A society cannot survive without symbols. It needs idols and icons who exemplify ways of life. Contemporary life has generated many idols, from Amitabh Bachchan to Narendra Modi, but none of these have had the regenerative power of myth. Our modern symbols are less of myths and more of Rorschachs, projections of our minds, our fears, our worst anxieties. Earlier, we would confess them to our therapist. Today, we flaunt our fears on television. It is the collective couch of our times. Our symptoms become our statements of our worlds. There is no other way to understand the power of Arnab Goswami.
Examine his CV and one will sense an ordinary person. Boringly average in academics. Goswami was an also-ran in early life, suffering under the arrogance of seniors, waiting for his time. Here is a man who strikes no chord of poetry, who caricatures our worst selves and becomes a hero. He is the boy next door you seldom noticed till you saw him on television.
Deep down, one realises Goswami’s biography is uninteresting. He is his own double, an invention of himself, tired of his original self. As a caricature of a middle-class self, he is successful, very successful. He enacts a catechism every night accompanied by an inquisition. Every day, someone is insulted, labelled, condemned. Television replaces the guillotine in public life.
A middle-class man suffering from daily anxieties wants the arrogance of power, the privilege of saying “off with your head”, five times a day. Not even presidents have that privilege. Instead of being constantly judged, evaluated and calibrated, we want to be the judge, lay down the rules and deliver the sentences. As inflated version of ourselves that we call Arnab, we enact that ghastly collective act of free will that we call the nation state.
The nation state is a bundle of anxieties. We police ourselves through concepts like nation state, security, and borders, and feel proud of our submissiveness. It is a collective act of vigilantism, an emotional high as inquisitors, and the power of tyranny without the fear of being overthrown, enacted every day. Oddly, we are not watching Goswami. He is a mere ventriloquist’s dummy, an inflated ego. All we watch is ourselves, content with an orgy of bloodletting every night. We consume arrogance, bullying, unfairness, project our worst fears and call that phenomenon – the nation state – the sum total of our basic instincts.
Forget the real-life man. Look behind at the more-than-real mask. He reminds one of a mid-level government official, or a scientist. But on TV, he is all of us, clamouring for more of us. He is the metaphor of the time, because he enacts the majoritarian Indian every day.
‘Sign of the Times’
The French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote, sometimes evil likes to warn people in advance of itself. It sends a harbinger. In the age of television, Goswami is the harbinger of tyranny, an enactment of the future in the present. The irony is that what should frighten us gets fan mail. The phenomenon called Arnab shows that we are lemmings of a tyrannical future where all a demagogue needs is two hours of TV. It creates a more subtle warning that we miss out. It hints that violence is not just an act of production. Violence needs to be consumed as it consumes us. We are happy consuming Arnab because we feel that we will be part of such a tyranny. It is not his ratings that make Arnab. It is us. An Indian bored of itself, waiting for Hitlers to rise. Nothing creates tyranny more than the mediocrity of our everyday life. This is what turns the man we call Arnab Goswami from bad history to a glorious consumer myth that the media flaunts as its great creation.
Arnab Goswami was, as the pun intended, “a sign of the Times”. He realised he needed to be larger than the incubator that created him. He had to transcend the Times and become a force of his own, not a monster orchestrated by larger forces. He wants to be the conductor of his own future, the monster as soloist.
To do this will not be easy. The Times interview was a ritual the nation claimed to follow. To follow Arnab Goswami alone is a different choice. To achieve that, he has to invent himself again, as a new brand, to reclaim his place in folklore. The nation might want to know what drove him to such egotistic limits. Worse, the very Twitter that created him might chew him down. He might become cannon fodder for the very groups that created him. It might be that there is still a sense of poetic justice in the world – bloody, ruthless, but ironically satisfying. Mediocrity creates monsters so that future mediocres might bring him down.