ibnlive » India

Jan 02, 2009 at 02:16am IST

Role reversal: Devil's Advocate in the dock

Arun Jaitley: Hello and welcome to an unusual version of the Devil's Advocate. Though an advocate by training, I am not the devil in this interview, because the usual devil is my guest today, the one and only Karan Thapar. Welcome Karan.

Karan Thapar: Thank you.

Arun Jaitley:You have interviewed many a people in this programme, how many guests have you left unhappy at the end of the interview?

Karan Thapar: I may have annoyed several but I can promise you that I have never left a room after the interview with someone so unhappy that they would not give another interview again.

Arun Jaitley:Your guests always receive a nice, charming letter from you after the interview, praising them but the praise comes only after the interview, the environment of the interview is always very different?

Karan Thapar: Because I am doing a professional job, and I hope that the guests understand it. I hope they accept two things. One, that there is nothing personal in the line of questioning that I adopt and secondly even if at times, it feels needlessly persistent, perhaps even aggressive, they would accept he is simply persuading a point because he thinks he hasn’t been answered rather than being rude.

Arun Jaitley:I have noticed that you have tried to master over these years a typical contrarian style of asking questions. You research about the guest, about his positioning or his party’s positioning and wherever you find then vulnerable, you have a clipping ready, always to ask a question to him. Is it a part of a process to show him down or is it to extract the best out of him?

Karan Thapar: It is not part of a process to show him down. The aim is that if you are asking someone a question on an issue, it is worth persisting with a question until you get an answer. That means that you become insistent, sometimes you seem aggressive, but all I am doing is to try and get a question because I believe that not to get an answer is to insult the audience.

Arun Jaitley:Have your guests ever felt that you have put words into their mouth?

Karan Thapar:I may have suggested answers to them but obviously it is up to them to accept the offer that I making is one that is acceptable.


Arun Jaitley:But your press statements after the interview do suggest that the guests mean something else and what appears the next day may indicate something quite different?

Karan Thapar: I will contest that because I don’t think ever we have released a press release that any guest has contested as wrong.

Arun Jaitley:The guests occasional complain about you interrupting them even before they have not completed their answers. Is that a part of your style or is it a part of again extracting the best out of him?

Karan Thapar: No, in fact, there is a different reason for that. We record our interviews for live. So every word that is recorded is transmitted. There is no editing whatsoever. Because they are being recorded for live, if a guest refuses to answer or worst still, deliberately prevaricates as a way of avoiding, then I interrupt. Because if I don’t, he simply taking up time at the cost of the interview.

Arun Jaitley:Looking back at the hundreds of guests that you have interviewed in this programme or any other programme, do you recollect the best that you have interviewed? Somebody who performed exceedingly well or a few of them or some who did live up to your aggressive questioning?

Karan Thapar: Three or four guests. Interestingly they come from different parties are challenging because they are smarter than me, they are quicker than me, they can probably anticipate where the line of questioning is going, and so they have thought out answers in their mind before I got to the question. You are one of them. Mani Shankar Aiyar is one of them, L K Advani in the days when he gave his interviews was clearly one of them. Those are the sort of guests who have to be conscious of that they can turn the tables on you very quickly because they are thinking as fast as you are.

Arun Jaitley:Well, it is not only the thought process, is it also the language and the control of the subject, the kind of depth of the subject on which you are likely to question them that determines how well the guest does?

Karan Thapar : Language is critical because it is an English language programme and if someone speaks the language fluently, you can interrupt the more, you can be assertive. They would be equal fast back at you, therefore it would be an enjoyable exchange, and automatically, when both people are fluent, it becomes a faster exchange and therefore a in a sense a more forceful one.

Arun Jaitley:Guests have occasionally walked out of your programme?

Karan Thapar: Only once. The only guest who ever walked out of the programme was Mr Narendra Modi after four minutes.


Arun Jaitley:And knowing you post-interview charm, did you speak to him?

Karan Thapar: In fact, the interview went in. He was very sweet to me and he said, “You have broken my heart. I apologise that I have ended this interview, but tomorrow I will ring you and we will be brothers for life.” And he did ring me the next day.

Arun Jaitley:But did you expect an interview back from him again?

Karan Thapar: I would hope so. Because I think he has accepted that there was no malice.

Arun Jaitley:I remember somebody ended your programme without reciprocating you thanks in the program?

