Interviewing Modi: When ANI played Devil’s Advocate better than Karan Thapar
Until 2017, nearly a decade after then-Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi walked out of his TV interview show Devil’s Advocate, Karan Thapar did not know where he had gone wrong. That interview made news for all the wrong reasons as far as Modi was concerned, for it only strengthened the perception that he was unwilling to face tough or awkward questions from journalists.
But it would be naïve to suggest that one does not notice the signs that emerge after a mindful viewing. What Thapar, one of the country’s foremost TV journalists, did that day was straight out of a textbook manual which could just be titled “What Not to Do in Adversarial Journalism”.
So where did it all go wrong? By Thapar’s admission during a recent book tour, what he could have done was rephrase the very first question. His question about people calling Modi a ‘mass murderer,’ despite praise for his governance, set the tone for the rest of the interview, even though Modi did not flinch initially.
The charade went on for another couple of minutes, during which Thapar went into preacher mode and tried to tell Modi what he should have done in terms of repentance, which is when Modi got defensive before deciding to end it.
Contrast that with the interview he gave to ANI’s Smita Prakash during the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections. Prakash started by asking him questions about the upcoming polls before she broached the questions about Hindutva and the fears over his communal track record.
One might contend that Prakash did not ask any substantial follow-up questions, but therein lies the art of the interviewer — the ability to build that level of comfort with the subject before posing uncomfortable questions.
In this case, what Prakash got right was the structure of lining up questions — those about the elections stacked in the beginning, followed by those on political mud-slinging and divisive election rhetoric in the middle and towards the end.
Whereas Thapar, seasoned interviewer that he might be, went in with the attitude of a public prosecutor aiming to put Modi on trial for his alleged involvement and negligence during the 2002 Gujarat riots. He might have even succeeded had he started with questions on the upcoming Gujarat state polls instead, which were a mere six weeks away at that time.
That said, Prakash’s approach should not be seen as an example of adversarial journalism. It could well be argued that she secured a second interview with Modi after he became Prime Minister only because her questions had not been forceful enough the first time around.
In light of that, Thapar’s interview should be viewed as not just a journalistic gaffe, but also a missed opportunity.