Karan Thapar and the death of the interrogative interview

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Karan Thapar and the death of the interrogative interview

The tough interviewer who can boldly challenge his subjects’ opinions to their face, or prod them relentlessly to answer an uncomfortable question — and do so till they break, creating a minor sensation and a major news headline — is a rare breed. Karan Thapar is one of them, notoriously famous for making cricketer Kapil Dev cry on TV and for making then Gujarat CM Narendra Modi awkwardly end an interview mere minutes into it. On the eve of the launch of his new book,  Sound & Fury, a selection of 21 of his most recent interviews, he sits down with us for a long chat. Edited excerpts:

Do you think the aggressive interview format that you are known for is dying a slow death in India?

It is pretty close to death in India at the moment. This wasn’t the case 6-7 years ago. But those were the days when TV channels believed that you could treat politicians reasonably toughly. You interviewed a politician either by placing him between the horns of a dilemma, or by taking a view opposite to his. Today, we interview politicians by virtually sitting in their lap and asking questions that they may have paid you to ask. 

Journalist Karan Thapar on his interviews with Modi, Advani, Obama and more

If you watch any interview with the Prime Minister, he is never really challenged with the criticisms the Opposition may have made. He is asked a simple question: ‘The Opposition says this of you, what do you think?’ He is given a platform to reply to them. There is nothing tough about it. 

You mean, there are no follow-up questions?

Every question raises a different subject. It never occurs to them that there are things that he said that may be incomplete or wrong. There is no question of a follow-up.

I’ll give you an example. The  India Today Conclave recently had a one-hour session with Amit Shah. Sudhir Chaudhary, Consulting Editor,  Aaj Tak, was interviewing him in Hindi. Shah said, of Rahul Gandhi, that he goes abroad and says these terrible things, is it acceptable? And therefore, he needs to explain and apologise. Now, if I was Sudhir Chaudhary, I would have said: ‘If the argument is that criticising the country abroad is unacceptable and you must apologise for it, then don’t you think Mr. Modi must apologise for what he said as Prime Minister in Shanghai and Seoul in 2015? And I’m asking you Home Minister, not because of whataboutery, but because: a) Mr. Modi spoke as Prime Minister, not as a leader of the Opposition; and b) do you have double standards about how you view the Prime Minister and how you view Rahul Gandhi because arguably Mr. Modi’s mistake is far worse because he spoke as PM?’ If you don’t bring up the double standards, how do you expose the hypocrisy here? But that question didn’t occur to him.

Again, in the same interview, Shah raised the issue of the  BBC documentary and said, “ Kisi ne yeh sawal poocha hai, is documentary ke timing ke baare mein?” [Has anyone wondered about the timing of the documentary?] To this, the answer is very simple: the media, both abroad and in India, has the right to raise issues 5 or even 15 years later, when they believe there is interest in the matter. 

Home Minister Amit Shah at an event in Patna, February 2023.
| Photo Credit:
PTI

The  BBC brought up the killing of the Sikhs in the Golden temple, in two huge documentaries, in 2010 and 2011. That was more than 25 years after it happened. You had no problem then? So the  BBC does it all the time. It is constantly raising the Holocaust because it is an issue of journalistic concern. 

Here, the man about whom questions are being raised is one of the dominant leaders in the world. To remind people of his background is journalistically proper. There was nothing shady about it, nothing designed to bring India down. This is what I find disconcerting — the big change between pre-2014 and post-2014 is that no longer are interviews conducted to question, challenge, or expose. They are done to endorse, to reinforce, or worse still, to provide a platform. 

You sometimes anger guests with your questions, and they walk away in a huff. But with one or two exceptions, you have managed to keep good relations with all of them. How do you do that? 

I believe you must never injure someone’s self-esteem. In a tough interview, you can often sense it when you are getting the better of the other party, you sense that they are making mistakes, saying things, and you are capitalising on them, and you may end up damaging their self-esteem. It’s a terrible thing. And in those moments, I go out of my way to be nice, write them a letter. You don’t apologise for what you’ve done, you can’t, but you do the little human things necessary. It works with people.

You have spent the bulk of your career doing face-to-face interviews. But after the pandemic, you’ve had to resort to Zoom interviews a lot. How are they different? What adjustments did you have to make?

