P Chidambaram and Sitaram Yechury are very different people. It's unlikely that you would think of them as similar in any meaningful respect. However, last weekend I got to interview them not just on the same day but within an hour or so of each other. From such close proximity the similarities were hard to miss.
As interviewees they're formidable opponents. But on this occasion both had their back to the wall. Chidambaram was battling the widespread impression that the government and his ministry, in particular, goofed in preparing the 50 most-wanted list. Yechury had to face upto his party's worst-ever electoral performance. The CPI(M) has never had fewer seats at the Centre or in Bengal and Kerala.
I did not expect either man to agree. To my delight they did so readily. Then, as the pressure of continuing developments built up, I expected both to back out. Neither did. So, when the cameras rolled, the tension — or expectation — was palpable.
Would they stonewall my questions? Or, if they answered, would they adopt an unhelpful defensiveness that might be initially engaging but ultimately dissatisfying? Or would they be candid and forthright, willing to accept errors and misjudgements, and forthcoming in explaining their limitations?
Chidambaram and Yechury are proud men. They're also good speakers. They can be combative and often, I suspect, enjoy it! Their intelligence is razor-sharp, they express themselves carefully and they can spot loopholes or fudges in an interviewer's questions faster than most others. I knew I had a daunting challenge on my hands.
The Chidambaram interview happened first. From his initial words I could tell he was determined not to be defensive. He immediately conceded the goof-up was "embarrassing" yet cavilled at accepting incompetence. But, yes, there could be more. However, this wouldn't change the dynamics of India's relationship with Pakistan because neither country takes the other's most-wanted list seriously. In fact, he admitted, he wasn't sure why these lists are exchanged.
It was when I asked if India could stage a US-style Abbottabad operation that Chidambaram's genius for candour blended with discretion became strikingly clear. In effect, he said no. But it was how he said it that was telling. "We have some capacity but we have many constraints too...we are not the US."
The heart of the Yechury interview was in its tail. Its end was its making. Over a series of questions, Yechury clearly suggested that the leadership of the CPI(M) could change by the end of the year. Whether or not this would happen will become clear when the Central Committee meets in June. From the second-most important man in the party, and a putative successor to Prakash Karat, this sounded like a throwing-down of the gauntlet.
Yet, once again, it was done with discretion. Almost in code. Yechury's challenge was couched in terms of what would be correct procedure for the party to follow. No one can accuse him of insubordination or indiscipline.
The truth is both men grasped the interview to put out a message. They adroitly converted adversity into opportunity. I congratulate them — and thank them too!
Their skill reminds me of Margaret Thatcher. Asked when she would never refuse an interview she replied: "When things are going against me. It's a chance to show I have the answers and I'm fully in control." And then, tongue-in-cheek, added: "It's also when people are most willing to listen and that's an opportunity no one should let slip!"
The views expressed by the author are personal