'Do you ever admire politicians?' It's the sort of sardonic query I'm often asked but when my colleague Vijay Shaw popped the question, it caught me off guard.
We'd just finished an interview with Salman Khurshid on the government's inept handling of Anna Hazare and at the time I was both delighted and relieved it had happened. With Parliament in a furore and thousands on the streets, I didn't expect Salman to agree or, thereafter, keep his word. When you seem to have got everything wrong and the bitter consequences are exploding around you making yourself accountable for - or defending - your alleged mistakes is the last thing you want to do. Frankly, I'd run for cover!
But, perhaps, this is precisely what Vijay had in mind? Maybe this is why he asked a deceptively simple question? Not sure, I responded with one of my own. "Why do you ask?"
"Because Salman is the only Cabinet minister who's willing to be interviewed. In fact, he quietly slipped out of Parliament to keep his commitment. I saw him on TV. As soon as he finished speaking he left to come for the interview. As soon as it ended he returned."
Hmm… so that's what Vijay wanted to know. Do I admire politicians when, in adverse circumstances, they subject themselves to hostile questioning? To be honest, journalists rarely look at politicians in this light. We're so narrowly focused on our own mission to question and criticise we hardly ever think of the person on the other side. What does it feel like to be in that position? And would you want to be there when you know your case is weak and the dice loaded against you?
"Yes," I replied, but rather softly. "I admire Salman for what he did today." In fact, I'm not sure I'd have the guts or the wisdom to do what he did. Probably not.
"So who are the others who've shown this sort of strength?" Vijay was grinning. He could tell he had me thinking fast and furiously. The look on my face revealed my predicament. If you've never considered politicians in this light coming up with a list of those who qualify isn't easy. So my answer was neither comprehensive nor authoritative.
"Now that you're forcing me to think there's Kapil Sibal and Ambika Soni from the government. They've both done interviews when no one else would. Sitaram Yechury and AB Bardhan, when the Left lost in Bengal, both last year and this. Arun Jaitley and Venkaiah Naidu from the BJP."
"And beyond politicians?" Now, this was tricky. Politicians, after all, have a duty to be accountable. Lay people do not. So you either don't seek them out or remember when they refuse.
But Vijay's relentless questioning made me recall the courage Tarun Das showed last year after he'd been caught inflagrante on the Radia Tapes. When I asked him for an interview, I expected a firm no. Instead, he accepted. Later he told me why. "If I'm going to clear my name, I need to be toughly questioned. Soft handling won't help. I knew you'd be tough but I hoped it would work."
Alas, that's the danger. You just don't know if the interview will help. But it's a risk you have to take. Not to do it leaves people thinking you have no answers. But if it goes wrong, they end up convinced of that.
Thank god I only ask the questions!
The views expressed by the author are personal