One is a technical adjustment because Zoom links can break if there is bad connectivity. Second, if you want to interrupt, it is hard on Zoom because you are talking over each other. When you are face to face, it’s much easier to interrupt because they can see you are interrupting, and nine times out of ten, they yield. But in Zoom they can’t see you…

But they can see you on Zoom. 

Yes, they can, but they are not actually looking at you all the time when speaking. I’m looking at the screen as they are speaking but they aren’t — you can see their eyes going here and there as they talk. So they don’t know that you are about to interrupt, and so there is an overlap that happens, and you get garbled sound. Thirdly, when you are face to face, you can read the person’s non-verbal communication — we all communicate through our eyes, the look on our face, the comfort and ease with which you are sitting. That level of interpretation is difficult on Zoom. 

Fourth, Zoom interviews, because we do it on the ordinary zoom line, after 35 minutes, it dies. As the interview is going on, you have to send another link, and that snaps the interview. It may happen at a particularly intense part of the discussion and you may want that to finish but you haven’t got that time. So I have to keep this in mind, maybe remember that 25 minutes are done, the next subject is likely to take more than 10 minutes, so it’s best to take a break here, then begin the interview afresh with the new subject so that one doesn’t have to interrupt it in the middle. 

Can’t you afford a paid Zoom account? 

I wish we could afford to pay Zoom. But these interviews are given to  The Wire for free. Such is Mr. Modi’s love of me that we have no sponsors. We did have a sponsor for roughly 16 months. Then they were literally told by the government that their relationship with us was considered unfriendly, and they dropped us. 

Kapil Dev with the 1983 World Cup trophy at Lord’s, England, June 1983.
| Photo Credit:
Getty Images

Professionals in public life are often remembered by one or two iconic moments. For someone like Kapil Dev, for instance, those moments might be lifting the 1983 World Cup, and crying on TV. 

[Pointing to a framed photograph on the wall]: There he is, behind you. Crying on TV.

In your case, do you think it’s the ‘dosti bani rahe’ moment you would be remembered by?

I suspect so. Until ‘ dosti bani rahe’ happened, I remember being introduced as the guy who made Kapil Dev cry. That Modi interview has a life that even I can’t control. Every time the PM gives an interview — whether it is to  CNN or whoever, people revive that clip.

Do you think you blundered in the Modi interview by starting it with a question about the 2002 Gujarat riots?

I had said to myself: he will know that at some point I will ask about 2002. If I don’t do it immediately, it will be like Damocles’ sword hanging over his head. It would create tension all the way through. That tension would make him defensive, on his guard. Why not bring it up, get it out of the way and move on to other things? I thought that was the right thing to do. 

The other question is: why did I phrase it the way I did. The opening question, if I recall correctly, was: ‘The  India Today magazine and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation consider you the most efficient Chief Minister in the country but people think of you as a mass murderer. Do you have an image problem?’ Why did I use the word ‘mass murderer’? Because I said to myself, the truth is, that is the term Muslims would use amongst themselves. If I am going to be euphemistic and polite, I am not really conveying to him what Muslims think, in which case, what’s the point of the question? 

Secondly, he is a politician. So I shouldn’t have any qualms about telling him what people think. He is not someone I am meeting in a drawing room, to whom you don’t want to be needlessly blunt. This is a politician who is elected because people vote for him, and therefore he should know what they think of him. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi, March 10, 2023.
| Photo Credit:
ANI

That’s an abstract idea of a politician. Do you think, in hindsight, as an interviewer, you misread his personality?

As in, not know that he would be so prickly? I am not denying there could have been a misreading of his personality, but I hadn’t known him at great depth and so I had no reading of his personality in my mind. I’ll tell you what I think went wrong. For some bizarre reason, he was doing the interview in English. I think in those days his English was nowhere near as fluent as it is today. I think there was a translation from Gujarati or Hindu in his head before he spoke in English, and that put him at a disadvantage — this combination of tough questions, and his problem answering because of this translation issue. 

Had it been in Hindi, he would have put me down immediately, because he knows how to do it in Hindi. In English, it’s a problem. And having begun speaking in English, he didn’t want to switch to Hindi, and he may have, in a sense, boxed himself into a corner by trying to do the interview in English. It was a terrible mistake. 

Would your career have panned out differently had a non-BJP government come to power in 2014 or 2019?

