A smiley, smiley person

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 30/10/2006
Sanghvi`s style is inimitably his own: ask rude questions inoffensively, or tough ones fleetingly with no intention of pinning the person down.


Sevanti Ninan



When  you are starting a new interview series you could do worse than kick off with Sonia Gandhi. Given the number of such series that Vir Sanghvi himself has done, not to mention countless others on air, most possible interviewees are already over-exposed. But La Gandhi still retains a smidgin of enigma.  You may see her on the box every day, but you don't hear her version of events that often.


And if you are Sonia Gandhi you could certainly do worse than put yourself in Sanghvi's hands. He can be trusted not to turn nasty, to throw in must-ask questions in a way that she can handle, and to not broach danger territory. Her first ever full length TV interview was with him in 1999 on Star for much the same reason, he is a gifted journalist who can do a soft job and make it seem utterly credible.


Some time after she gave this interview  Sanghvi wrote that she had Rajiv Gandhi¿s strongest quality: on a one-to-one level, she was almost impossible to dislike. And last Saturday, October 28, that is the woman Sanghvi and NDTV 24x7 presented: the chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance,  the reluctant politician, good looking, tastefully turned out, straight,  likeable. A woman who values decency in others. The very antithesis of the Indian politician.


This was, if memory serves me right, Sonia Gandhi's fifth one on one with an Indian journalist, each one a kid gloves operation. Two with Sanghvi, one each with Barkha Dutt and Rajdeep Sardesai, and one with Shekhar Gupta. The last, before the 2004 elections, was probably the one that told us the most about her and what she stood for.  The difference between Dutt and Sardesai on one hand  and Vir Sanghvi on the other is that he does not come across as a normally aggressive journalist who is being careful not to offend.  His style is inimitably his own: ask rude questions inoffensively, or tough ones fleetingly with no intention of  pinning the person down. ("Can I say two cynical things?" or, "Can I be rude?")   A hint of Simi Garewal, but definitely not a  Karan Thapar. Either there is something about Sonia Gandhi and her formidable reputation for inaccessibility which defangs gratified interviewers, or perhaps they react to her not being a political animal but a woman in unusual circumstances by handling her deferentially. Or may be, just as he said earlier, one on one, she is impossible to dislike.


This time around she just stopped short of being a charmer. She wore lovely colours, smiled, laughed at herself, and levelled with her interviewer. (We don't of course know what preconditions were set.)  The only giveaway was a nervous twitch, a constant blinking. To such questions as were asked, she managed candid, sincere answers.  Because hers is such an unusual story, there is always a lot of the personal  in the questioning.  Some nine years after her entry into public life, is  Gandhi the woman who hated politics and then ended up in it still so intriguing that she overshadows Gandhi the politician? The assumption on this first edition of "One on One" on NDTV 24x7 was that she is. So we were taken back to her Rajiv days, to questions about their life together to which we've heard answers before. And  people who hold positions  of  considerable power don't normally get asked "Why don't we see you smileâ€"you're not a smiley smiley person?"


But Sanghvi did some offhand probing of the politician as well. What was new was her response on Natwar Singh and son. "In some ways I felt extremely betrayed…that feeling is still there." Or her defence in the Jaya Bachchan affair: did she put her party aspirant up to challenging Jaya Bachchan's election? "I have larger issues to concentrate on than these petty ones I am accused of." She was not behind that petition? Absolutely not, said the lady.


And how much did he not ask?  Questions about dynasty, for one.  Is Rahul  more equal than other MPs in the party? Do they also get to lunch regularly with the Prime Minister? The 'Rahul is special' bit figured very fleetingly. Ask for the sake of asking, allow her to knock it down, and carry on. Sonia's hold over government for another. Does the party president normally figure in cabinet photographs after a reshuffle? Are not key appointees in the PMO her men? Is she not in the picture regarding bureaucratic appointments? And why does the President of a grand old party full of terribly seasoned politicians turn only to her children for crucial political counsel? Is that a reflection on how much she trusts the judgement of her political colleagues?  And since we are into nostaligia, tell us, what went wrong with the Bachchans?  


For answers to some of those we'll have to wait for the day when Sonia Gandhi decides she is going to risk a no holds barred interview. Nine years after she entered  politics, she doesn't seem to be ready yet.





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