Karan Thapar: Absolutely, it was Jayalalithaji. I ended the programme by saying it was a pleasure talking to you and she said, ‘namaste’ rejecting my offered hand, I must say it wasn’t a pleasure talking to you and she left, but she didn’t leave before the interview ended but she left as soon as it was over, she stormed off.

Arun Jaitley:I recollect that a few months ago, Mr Pranab Mukherjee shouting at you when you interrupted him and he claimed the right to reply and he very well did extract a right to reply?

Karan Thapar: He did indeed. It was an interview which was one of the first that he gave as Defence Minster, which was actually more than a few months ago. I was questioning him about what I was told and what the newspapers had claimed was an out- of-turn wrongful promotion of a major general to a lieutenant general and it was also reported in the papers that the army promotion board had advised against it. So I questioned him why he did that and I even said to him that his predecessor, George Fernandes had stood against this, so it was very strange that he was pushing it through. He got extremely angry for ten minutes. He threatened to end the interview. But he not only did he not, he carried on for the rest of the twenty minutes and when it ended and the cameras were off. I apologised for having annoyed him, and he was charming, and he said, “Don’t be stupid, that’s your job and he walked out.

Arun Jaitley:Any guests that you love to interview and you have not been able to do so?

Karan Thapar: Oh yes! Without doubt I would have loved to interview Sonia Gandhi. I have tried frantically many times. She once said to me, which was eight years ago, “I promise I’ll give an interview one day. So, whenever I meet her I ask Mrs Gandhi when is one day going to come? She smiles and she laughs and that one day has never come.


Arun Jaitley:Do you ever get the impression that your aggressive style is misunderstood by many and many of them would not like to be interviewed by you?

Karan Thapar: Possibly, but you know and I know anyone else who is thinking in fair will know that Karan’s aggressive style is actually persistence, that’s the word I prefer to aggression and that there is no, A, prejudice. He is equal with every one no matter what party they come from, and secondly, he has researched what he is doing, so that there is a re-clear basis for that question. Even if you challenge him and say, I never said this, I never said that, I have a superb team of researchers and producers who backed it up for me.

Arun Jaitley:Are you a clippings collector?

Karan Thapar: I have a great team of researchers and producers who are clippings collectors and they do a sort of Devil’s Advocate with me before I go to do it with you. So, they end up taking me through it suggesting me that what if he says A, what if he says B, what if he says D. And there is a very interesting technique that I will share with you that goes back to my days in London Weekend Television. When John Burt , who used to head London Weekend before he went to the BBC, devised an interview format where he said that at the end of the day there are only four answers, yes, no, don’t know, and can’t say. And don’t know and can’t say have to be collapsible to yes and no. So your first technique is to identify the don’t know and can’t says and push the guy to making clear that it is actually a yes or a no. Then try and locate him within the horns of a dilemma. Chose guests who are so positioned that their predicament is within the horns of dilemma and push them either to the left or to the right.

Arun Jaitley:Somebody you recollect who is very difficult to interview?.

Karan Thapar: The most difficult people to interview are those who actually don’t want to engage in the discussion. Monosyllabic answers don’t take you anywhere.

Arun Jaitley:Any maverick that you have interviewed who has completely put you off guard on your next line of questioning?

Karan Thapar:I suppose it was the man who was famous and I have forgotten his name now, forgive me, for saying, “Diamond, diamond don’t destroy him.” Remember he was a junior minister in Rajiv Gandhi’s party.

Arun Jaitley:Kalpanath Rai.

Karan Thapar: He was impossible to interview because he slid like butter all over the place and he never said very much. So there was nothing to grasp because as soon as you grasped it would slip off.

Arun Jaitley:So, he was into slogans and you were into questioning?

Karan Thapar: Absolutely.


Arun Jaitley:Who has been the most boring guest that you have interviewed where it was difficult to extract anything out of them?

Karan Thapar: That is a question that I will not answer because I think it will upset the people that I have them as guests.

Arun Jaitley:Do you want to continue to have them as guests?

Karan Thapar:I take great pride in the fact that there hasn’t been a guest who has refused to give me a second interview. Mr Modi, I haven’t approached him for a second interview, but I am confident that when I do, he will say yes to. That is something that I cherish.

Arun Jaitley:Thought in terms of training yourself to become bilingual because a large number of Indian guests may not be able to match up to your language?

