Thapar ’s career-a career that undisputedly both defined and destroyed many careers can hardly be expressed by a few pages of writing. However, the incidents and anecdotes he shared in his book, Devil’s Advocate are an epitome of not only courage and determination but take the readers towards some kind of darkness revealing stunning facts about politicians, lawyers, film stars and big influential people.
In his mid-20s, as a D.Phil. student at Oxford, Karan Thapar could have become anything he wanted — academic, banker, politician, novelist, filmmaker, or even an entrepreneur, had he been so inclined. The future was a realm of limitless possibilities in a way unimaginable for 99.99% of his countrymen.
But he chose a profession that has largely been a preserve of, and a channel of social mobility for the middle classes. He became a journalist, and that too of a particular kind: the celebrity interviewer who prefers to stay in limelight. Having picked a middle class profession, he charted a career path founded on his privileged position at the apex of the country’s elite.
A career that started off as a correspondent employed in Nigeria for a local English paper, he was an observant from the early phase. He dropped Oxford and applied for this job because of his friend Charlie who was the editor there. Thapar has written extensively about the fact that how he broke the story of Nigeria ending its relationship with Libya because of a small incident that happened due to him. This was unusual though not unexpected from a person who had already been the President of the Union at Cambridge. (Union refers to the English Debating Society)
The book features stories of lasting friendships and long associations with Benazir Bhutto, Aung San Suu Kyi, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi, and his growing tensions with the BJP and its leaders that includes the current PM of India Mr. Narendra Modi.
Thapar’s interviewing career was marked by estrangements and rapprochements with his high-powered guests. Devil’s Advocate is largely a compilation of these moments. Along the way, it also offers little nuggets that illuminate these figures in unusual ways. For instance, “did you know that the bed Narasimha Rao used when he was the prime minister had a mosquito net on which he liked to hang his underpants?”
He has also given significant amount of weightage to his unpleasant experiences or disillusionments with Former US President Barack Obama who asked him to send the questions to be asked in advance and with famous human rights lawyer Amal Clooney who claimed that she supports the freedom of speech and expression but when someone wanted to ask her questions, she simply denied it on multiple occasions.
Thapar’s interviewing style put off many including L.K. Advani, J. Jayalalithaa, Ram Jethmalani, and Chandra Shekhar, among others. But he was able to restore formal and friendly relations with every one of them with the sole exception of PM Narendra Modi.
It is the section of Devil’s Advocate that deals with his infamous, three-minute interview with Mr. Modi that has drawn the most attention and also criticism. When Modi walked out of the interview on the question of whether he should apologise over the Godhra riots, Thapar repeatedly told him to finish the interview but it never happened and the channel was coerced to play the 3 min interview only. Thapar also revealed that Mr. Modi afterwards was very hospitable and even said to him, “Jab mein Dilli aaunga, to bhojan karenge.” Eventually, that bhojan never took place.
Another astonishing fact that Thapar revealed via sources is that Prashant Kishor-BJP’s 2014 election strategist played this interview 30-40 times before Modi so that he could answer tough questions and did not become nervous. The source also told him that it was then that the PM made his made and decided to teach him a lesson. Since then, Karan claims that the BJP has started boycotting him.
Thapar deserves credit for introducing to Indian news television the genre of the hyper-combative political interviews and he did it at a time when a certain deference to power was the norm. We are used to seeing him go straight for the jugular, even when interviewing those with whom he enjoyed a cosy relationship. He was never afraid, never sacrificed the ethics of journalism even if that meant to have bitter relations with his guests in the future. In contrast, among today’s TV journalists, it is tough to pinpoint anchors who opt for the kind of cross-examination and questioning Thapar is known for.
It is not wrong to say that Karan Thapar is one of the few who revolutionised the Indian Television News. The autobiography is a must read, not only for its revealing glimpses of the Lutyens elite, but also for witnessing the England of the 70s, for knowing the skills of interviewing and surely for learning the art of hospitability and diplomacy.
Featured Image: The Statesman https://www.thestatesman.com/supplements/8thday/an-interview-to-remember-1502806930.html