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Karan Thapar chat

Long before the Barkha Dutts and Rajdeep Sardesais came along, all identified interviews with Karan Thapar. His programme Face to Face on BBC World only confirms his popularity. Think drama, think Thapar. Remember Kapil Dev breaking down on television? Read the transcript of a chat with him on August 13.

india Updated: Sep 12, 2003 18:03 IST

laughingbuddha: Many believe the Tehelka accusations against Kapil Dev could have been a strong possibility. But you interviewed the guy. What did you see which we missed out?
Karan_Thapar: I hate to have to comment, judge mentally on any of my interviewees. But since you ask, my personal view is that Kapil was innocent. When he cried those were tears of wrath, because he realized that it was so easy to accuse and it was so difficult to be proved innocent. It's been two years since the interview was broadcasted and the allegations have been proved as wrong. This, I think, proves my point.

bhardwajdharmesh: Why do our press and politicians always want to have good relations with Pakistan though we, common people of India, don't want any kind of relations with them?
Karan_Thapar: You are wrong Dharmesh, both in terms of what you think what the Indians want and what the politicians want. Ordinary Indians want good relationship with Pakistan, because other than religion, we are one people. We share a culture, a language, the same lifestyle and a common culinary tradition. We even share the same swear words! So when politicians pursue good relations with Pakistan, they are both responding to the political compulsion of being geographical neighbours but also to the popular feeling of the vast majority of our people. They are right to do so. Although, they don't do it the way they should.

sverma253: How do you see Indo-Pak relations unfolding in next couple of years?
Karan Thapar: Sadly there's a difference between how I think they will unfold, and how I would want them to. I think that the progress towards peace and an amicable relationship will be slow, tortuous and contradictory and for every step forward, we will take as many, if not more, backwards. But what I want to see is very different. I would like to see development towards relationship at least like that exists today between Britain and Ireland, and perhaps one day, in the romantic future, like that between the two Germanys, which have re-united into one country.

bhardwajdharmesh: What is your personal opinion about Mrs Sonia Gandhi's capabilities since she is not a good politician, good speaker, not very much educated, doesn't know India very well?
Karan_Thapar: That Mrs. Gandhi is not a natural, eloquent speaker is indisputable, but most politicians are not orators and learn to speak well. So can she. Of her education, all I can say, I am not aware if she has a university degree, but I don't think that such degrees are hallmark of wisdom. Some of the best politicians we've had have not achieved good education. Indira Gandhi is one example. Rajiv Gandhi is another. Wisdom and common sense is more important in a politician than degrees and formal education. Although, no one wants a fool as a Prime Minister. And when it comes to her experience and ability, all I can say, is clearly before becoming Congress President, she had none of the former. But since then, I am not sure how much we know of the latter or how much of it has been tested. But I agree that she need to be tested very thoroughly if we have to accept her as the Congress nominee for the post.

laughingbuddha: How much has television journalism changed since you began?
Karan_Thapar: (LOL) 'Laughingbuddhas' are perhaps amongst my favorite symbols! They symbolize both tolerance and happiness. But to answer more seriously, I think two things have happened to television journalism, both of which I welcome and applaud. First, with experience and confidence, it has gained in stature and impact. Proof of this is that we watch TV news every night and learn from it. Second, television interviews have become more assertive and sometimes, even more aggressive. The old tone has disappeared. As a result, on a more personal note, people don't accuse me of being too aggressive or a rakshash! There are so many more like me. We are all rakshashes now!

Ronita: Of the many interviews you have done which ones are your favorites?
Karan_Thapar: It's hard to answer this because it's so difficult to choose. The truth is you develop a fondness for some aspect or another of almost every interview that you do. But the ones that stand out in my mind would include LK Advani, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandrashekhar, Benazir Bhutto, General Musharraf, Prime Minister Karzai and Condoliza Rice, amongst politicians. And from artists and celebrities, I would say, Kajol, Amitabh Ghose, Shah Rukh Khan, Raja Reddy (accompanied by both his wives), Mukesh and Nita Ambani, Ratan Tata, and the Dalai Lama. I would also like to mention Field Marshal Manekshaw in this list.

sverma253: What did Subramanyam Swami say after you finished his interview?
Karan_Thapar: I have had Dr. Swami many times as a guest on different shows, but I don't recall a one-to-one interview with him. So if you tell me, which episode you are talking about, I will be able to answer more fully.

