Breaking down news: The ground beneath his feet

Pratik Kanjilal
kunal kamra arnab goswami, kunal kamra Indigo ban arnab goswami heckle, indigo flight captain Kunal kamra, uk, british pm boris johnson, indian express

Kunal Kamra is absolutely not in the air, but he is on cloud nine nevertheless. This is what happens when a minister gets serious about a comedian. (Express photo: Janak Rathod)

IN THE wee hours today, the UK must have walked out of the European project which it had joined almost 50 years ago. While we slept, British prime minister Boris Johnson must have hailed “the dawn of a new era” which, like most political promises heard these days, means nothing at all. The BBC reports, in detail, that precisely nothing at all will change today, except the withdrawal of the UK from the political institutions of the European Union, which again doesn’t mean much. Brexit day only marks the beginning of an 11-month separation period, in which relations between the two parties will be negotiated. Until the divorce settlement is arrived at, it will be business as usual, including the free movement of people.

Nothing much to report here, except the beery, beefsteaky farewell parties among British expats on the Continent (covered by the BBC; for once, one hopes that the reporters became part of the story), and the trade negotiations which will ensue, which will be much less pleasant. The UK is looking for very low tariff barriers, but is adamant about the European Court of Justice not claiming jurisdiction on any disputes. The world doesn’t work like that, but anyway, it’s all in the air until the trading partners make public their objectives in the negotiations. Since London has been quite wooly-headed about Brexit, it’s going to be all in the air for a while.

Kunal Kamra is absolutely not in the air, but he is on cloud nine nevertheless. This is what happens when a minister gets serious about a comedian. After IndiGo banned Kamra for six months, civil aviation minister Hardeep Singh Puri asked other airlines to follow suit. The original point of debate — whether Kamra had behaved in an “unacceptable” manner in heckling anchor Arnab Goswami on board a flight — was swiftly overriden by the question of whether the minister had crossed a line.

Indeed, to throw away the rule book prior to wading in constitutes a perilous intervention, reducing public perceptions of the ministry and the government. But an interview which followed on Friday offered an even more perilous intervention: “administrative encouragement” to airlines to hike fares, to make the aviation industry more sustainable. But the government’s first duty is to protect the consumer, not companies. What the market charges should be left to the market to decide.

The ideal of small government, which this government had professed when it was first elected to office, suggests that the state should intervene only in extreme events, like cartelisation for price-gouging. The alacrity with which airlines followed the lead of Air India in the matter of Kamra suggests that they would take “encouragement” as an instruction, rather than a hint, and this would not be in the interest of consumers.

Liberal opinion in the Kamra matter has been interesting: one prominent anchor weighed in against him, arguing that no journalist should be heckled, whether it is Rajdeep Sardesai (who has been repeatedly targeted by right-wing individuals) or Arnab Goswami. It is admirably decent and even-handed, but seems irrelevant in a political atmosphere which is predominantly indecent. One recalls It Can’t Happen Here, one of the American novelist Sinclair Lewis’ less read works, which explored the rise of authoritarian sentiment in the US following the Great Depression. Lewis seems to blame the rise of the extremist right partly on the refusal of liberals to deviate from the straight and narrow.

Of course, the case has taken an unusual turn, with the pilot of the flight in which Kamra sought to interact and Goswami failed to respond, writing to the airline to the effect that the incident had been contained, and that in putting Kamra on the no-fly list, his airline had failed to follow the rules.

Anyway, what this incident amounts to is that Kamra has done an Arnab on Arnab. It was not even heckling as advertised, but better described as badgering, an activity that Arnab excels in every evening. And Arnab has responded in an extremely liberal manner, like TV viewers who do not wish to be exposed to his badgering, by keeping his earphones firmly screwed in throughout the incident. Let us not forget Republic TV is not completely reprehensible. It plays an important role in supporting the sales of antacids and blood pressure medication across India and throughout the diaspora.