Or if the BJP government had come to power and the Modi incident had never happened? Of course! I don’t deny that my career has suffered. I’m not on TV, it [my show] is not as high profile as it used to be, but there is a sense in which my career has also — ‘benefited’ is the wrong word — acquired something it did not have. There are at least some, not many, who think Karan is bold and outspoken. That wouldn’t have been the case otherwise — it certainly wasn’t the opinion people had of me in 2017, to the extent they do now. But yes, it has alienated me from the BJP. They boycott me. I can’t interview them. That’s a block for me.

Is this boycott purely professional, or do BJP leaders avoid you socially as well? Do they speak to you if you meet them at a party or dinner? 

I don’t meet them. I don’t get invited to parties where we may be together. They don’t invite me to press conferences. They invite journalists for these gatherings, I am never invited — not that I mind, but I’m not invited.

External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar.
| Photo Credit:
ANI

One person I knew well as a friend before he became a BJP minister was S. Jaishankar, External Affairs Minister. When he was Foreign Secretary, when he was Ambassador in the U.S., when he was President of Global Corporate Affairs at the Tata Group, during all these stages, he has always come over for dinner, maybe twice a year. 

We got to know each other well because of [the late diplomat] Shankar Bajpai, who was a sort of mentor for Jaishankar and a very good friend of mine. Jai and I, on average twice a month, would be dining with Bajpai, which is how we got to know each other really well. One day, in April 2019, the elections were still under way, we were both walking out of Bajpai’s home at about 11-11.15 at night after dinner, when Jai said to me, ‘My book is coming out, I’d really like you to read it, and if you think it’s worth it, do an interview.’ I said, send me the book as quickly as you can, I’d love to do it. And obviously, he had meant, for  The Wire

Three or four weeks later, he became a minister. Sometime in August or September, when reviews of his book began appearing, I wrote to him to say, ‘I thought we had discussed that the first interview about your book would be with me.’ No reply at all. I must have written to him two or three times after that. No reply. 

I realised that Karan is a problem for him, because now he is in the government. Understandably, his attitude to Karan, the journalist, will be different from what it was before he joined the government. Now he has to share his government’s antipathy. I will add that he continues to be nice to me personally when we meet. On the personal side, there is no problem, but professionally, it’s different.

What’s the silliest question you’ve asked?

I thought it was quite witty, but the man I put it to, Barack Obama, didn’t like it. The question was: ‘America is famous for two Donalds. Donald Duck and Donald Trump. Which of the two is more representative of your country?’ Obama gave a long-winded answer that showed he had clearly missed the joke. It wasn’t a question that needed an answer – it needed a laugh, that’s all it needed.

Senior BJP leader L.K. Advani.
| Photo Credit:
Rajeev Bhatt

There is one other question I can think of which in retrospect you could consider silly — not in content but because it was indiscreetly phrased and rather rude. It was February 1998, and the elections had brought Vajpayee to power for the second time. I was interviewing L.K. Advani, and I said, “ Aap ne rakshas ke seeng ukhaad ke, munh pe muskurahat daal di hai, kyaa BJP badal rahe hain aap?” [You have pulled out the demon horns and planted a smile on your face. Are you giving the BJP a makeover?] He just sat there. Then there was a commercial break and he disappeared. I thought he had gone for a pee, but he didn’t come back. After a while I walked out to check and he was sitting in the next room. I said, “What happened, aren’t you coming back?” He said, “If you think I am a  rakshas, why do you want to interview me?’

If you got to interview Modi again, what would be your first question?

I would love to interview him again but I don’t think he would agree.

Supposing he agrees, your first question?

Agar aapko pyaas lag rahi hai, toh paani pehle pee leejiye?’ [Do you want to start off with a sip of water, in case you’re thirsty?] I would hope that if I actually ask this, he would see it as a lessening of the tension, as a joke, and carry on, because that’s what I would intend it as — it’s not to embarrass him.

What next? Do you have any new shows in mind?

I have a lot of shows that I would love to do but who the hell do I do them for?

When my contract with  India Today ended in 2017, Aroon Purie very openly said, “Look, I’ve got a problem. BJP will not come if you are there. We will be boycotted.” I said, “I understand, your channel has to be your first concern, not an anchor that you’ve got.” I am persona non grata. 

sampath.g@thehindu.co.in

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