Karan Thapar: Oh, I have often dreamt of that but I my incapacity to learn a language at this age means that I will never succeed. And I will tell you a little story, when I first had to ask someone a couple of questions in Hindi just after I had come back from England, I learnt them by heart and I said those three questions and after the first the guy looked at me and said, "Maf karna, hum angrezi nahi bol teh (Forgive me but I don’t speak English)."

Arun Jaitley:Last question, before I go on to another connected subject, that angry expression on your face, your teeth are clinched and your, and you are staring at the guests. Now, is it a put on act in order to intimidate the guests or is it a question that you want your guest also to react and give you a fine answer?

Karan Thapar: No it is something even worse, it is just the way I am actually. I can’t help it. I am not aware I am doing it. It needs to run in through but I told my mother, who is 92 nearly, when I am chatting with her at home, she suddenly says to me, “First of all that don’t keep questioning me, you are not interviewing me.” I said, “Come on mummy I am only asking you an answer for a question.” And then she says, here’s the answer and enacts my gesture. It is a very joke with the family.

Arun Jaitley: Karan, lets set aside that how and why you have this aggressive posturing, at least the image of a very aggressive interviewer. I come to somewhat a connected issue, yours is still one of the most serious political discussion programmes on Indian television. Are you now, as an experienced political commentator and an anchor, very concerned about the present state of the political television on the news media?

Karan Thapar: If you are suggesting that political discourse and television is becoming shallow, populist rather than popular and therefore it is aiming for catch eyeballs at the cost of rigorous analysis and informed discussion, I would agree with you and I think it is particularly sad. I think the root cause lies in the fact that independent television in India is commercially driven, it survives on advertising and advertising comes for the highest eyeballs which means ratings become important.


Arun Jaitley: Survive to do what? Five-year ago if a television carried a programme which was critical about my party, I will be deeply concerned but today the credibility is going down. There are such a large number of channels these days that an individual channel doesn’t matter, what really matters in news content of a large number of channels is - cinema, cricket, crime, occasionally some crisis and even in those crisis there will some shallow tangential news which will be passed off as a breaking news and therefore the credibility of that news even of that survived or commercially driven channel is not very high.

Karan Thapar: You are talking about the credibility marks of the different sections of the society because of the reasons you mentioned to you and me may have diminished very much but the credibility with the mass audience for the very same reasons may have increased. They like cricket, they like crisis, they like cinema, they like stars and may probably watch a lot of more of a lighter form and shade of news to the type that you and I may prefer. So, the credibility may be low for you and me but it is huge for them.

Arun Jaitley: Are we rushing to instant conclusions because they make more attractive headlines, I think politicians have conventionally went for this kind of populism, but is media also going for it?

Karan Thapar: Or, are we doing it because it is lazy journalism or it can be a combination of both.

Arun Jaitley: I’ll give you two or three illustrations which have deeply disturbed me. Five or six months ago, we had a severe situation in Jammu and Kashmir, a province that matters a lot to India - you had the land row at the Amarnath Shrine Board, you had a reaction in the valley and you had a counter agitation to a counter agitation - now you had serious journalists commenting that the time has come that we must think seriously if Kashmir goes, it goes and then five or six months later you have elections which are perceived to be fair elections. How do you explain what was being written by serious political commentators six months ago?

Karan Thapar: But it was their opinion, why do you want to attach more importance than you would to anyone else’s opinion. It was an opinion you disagreed with it but it was an opinion at that point of time which reflected a certain mood.


Arun Jaitley: Fringe media can be subversive in thought but to say that you give away a part of our country is certainly not nationalistic.

Karan Thapar: It was not subversive. You are going a little deeper than simplifying and saying that if they don’t want to stay Indian than let them go.

Arun Jaitley: Come recently, you had campaigns over the last few years on how strong the anti-terror steps are against a particular community. And suddenly after the Mumbai attacks of 26/11, the same set of serious channels of electronic media started deflecting from the real issue. They whipped up anti-politician sentiment, whereas the issue was how India can tackle terror. Now is that a serious approach to journalism which mainstream media can have?

Karan Thapar: You see what you’ve identified is a lack of consistency in the editorial line of a particular channel or a newspaper. You are correct in spotting that 26/11 represented not just a break but a complete u-turn or reversal of the position they had taken previously. And you are arguing that it’s a little convenient and perhaps expeditious of them and you are absolutely right. But reality does allow for people to change their positions and may be you should look at it and say that if a channel is good and honest enough to say that they regard 26/11 as a new reality, be happy with it.