laughingbuddha: You have often been accused of not giving your interviewees enough time to respond, interrupting them and disturbing their thought process. You should naturally have been out of circulation. Instead you are one of most known interviewers in Indian journalism. How do you explain this?
Karan_Thapar: Ha, Ha. The obvious answer - must be that people like interruptions and find them justified! But the truth is that I only interrupt when either the interviewee is filibustering and we have limited time. Or if he is refusing to answer questions that deserve answer. On such occasions, the job of an interviewer is to get answer and not permit prevarication. If people like the way I do interviews, surely it must follow that they have recognized a little of this in me.

bjram991: What are your future plans. How would you like to improve our media and bring new things to the people of India?
Karan_Thapar: My future plans tend to unfold each day because I am not the sort of person who plans long into the future. I am not very strategic about my career. What I want to do is to make many more good programmes. Regarding the media, the only thing I would presume to say is that the more we have of it, and the greater the diversity within it, the better. As Mao said, in a different context, "let a hundred flowers bloom".

sverma253: BJP after Vajpayee...
Karan_Thapar: One of the greatest strengths of the BJP - and here it contrasts more starkly with Congress - is that the BJP has second and even third rungs of leadership and these are people of merit of achievement and whose efforts are recognized within their party. So whenever Mr. Vajpayee leaves, will be missed but won't, by any means, be irreplaceable. And it's even possible that those who succeed him may prove to be stronger leaders and, if they ever become prime ministers, better heads of government. I look forward to that succession, whenever it happens.

laughingbuddha: Which is your favourite cuisine?
Karan_Thapar: Smiling... I am great junk food addict. And beyond that I like eccentric, idiosyncratic things. I love Bigmacs, but not the ones you get in India. The reason should be obvious. I love peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, and even peanut butter and marmalade on grainy brown bread. I love eggs and bacon and sausages. I love rich creamy puddings with extra lashings of cream. I adore chocolates, particularly Gotiva. And I like baked foods, particularly Cheese Soufles. I also adore Rajma chawal, phulkas with makhan and chini, hot crisp Jalebis and hot GulabJamuns! And I love Shami kababs, Tandoori chicken, Bhindi and Karela. I absolutely hate Kaddu, Lauki and Tinda! (Are you about to invite me for dinner!)

Smita: Don't you think that sensationalization in news has increased off-late, especially by the TV news channels? What should be done to make media accountable for what they report?
Karan_Thapar: I think a better word would be trivialisation, rather than sensationalization. I think there is a real sense in which all the news channels are dumming down in the mistaken belief that this will increase their popularity. So silly subjects are treated with undue significance. And this is true of all the channels, almost all the time, with a few limited exceptions. But I don't call this sensationalization because this is a much overused and often misunderstood word. When the subject you don't favor is covered, chances are that you would say that its sensationalized. But that will reflect your individual standpoint rather than any objective standards of judgment. I think a bigger problem in India is that we raise subjects on day one only to forget them a day or so later. We don't pursue and persist. We treat things like flashes in the pan.

bhardwajdharmesh: What do you do on your off days?
Karan_Thapar: I am a 'lazybum' on sundays because I love reading in bed till 2 or 3 in the morning. I refuse to get up till one in the afternoon. Then I snuggle up with the papers, hot cups of tea and peanut butter sandwiches. I don't get up and get ready till 6 or 7in the evening. My only activity of any physical nature is a game of squash. I suggest you imitate what I do and see how much fun it is!

mruddin: Do you agree that BJP's agenda is to destroy secularism in India?
Karan_Thapar: Let me answer your question in two parts. That's the most honest way I can tackle it. First, I don't believe that BJP has a formal agenda to destroy secularism. But I do believe that certain individuals in the BJP have targetted the Muslim community in ways that damage the fabric of our nation. And sometimes, I worry about the Prime Minister's position in issues such as Gujarat, Ayodhya and the position of Muslims in our country. Often, such things that can only be understood against a background of suspicion or prejudice. I have written about it and, if you can, lookup some of the Sunday Sentiments for better and fuller view on this. My concerns are serious and I have never heard them answered from anyone, leave aside Mr. Vajpayee.

