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Prostrate before the Arnab experience

By Sreehari Nair
Last updated on: August 31, 2015 11:58 IST
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'While Television generally tends to Clarity,' says Sreehari Nair, 'Arnab Goswami's The Newshour Debate portrays our confusions. Each episode offers both the potency of an intensely-fought boxing match and the giddy pleasures of an orgy.'

The August 10, 2015 episode of Arnab Goswami's The Newshour Debate focused on the Radhe Maa Controversy. If you've been tuning in to the show regularly, you'd know it's the kind of subject that Arnab dines out on. However, on that particular day, a certain guest was giving Arnab problems -- problems that forked him, but didn't exactly pierce.

Prahlad Kakkar, by virtue of his appellation as a 'Radhe Maa Bhakth,' gently explained to Arnab -- with occasional glances exchanged with the other guests -- how Radhe Maa was essentially a simple lady; a spiritual leader and not a God-Woman.

At one point, Arnab asked Mr Kakkar what if he proved him wrong and Kakkar let out his now-famous Drum Roll-like laugh -- that seems to every time filter through his beard -- and said, 'I won't believe you!'

Kakkar had humoured Arnab at a very crucial juncture in the debate, but what irked Arnab, had deeper roots. The conundrum also partly relates to us, the viewer. For every time a set of guests appear on the Newshour, we develop the jones to second-guess their positions. And by that mental jones, Prahlad Kakkar would have to fit the type of the liberal, secular man with a rational bent of mind. But on the show that day, Kakkar wasn't acting his type.

Arnab Goswami on the NewsHour episode when Dr Subramanian Swamy called him a liar.

A SCENE FROM THE NEWSHOUR: Arnab Goswami apparently amused as Dr Subramanian Swamy calls him a liar.



The writer as a poet laureate of the obvious. On a pure editorial level, there's no sensational byte to offer about Arnab's Newshour than what a standard viewing of the episodes, would.

Some of the most heated moments on the show -- Arnab whaling on Meenakshi Lekhi, then a national-level spokesperson of the BJP, for calling him a Congress lobbyist (the interesting thing here was that Lekhi's comment got relayed to Arnab after a time-lag; a few seconds after the Nation first heard it being uttered. Post this, Arnab requested the studio to put him one-on-one with Ms Lekhi so that he could present to her, a discourse on his brand of journalism);
Arnab railing on Trinamool Congress spokesperson Mahua Moitra, and Moitra giving him the finger (the finger-giving moment is almost ultra-fine. You'd need a video-editor's eye to pause at the precise moment that Moitra made the gesture);
Arnab's relatively minor scuffle with Subramanian Swamy, over some 'letter' he claimed that Swamy had written (Swamy's response was a Bahamian folk-song-like chant: Liar, show me the Letter, Liar. As I've mentioned already, this was a relatively minor run-in; Arnab was laughing through most of Swamy's chants);
Arnab setting the record straight with some Pakistani generals who were supposedly 'invited' to be guests on the show -- they're all available, just a YouTube click away. Prostrate yourself before the experience.

Arnab Goswami on the NewsHour episode with the BJP's Meenakshi Lekhi.

A SCENE FROM THE NEWSHOUR: Arnab with the BJP's Meenakshi Lekhi who once called him a Congress lobbyist!



This present article has more to do with a viewer's experience of the The Newshour Debate. In addition to observing its many peculiarities, the specific notion the article tries to put forth is that the Newshour works as a potent looking-glass into the ideological confusions existing in the India of today, and by that argument, is one of the most important shows on Indian television right now.

Doston ka Shivaji. Dushmanon ka Afzal Khan. One thing that clearly sets Arnab Goswami's The Newshour Debate apart, is the way it quashes the position of the 'Moderator' as a neutral entity in the proceedings of the Debate.

Traditionally, a debate moderator is supposed to open the debate, transmit the volleys in the debate across the two participating factions, resist the temptation to colour the debate by his/her personal opinion and attend to the immediate requirements of the debaters -- mostly logistical ones like offering a glass of water or a hair-pin.

In the case of the Newshour however, it is suggested by Arnab right at the start, that he is an 'active participant in' and not just 'a moderator of' the debate. The two factions in the debate may thus be equal in strength, by virtue of pure numbers, but with Arnab donning the adjudicator suit, the balance shifts.

It's hard to tell if this experience is, for a viewer, invigorating or exasperating. There was a YouTube video floating on social media sites a few months back, titled 'Have you seen Arnab this calm?' The video dates back to 2001 and it shows Arnab on a Star News Show playing host to a debate -- the kind of traditional debate host I was talking about, with none of the current whoop-de-doos evident.

What I found interesting, however, is that despite his somber tone, Arnab even back then would respond with sharp stares to statements, he seemed to disagree with.

It's those souvenir-shop stares that I suppose, our man has fashioned into something more dramaturgical today.

