22/11/2016 3:55 PM IST | Updated 22/11/2016 4:40 PM IST

The Hype Around Sonia Gandhi's Interview Shows What's Wrong With Congress And The Media Today

Access journalism.

Hindustan Times via Getty Images
File photo of Congress President Sonia Gandhi.

It's perfectly appropriate that as the 100th birth anniversary commemoration of Indira Gandhi takes off, her daughter-in-law should come on television to share her memories about her mother-in-law.

What's not appropriate is to present it as the breaking news story of the year. #SoniaSpeaks is technically correct. But when it's in reality #SoniaReminisces about her mother-in-law, why sell it as prime time news? There was no news there, just some repackaged nostalgia and the tired refrain of the sacrifices of the Gandhis.

Rajdeep Sardesai's interview with Sonia Gandhi would not be a big deal if she was more accessible to media. The interview was hailed as the first time Sonia Gandhi would open up to the media in almost a decade. But it was clear that a "no-politics" ground rule had been set before the interview, Sonia Gandhi kept firmly to it, and the interviewer stuck to it as well after a couple of attempts to tiptoe into politics.

So what was the point?

Not much. When the most "click-bait" headline newspapers came up with after the "interview of the decade" was that she thinks there is no comparison between Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi, you know that the interview yielded precious little that was remotely interesting or current. Mind you the interview was advertised as one with the Congress president as opposed to the daughter-in-law of Indira Gandhi.

Sonia Gandhi might have been there to publicise a traveling exhibition of photographs on Indira Gandhi but what she displayed was an exhibition of all the reasons the Congress is in such doldrums these days.

This is a party whose leadership is so steeped in noblesse oblige, it is unable to realise or admit that the country has moved on, that it does not quite venerate leaders the way it used to in the time of Indira Gandhi. It's a party that is not quite able to apologise for the Emergency even though it is uncomfortable with the subject. Sonia Gandhi talked on and on about the sense of duty that permeates the family, the sense of duty that drove them to seek political office, unable entirely to understand that 21st century India is not grateful that a Gandhi should choose to run for political office instead of leading a comfortable life as a private citizen of Lutyens Delhi. In one question about current politics that slipped through the cracks, she was asked about when Rahul Gandhi would take up his leadership role in the Congress. She replied that she was not the right person to reply to that question. She did not say that it was up to the party to decide who would be its next president. Embedded in both the question and the answer was the assumption that of course it's Rahul Gandhi's destiny to be Congress president. She shrugged off charges of a dynastic party by trotting out the usual line about doctor's children becoming doctors and businessmen's sons entering the family business. It's true a politician will ultimately be accepted or rejected by the voters. But a doctor still has to study medicine, he or she cannot inherit their parent's degree. Rahul Gandhi just seems to be on a lifelong internship at the family firm. But who would be so rude as to say that to his mother?

This is a party whose leadership is so steeped in noblesse oblige, it is unable to realise or admit that the country has moved on.

There was nothing anyone remotely interested in the Gandhis did not know already. Sonia Gandhi had not wanted Rahul to get into politics. Sonia Gandhi had cradled Indira Gandhi's body on the day she was assassinated. Indira Gandhi was dismissed and ridiculed when she first came into politics and had to prove her critics wrong. We did not need Sonia Gandhi's first interview in almost a decade to tell us that again.

Unfortunately what the interview proved was something that had nothing to do with Indira Gandhi. It showed that by denying access to media, a politician can actually control his or her media image. Sonia Gandhi could set her terms on what she could be asked about and any attempt to cross that line was gently, politely and firmly rebuffed. And no journalist, acutely conscious of the honour of getting a rare interview from "ma'am", would push back.

This was not always the case. An interview of Indira Gandhi by James Dimbleby of Thames Television shows that even the formidable Indira Gandhi could be asked persistent and tough questions by a well-prepared interviewer who was not awed by her presence. Dimbleby was polite but not shy of asking whether the threat that spurred the imposition of the Emergency was concocted and Indira Gandhi, to her credit, never lost her poise even as she tried to rebut him. Dimbleby dared to say that the people booted her out to her face and she flinched but merely says "booted" was a strong word. At one point Indira Gandhi reprimanded him for asking a "rude" question but she still tried to answer with logic and arguments and he never backed away from it without every being disrespectful. It's a masterclass in trying to tell truth to power.

For most of us in the media, across the board, access to the powerful has become more important than holding the powerful accountable.

If you compare that to the recent interview of Arvind Kejriwal and the BBC, you will realize how far we have fallen. As soon as Kejriwal sensed that the reporter was not willing to swallow everything he said about demonetisation-linked deaths as gospel truth he started bristling, his voice got louder as he began implying that the BBC was corrupt. He told the journalist that both he and the BBC were neech or low-class.

Arnab Goswami was ridiculed for turning off his usual fire and brimstone when he had a chance to interview Narendra Modi. But the Sonia Gandhi interview shows that for most of us in the media, across the board, access to the powerful has become more important than holding the powerful accountable.

And the Sonia Gandhis and Narendra Modis of the world understand that only too well and they will ration out their access so that a grateful media laps it up with a smile on their terms.

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