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Devil's advocacy

columns Updated: Aug 24, 2013 21:55 IST
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My Devil's Advocate interview with Ashok Khemka, the IAS officer who claims Robert Vadra is guilty of both criminal misconduct and illegal behaviour, has provoked a cascade of criticism alongside a small stream of support. Although I anticipated the obloquy, I find much of it misunderstands the role of devil's advocates and presumes that the questions I asked reflect my own position. So, this Sunday, permit me the indulgence of an explanation.

The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines devil's advocate as 'a person who argues against a proposition, to test it or provoke discussion'. Wikipedia says 'a devil's advocate is someone who, given a certain argument, takes a position he or she does not necessarily agree with, for the sake of debate'. My programme is deliberately called Devil's Advocate in the hope viewers will realise from the name what sort of interview to expect.

I knew that in playing devil's advocate to Ashok Khemka I was going against the grain of popular sentiment. He's considered an icon and you don't seek popularity questioning an icon's credibility.

My intention was to challenge two of his conclusions by questioning the premise they are based upon. First, his claim that Vadra's Skylight Hospitality's purchase of land was a sham sale because the cheque didn't belong to the company. Under questioning Khemka accepted this was an "inference" which has still to be proven. In other words, it isn't a fact. So if the premise is questionable the conclusion necessarily falters.

The second conclusion I challenged was that Vadra's company had suppressed information about possession of the land when it applied for a commercial licence. Khemka said he was "hundred percent" certain of this. However, it emerged that this information was part of the supporting documents submitted with the application. Admittedly, it wasn't in the right format but the information was there.

In the second half of the interview I questioned Khemka's right to take action after he had been transferred. No doubt he was duty-bound to continue till relieved by his successor, but the key issue is did he have the right to exercise his powers after being transferred? The retired cabinet secretaries I consulted said that time-honoured convention had established that, except in an emergency, a transferred officer must not take substantive decisions. Khemka, it seems, breached that convention.

Now, there's no doubt I did all of this aggressively. I didn't hesitate to interrupt. Having seen his NDTV interview, hours before mine, I was aware how he could bury a question under an avalanche of bewildering and, even, irrelevant detail. I was determined not to let that happen to me. Equally, it was the only way I could force out of him the two concessions I obtained. If I had not interrupted I'd have failed.

But did the outcome reflect my position? Not at all. In fact, that would be true of most of my interviews.

I have considerable respect for Khemka's suspicions. He's added a great deal of detail to the story originally exposed by the Business Standard and The Hindu. He deserves credit for this. But, alas, two of his facts turned out not to be facts and his timing is questionable.

My job as Devil's Advocate was to explore all of that. It offended his admirers but pleased his critics. Sadly, it also pained Mr Khemka. However, I'm reassured by the letter he sent me: "Next time you ask me for an interview I would eagerly take up the challenge."

Views expressed by the author are personal