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Mitali Saran: Communicating Rahul Gandhi

Mitali Saran 

Mitali Saran

The Delhi-based press corps has for years railed against Rahul Gandhi's signature inaccessibility, and Mr Gandhi has for years made it known to the Delhi-based press corps that it is more or less irrelevant to his purposes. This appears to be changing, to keep pace with instant, 24/7 media, social networking, social aspiration, public expectation, and the deadly competition for the hearts and minds of India that will play out in the upcoming general elections.

But being good on television isn't natural to everyone. It takes practice. So it came as no surprise that Rahul Gandhi's first interview with an English-medium news channel, one-on-one on a prime-time show, bombed. Communication is a skill and an art, a thing that needs constant work. Simply put, Mr Gandhi hasn't logged the time.

Which is a shame, because this was a missed opportunity to display some vision and fighting spirit. I have known Mr Gandhi for many years, and the man sitting in the chair opposite Arnab Goswami was not the best version of himself. He came off as evasive, stonewalling, and unable to answer tough questions on messy bits of Congress baggage - notably the 1984 Delhi anti-Sikh riots - without being able to avoid them elegantly. And while any PR guy will tell you to turn as many questions as possible into opportunities to send out the message you really want to broadcast, he was repetitive to the point of absurdity.

Boy, I thought as I watched, the internet is going to have a field day with this. (And so it did.) If you were open-minded about voting for the Congress, this interview would not convert you to its cause.

I like much better the version of Mr Gandhi that we heard at the All-India Congress Committee meet on January 17, because he sounded much more like himself, a personality we could use in politics. He was in his element, speaking in his natural style. That guy only showed up a couple of times in the television interview, showing a flash of fire in the belly.

(Speaking of natural style, what the hey happened to Arnab Goswami? Where was the fire and brimstone? In his post-interview analysis you knew it was him all right, yowling away in the way we know and are regularly hypnotised by. But during The Interview, he dealt with his prize as if he were trying to approach some rare and easily startled deer; in a low, soothing Goswami-on-pot voice that created a sinister mad doctor bedside manner. On the other hand - so what? He got the interview.)

People watching the interview without bias would think, at best: this man is decent and seems to have a good heart, but not much of a head. Mr Gandhi is in fact extremely bright and well read, and by not training himself to deal with the media, he does himself a huge disservice. The point of engaging with the media is, for political interviewees - besides, in the first place, accountability - to communicate yourself and your ideas effectively. If you're a good guy but can't put across the most real version of yourself, you can work as hard as you like, and achieve significant things, but you'll get never gain mass credibility.

The narrative that Mr Goswami and the rest of the press have been trying to construct for months now is the Rahul Gandhi-vs-Narendra Modi story, a sort of Alien vs Predator film script that will play well for readership and TRPs, and is the social equivalent of everyone in a bar getting one guy to shove another, chanting "Fight! Fight!" and calling you a coward if you won't crawl into a mud pit with the other guy. To his credit, Mr Gandhi refused to play. He made it clear that he is interested in taking on ideas, not individuals. Changing the system, bringing in youth and empowering women are all unimpeachably good ideas, but if, at the end of the day, they remain in the collective consciousness as parody, you're communicating them badly.

This interview is a nasty burn for Mr Gandhi. It may be true that he would rather work than dance for the media, but on the other hand, the days when that was a choice are long gone. It would serve the party better if, rather than withdrawing wounded, he just worked hard on communicating better. There are good reasons to do it, the first of which is that, well, in this case, the nation really does want to know. And the nation really should know, because it has a humdinger of a choice to make this summer, and it would be a shame if it went into the electoral booth with nothing more than this interview in its head.

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First Published: Fri, January 31 2014. 22:47 IST