Honey: You do not hesitate to criticize other media professionals for their poor standard of journalism. Have you made any enemies within media?
Karan_Thapar: Honey, with such a sweet name, your question has a surprising sting in its tail. I am not aware of what you call, my lack of hesitation in criticizing other media professionals. Although I do so from time to time, it is always with hesitation and discretion, and after having argued with myself that this is the right thing to do. Perhaps, this is why, I don't think I have enemies in the profession. But I am sure, you will notice my use of the phrase "I think". I accept I could be wrong. But if I have enemies I don't know of, would you be kind enough to inform me? I don't want to live in a fool's paradise.

manoj_kn1: Why is India, with its enormous potential, is still a developing country?
Karan_Thapar: We are a developing country, not just because our standards of living of a majority of our people is so much lower than that of the countries of Europe and North America but also because of the way we treat our people. To my mind, the latter is more important. We treat them like fodder and often we don't respect their individuality. The day we recognize and celebrate the differences between people that day we will encourage their potential to perform to the best of their abilities, and when that happens, we will not just catch up with the developed world, but also with our own unfulfilled promise. So, in a nutshell, we remain undeveloped because the way we treat ourselves and the shackles that we put over our talent. Of course, the government is to be blamed, but so are we. We elect and then re-elect these governments. And we permit them to get away with unspeakable follies undertaken in the name of populism.

David: What is your personal opinion on the Iraq war?
Karan_Thapar: Let me start by saying that Saddam Hussain was a hateful person. Let me add that I think in an enlightened world, we have a duty to fight tyranny wherever it exists. We cannot afford to live as isolated islands because otherwise the ocean of discontent will drown us. But sadly, ours is not an enlightened world. Therefore, in these circumstances, the haste with which, and the disregard for international opinion that lay behind the American invasion on Iraq, makes it deeply questionable on the way it was done to the point of being unjustified.

You will notice that I have not answered in clear-cut black and white terms, but then not every answer can be of that type. In this case, there are shades of gray. I want to acknowledge that, while still concluding that what America did was wrong.

MPSharma: Why didn't you go with the recent Indian political and media delegation to Pakistan?
Karan_Thapar: Because no one invited me! I don't believe that it's the duty of media as a whole, or even individuals within it to support and stand behind the government on any issue. On the contrary, the duty of the media is to raise questions, point out faults and anomalies, and vitiate different viewpoints, and always speak fearlessly, honestly, as comprehensively as possible and as objectively as you can. Who, in his right mind will say, that it is disloyal to question the government? Even Tony Blair does not say that.

rajivhtc: My name is Rajiv Malik, I asked you the question on beef eating.
Karan_Thapar: What you eat and what you enjoy eating, is surely your concern. I eat beef but I respect those who don't. In turn, I except that you will respect my choice. I recall a visit to Dhaka in 1985 when I discovered that the hotel served sausages and bacon. I remarked on this to the waiter and I will never forget his reply. He said: "I don't eat pork but why should that affect you? If you want to, then I will be happy to serve it to you." He was only a poor Bangladeshi but he was a very wise man. One other little thing, when my wife Nisha accidentally served chilli con carne made of beef mints to my friend Parveen Anand in London, and then was profusely apologetic for her error, he laughed and said: "It's only the Indian cow that's holy!". So loosen up and shed your silly prejudices. You don't have to eat beef if you don't want to. You don't have to eat Tinda and Karelas either. But why do you worry about others who do?

bhardwajdharmesh: Do you think the misuse of religion is the biggest obstacle to India's development?
Karan_Thapar: Yes! In fact, the biggest 'YES' possible. And I am particularly glad you used the world misuse. In this context, I want to invite you to re-read Marx's famous paragraph where he calls religion the opium of the masses. That suggests that religion is like a misleading drug. In fact, the full paragraph suggests something else. He also refers to it as the sole of a soul-less world and the cry of the oppressed creature. In its full context, he is saying something else. That's also true of religion. Much of our culture and spirituality comes from religion. Much of our philosophy too. But when the narrow walls of prejudice confine religion to cheap shibboleths then it's being misused and that misuse becomes the biggest obstacle to development, particularly in poor countries where the support of religion matters so much.

Dimple: Will you ever shed your glasses and start using contacts?
Karan_Thapar: If I got rid of my glasses I would have been blind. Also, without them, I would really look like a rakshash. The less you see of me, the more you are going to like what you see!

First Published: Sep 03, 2003 16:32 IST