People who we routinely classify as charismatic are often bound by this attribute: Of taking that thing about them, that is distinctive and maybe even 'slightly odd', and turning it into a style.

Think of what Brando did with his mumbling, Hitler with his seizure-like shoves between sentences or Muhammad Ali with his almost balletic way of fighting -- which I am sure some people read as pansy-ness at some point.

Arnab Goswami and Prahlad Kakkar joust over Radhe Maa's spiritual credentials.

A SCENE FROM THE NEWSHOUR: Arnab and Prahlad Kakkar joust over Radhe Maa's spiritual credentials.



'Arnab’s stare' has today morphed into 'Arnab's talk' -- what seemed unusual once, now stops people from doing their dishes.

The truth about liberals in India. The thing that's most perplexing about the brand of Liberalism preached in India is that while it's marked out as a campaign for 'absolute freedom' (which is what's most important), the movement -- in debating terms at least -- is opposed to granting the same 'absolute freedom' to those who may hold a point-of-view that's verily backward and evidently unglamorous.

And by picking on a class of people who spout deliriums repeatedly, Indian Liberals reel them back into relevance (which by the way is the mikvah they desire).

On the other hand, a regular, hard-working Indian destabilizes most antiquated theories and declarations, by following a simple recipe: He answers his alarm-clock, swipes his office-card, pays his bills on time, waters his plants and switches on National Geographic to watch a buffalo being seized by an oversized crocodile.

The author digresses: In my Father's native town, there once lived a Barber, now a popular folklore legend. His story goes that he'd return home heavily-drunk every night and beat up his wife, only to fall asleep whilst beating her. Often, he'd wake up the next day and plead with his wife for some money (she was in complete possession of the finances). The wife would retaliate by beating him up for the night before, a punishment that he readily accepted, before she counted a few currencies and handed them over to him.

The above story doesn't have a moral centre but it has the sort of pull that can charm crowds at both toddy shops and literary conventions. I doubt if our Liberals -- with their predisposition for drawing facile conclusions -- are capable of understanding this kind of poetry that resides in many Indian households; it's beyond what a simplistic revolution can grasp.

As I see it thus, Indian Liberals are not Liberals in true sense of the term but a set of 'Anti-Conservative Conservatives,' a set that attends debates to teach a bunch of nincompoops what rings as 'obviously correct' to most Indians, a set that works wonderfully in the context of 'Brand Marketing' (they possess all the qualities that a cool, upright, well-meaning Brand in today's time would love to embody), and a set that's usually represented on Arnab's show by Aarti Jerath, Sanjay Hegde, Abha Singh, Aditi Mittal and the likes.

Arnab Goswami drives his Pakistani guests to apoplexy.

A SCENE FROM THE NEWSHOUR: Has Arnab driven his Pakistani guests to apoplexy?



The fastest rat in the race. Arnab Goswami is a gallant journalist/newscaster; so gallant you might suspect at times, he is play-acting gallantness. As fearless as he is about the repercussions that his numerous stands may bring about, he is equally fearless about being wrong in his judgment.

Also when we get caught in his Debates, what escapes our attention is the man’s craft. If you notice carefully, some of the winners he pulls off on the show (not his spontaneous outbursts), are often set up by Arnab himself.

These winners depend as much on his general and moment-to-moment understanding of his guests' history, speech-pattern, complexes and strong-points as on the precise composition and placement of his coup de grace.

There also comes a moment -- this usually happens in the first-half of the debate -- when Arnab catches one of his adversaries out, with an instant reverse thrust. Such instances usually begin with a catchphrase of the order of: "Mr A____, now let me tell you how wrong you are," or "Ms S_____, I will only say this."

In one of the debates I was watching, Arnab demanded the attention of the entire panel and spoke to just one guest, "Sir, I have breaking news for you."

Catchphrases such as these are usually followed by a fact, a statement or a court decree, that's terse and to-the-point. But that part, Arnab conveys with such thorough velocity and deep timbre of his voice that, it feels like an Express Train just passed by you, shutting you down in the middle of whatever you're in. A four-year-old Alsatian, if anywhere in the vicinity, would have his ears perked-up.

Other minor tics that can be observed as a fringe benefit of fine-viewing include Arnab's slight adjusting of the hair falling on his brow, the tapping of the paper on his table when he raises the specifics of the debates (this can be felt, even when not seen), the elaborate hand-motions that substitute for exclamation points, the almost vigorous adjusting of his coat after he has delivered his winners, and his usage of the word 'Arey every time he feels an argument is going off-track.

On the Radhe Maa show, for instance, Kakkar in reply to a question about Radhe Maa's credibility came up with the standard Indian answer, "She has a massive following" and Arnab said, "Arey, who cares?"

Arnab Goswami appears to have Lalit Modi all worked up.

A SCENE FROM THE NEWSHOUR: Arnab appears to have Lalit Modi all worked up.



