch. They consisted of more than the two-minute hate repeated 60 times that they have now become. The targets were many and various.
The Newshour today is a different beast altogether. Just looking at the programmes scheduled since Goswami’s obsequious recent interview of the prime minister tells the story; critical appraisal of government policy or personnel is now absent. In barely a couple does the ruling party come in for a bit of stick; usually because it is not being aggressive enough, for example, on Robert Vadra. Most of the time, the villain is Pakistan. Having become an institution, Goswami has to protect his turf – and he does so by playing it safe. He has become the pet bully of the establishment.
When responding to criticism of his laughably soft-focus interview of the prime minister, Goswami pointed out that he had been similarly soft on Rahul Gandhi. This is perhaps true. Certainly, it was true of his famous interview of Raj Thackeray. True or not, it is certainly revealing: in the presence of real power, the thundering lion of the Newshour is a polite little kitten. Let us not judge this choice. Nobody knows the constraints he labours under; perhaps he does not want to risk his channel and his position by keeping up the tough-guy act in front of people who might actually be able to do something to push back.
Last December, the journalist-turned-politician Ashish Khetan told Goswami that “with a 5-crore salary, you can’t debate about Arun Jaitley”. Khetan needn’t worry; if his crazy bunch of populist amateurs ever get anywhere near real power, Goswami might well be as friendly with him as he is accused of being with Jaitley.
All I ask is that he stop pretending to be an intrepid, independent journalist. There is space in today’s India for a master of hate, for an establishment Rottweiler, and Goswami fills that space admirably. He should be proud how competently he carries out his real role. A role that involves being supine in front of people more powerful than he is, and a vicious bully to those lower down on the ladder.
Yet, sometime in the past year or so, Goswami’s bully act has turned into something even darker. I think I know when: the moment he cut off a JNU student’s volume the better to hector and threaten him, turning a rebellious kid into the object of nationwide hate. He put the boy in real danger, from state and non-state violence. Journalists are supposed to hold power to account, not take advantage of powerlessness.
Worse, perhaps, he betrayed a complete lack of empathy; and a journalist without empathy is nothing, an empty suit, no matter how loud he may be.
Goswami’s accusation that his fellow-journalists are agents of the Enemy is simply a marker of this transition. He was dangerous earlier only because he introduced a corrosive stupidity and divisiveness into the national discourse. He is infinitely more dangerous today, when he openly calls for silencing other voices, cutting off their metaphorical mics, leaving his voice alone and uncontested as the representative of the national interest.