"Prime Minister Modi, can I ask you: Tomorrow night you will obviously have a rapturous reception at Wembley Stadium. But there are a number of protesters out today who are saying -- and I am wondering what you say to them -- that given your record as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, you do not deserve the respect that would normally be accorded to the leader of the world's largest democracy."
This was the question posed by The Guardian correspondent Nicholas Watt at the press conference that Modi and Cameron addressed in London. In fact, Nicholas Watt asked not one but two questions, the other one asking Cameron how "comfortable" he was welcoming Modi into the country despite his "record as chief minister of Gujarat".
A press conference of this scale is a formal event with everything being planned and processed. Thousands of reporters want an invite but a hundred get them; everyone wants to ask a question but only a few are allowed to. And it is rare to have someone ask not one but two questions. The fact that Watt was allowed to tells its own story. The rules at a press conference are set -- be brief, to the point and don't get personal. And for me, this Guardian correspondent transgressed the line between being professional and getting personal and thus withered away an opportunity.
"Nicholas Watt's question was more of a statement. He became one of the protesters outside, but yet did injustice to their cause."
It is par for the course for editors to have columnists write an opinion that confirms or adds to the point of view of the publication. Editors fight by proxy, rarely fielding their own correspondents to display bile and contempt, especially against a visiting dignitary of the stature of the Prime Minister of India. Modi wasn't appearing on a Hard Talk or granting a one-on-one interview to The Guardian. This was a formal press conference!
Nicholas Watt's question was more of a statement. He became one of the protesters outside, but yet did injustice to their cause. Some were fighting historic wrongs and some, like those from Nepal, were protesting against a current injustice. It was the job of a correspondent to ask a question that got an answer and a possible commitment. If the question was measured and calculated, it could have elicited a response, a promise to look into the issue and even solve it. Readers don't pay to know views of correspondents, but to get a response from those who matter. The Guardian has anyways made its stand clear by columns from the likes of Pankaj Mishra, Anish Kapoor and others. Each column had hatred written all over it.
If I were the correspondent, I would have known the strengths and weaknesses of the Prime Minister and asked a question in a manner that drew him into a response. I would have asked:
"Prime Minister Modi, tomorrow you will receive a rapturous reception at Wembley but there are a number of protesters outside including Muslims, Sikhs and Nepalese that are looking at you for solutions. Do you have an action plan that would address their grievances?"
Modi may have possibly picked the lowest hanging fruit, possibly Nepal or Sikhs and provided a statement, a commitment, and a solution too. Remember, our Prime Minister loves grandstanding and is fond of making grandiose statements in public.
Alas. It was not to be. And the Guardian correspondent lost a chance to leave a lasting impact. He chose self over duty, personal biases over professional standards, bile over thoughtfulness and frittered away the chance to leave a lasting impact. His basic instinct won and The Guardian readers lost. If I were the editor, I would sack him for the lost opportunity!
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