Arun Jaitley: I can quite understand media informing, media educating, media holding a mirror to the society and to individual politicians. But media doing such u-turns takes the credibility from one of the strongest limbs of Indian democracy.

Karan Thapar: Which is one of the great dangers of inconsistency. If you are going to change your views, what you must do – I think – is to publicly admit to it. Newspapers do it in long editorials explaining in great length as to why they did it. Share with the viewer the agony that you’ve gone through.

Arun Jaitley: Of course. Take for instance the headlines on electronic media. Till 25/11, the Malegaon incident was Hindu terror. And 26/11 the slogan was - terror has no religion.

Karan Thapar: But Hindu terror was no different as a short-form to the previous short-form that was fashionable - Islamic terror. It was a way of branding and explaining a terror. It was misleading - I grant it - but it was done.


Arun Jaitley: Coming to another point. You’ve interviewed a large number of Pakistani politicians and representatives. Watching you interviewing them, (reading) your columns, I’ve always got the distinct impression that you’ve stood for making borders irrelevant and a greater cooperation between the two countries. How do you as a political commentator - post 26/11 - see the situation today?

Karan Thapar: Personally, I am deeply depressed by the development. I think that Pakistan needs to do a lot more before we can even begin to believe that they’ve accepted their culpability. At the same time, we also need to understand the difficulties they have, that with Zardari, they are moving in a particular direction but he is opposed by the Army. Understanding from us as well as a certain measure of support for the civilian element as opposed to the military element will help that stablisation and acceptance in Pakistan.

Arun Jaitley: The concern is not mainly Pakistani army, ISI or the fringe groups doing what they are. The mainstream media has convinced the population that all this humbug Indian propaganda.

Karan Thapar: Unfortunately I think the media on both sides has convinced its respective populations of extreme views. The arguments that you make about Pakistani media, they could make the same about us.

Arun Jaitley: I would say, in all fairness, Indian media may take contrary positions on these issues but has never touted this kind of falsehood.

Karan Thapar: Grant them credit for the fact that Dawn News actually went and identified Kasab’s parents, they established his identity card numbers, got the father to have a look at the picture and accept him as the son - that’s an important aspect.

Arun Jaitley: But you have a situation where Pakistan may be a geographical enitity but you have democratic government there which is not in control, you have an army which is not accountable…

Karan Thapar: …and you have militancy and jehad that is spreading. The greatest fear would be to end up with Taliban as your next-door neighbour. Therefore you have to ask yourself that whatever you do mustn’t end up with that nightmare becoming your reality.

Arun Jaitley: Therefore, we come back to a difficult question. The borders are still relevant and the idealistic thought that a lot of bleeding hearts had in India is not foreseeable today.

Karan Thapar: Irrelevant borders do not mean non-existent borders. Right? They mean friendly borders, they mean secure and safe borders.


Arun Jaitley: Is there an environment in the country to be friendly when you have such a hostile situation?

Karan Thapar: Not today but you need to work towards it. The ideal is something you strive towards and isn’t acheieved today. A safe, open border is a long-term target. It’s not something that I want to settle in 24 hours’ time. At the moment, you have the opposite.

Arun Jaitley: Your interviews with Shahid Malik, the Pakistani High Commissioner and earlier with President Zardari were very civilized one. You were more polite to them that you are with your Indian guests. Was it the Indian hospitality?

Karan Thapar (laughs): No, it wasn’t Indian hospitality. In case of Zardari, he was at the other end of the satellite and it’s almost impossible to interrupt someone. In case of Shahid Malik, I could have been extremely aggressive buy would have I achieved the relative openness and candour enterprise that I got?

Arun Jaitley: Well, all I can tell you Karan is we, the Indian politicians, are also looking for such very civil interviews from Karan Thapar.

Karan Thapar: But Arun the best interview was when I quarreled with you and you fought back with me – both you and I enjoyed. That makes for the fun and drama and the nice thing is that you know and I know that we’re actually playing a game with each other. Isn’t that what a good interview is?

Arun Jaitley: Thank you very much, Karan. Be at your best as you always are.

Karan Thapar: Thank you, Arun.

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