The Newshour Situation. Any voracious consumer of Indian Television or Television in general will tell you that the medium, with its preset time-slots and an approach partly derived from theatre (ACT 1. ACT2. ACT 3), is geared towards Clarity.

We religiously watch Television, to find solutions to parts of the michegas that’s churning up inside us all the time. We want to feel less annoyed, more determined, less crazy, more aware and tenderer.

We dig Television Shows (this is true of Debate Shows, Sitcoms, Dramas, Late-night Talk Shows, Infomercials, Religion-based Shows, Reality Shows, News Snippets et al) that take our shared anger or shared yearning as the base for their broadcast and give us immediate release or fills us up in return; a sense of calm comes upon us, then.

Arnab's Newshour doesn't offer you any of the above safety-nets.

It is a show that proves that as Indians we -- because we are the first to cite the 'Law' when something unlawful happens but want to change the Laws when something in the book doesn't fit our comfort -- are almost unconsciously bewildered about the weight of the Legal System in a Democratic society.

Also, while it is easy to classify the whole thing as a 'Shouting Match' or a 'Pissing Contest,' the show indisputably holds a shiny mirror to the dichotomy of the Indian thought-process that deems most pressing issues as at once worthy of a Debate and also too straight-up to warrant a Debate.

One of the drollest bits on the Newshour happened when Rahul Easwaran (a soft-boiled radical) said with regards to a topic: We need to debate the issue. And some guest, pepped on by Arnab's support said, "No, we don't need a debate."

Considering the show is titled The Newshour Debate, this particular moment was one of great epiphany.

What the Newshour also exposes is the lack of Intellectuals in our Conservative clan. In the West, what saved the process of Debates or Discussions from becoming too burlesque is the presence of Intellectual Conservatives like William Buckley, Irving Babbitt, Russell Kirk, Whittaker Chambers, and Will Herberg etc. And the reason that this tradition hasn't found a footing in India is because everyone that's a Conservative here, consciously or unconsciously, is coloured by religion.

On the Newshour, every time a Conservative makes State-specific points or issue-specific points, you can put the clock to when he will veer towards the concept of 'The Holy Motherland', 'The Holy Faith' or the 'The Holy Culture.'

In fact, the concept of Oatmeal Liberalism that I've mentioned above is moulded in this very crucible of Religious Conservatism. The existence of Liberals in India isn't the real problem as much as -- like the Newshour illustrates -- how easy it is to be a Liberal here. It's like the Religious Conservatives themselves distribute pin-up tags for the Liberals to wear at their caucuses.

As much as every single person on the show demands total freedom, it's the curbing of freedom that every Debate aspires to achieve. So, a statement about Indians becomes a statement against India; a fight in Parliament being likened to a 'Saas Bahu Saga' is hauled up for being anti-women; when a political party is slapped around, the resulting counterstroke about the slapper's own corruption history is simmered down for lack of proper context.

These may all be journalistic observations, but certain annotations are more subcutaneous. Like, have you ever downed a glass of hooch and had a friend tell you how the government supposedly mixes medicines with spermicidal qualities to hooch with the dual intention of punishing people who drink them and also controlling the population? It's the kind of conspiracy theories that we hear people conjuring up -- about the Government, the Administration, and the Judiciary etc.

On the Newshour too, no Social or Political Debate that I've witnessed, has occurred without protests that hint at there being a larger conspiracy at work. The protestors only hint at the existence of this conspiracy, but never mention it explicitly to those being bludgeoned. It's like those 'silent winks' that lovers share in chemistry labs, between Bunsen burner flames.

Before you dismiss this tendency as cute, let me tell you it's a serious part of our lives. Not just our politics -- our corporations, interpersonal relationships, marketing -- are all built on propagating this sense of unverified but truly-felt conspiracies that we believe people in power, are synthesising.

By the end of a typical Newshour Debate, nothing gets resolved or arrived at concretely. And that I think is probably the show's biggest strength. Because for a country with as complicated a fabric as ours, a one-hour intellectual ping-pong cannot offer easy-baked solutions.

Arnab's active participation may lend muscle to one of the warring factions but to the viewer, the experience jars; the smartest and the most eloquent person in the Debate assuming the role of an absolutist, somehow nullifies his strengths.

While Television generally tends to Clarity, Newshour portrays our confusions. Each episode offers both the potency of an intensely-fought boxing match and the giddy pleasures of an orgy.

The outdated standpoints of the Conservatives and the dolorous faces that the Liberals make in response coupled with the shaking of their heads, are actions that shade into each other and make siding with one group a task.

More importantly however, no debater walks out of 'The Class of Arnab' feeling shortchanged. The ones that are supposedly trashed can always complain their points-of-view weren't heard well enough. As for the ones that have the right point-of-view, they can always expect Arnab to be on their side.

Controversies may come and go, but the show proves that an average Indian's sense of self-righteousness is here to stay. And that is a Newshour exclusive!

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Sreehari Nair