NEWS, VIEWS AND THE INSIDE TRACK
Much of Karan Thapar’s life has revolved around people in high places. This is not surprising considering his top family connections, Oxbridge education and the need as a television show host to chase down celebrity guests. To carp that this made him elitist, as some of his detractors have, makes little sense since Thapar has unabashedly and quite justifiably used his access to those who matter to make a vocation.
Indeed his proximity from an early age to movers and shakers in political circles and beyond is what makes Thapar’s first book named after his show, Devil’s Advocate, a good read. Some of it is undoubtedly trivia like him being named by the Maharani of Kashmir or Sanjay Gandhi coming around to the house to fix his mother’s transistor or how Rajiv Gandhi got him his first job in India. But he does tell a telling story about learning how to fly from Sanjay in a single-engine propeller plane above Delhi with the Gandhi scion occasionally swooping down to scare farmers working in agricultural fields outlying the capital, making them scurry in panic.
There are some very piquant anecdotes of the young Benazir Bhutto, whom he befriended while he was at Cambridge and she at Oxford. The best chapter in the book is on the intriguing dalliance chaperoned by the television journalist between Pakistan’s high commissioner in Delhi, Ashraf Jahangir Qazi, and the then home minister Lal Krishna Advani and his wife at a crucial stage of India-Pakistan ties. Thapar’s simultaneous rapport with Brajesh Mishra, Man Friday of the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, underlines his access to the corridors of power during the Vajpayee years, dispelling the canard of him being a mere Congress groupie.
Yet, both as political history and personal memoir, Devil’s Advocate is disappointingly limited to a string of racy yarns. Perhaps used to relaying just a sharp exchange of sound bites on television, Thapar fails to develop on the many fascinating personalities or events in the book. In fact, it is surprising that he has not attempted a biography of Benazir despite his personal insights of the slain Pakistani leader from her formative years nor a book with his insider’s knowledge of the Vajpayee government’s gambit to mend relations with Pakistan. And apart from a perfunctory account of his childhood, youth and professional career, he reveals nothing about himself.
Finally, there is the controversy over whether Thapar should have broken the journalist code of not revealing sources to tell the story of his boycott by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his regime. He could shrug off the protestations of the excitable BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra, but the flat denial of key quotes in the book attributed to celebrated author and diplomat Pavan Varma, a friend to boot, is more embarrassing. Thapar’s dismissal of this as a “senior moment” might make Varma even more furious. But then the book is, after all, a celebration of the television host’s many estrangements and rapprochements.
Both as political history and personal memoir, the book is disappointingly limited to a string of racy yarns
DEVIL’S ADVOCATE The Untold Story by KARAN THAPAR Harpers India `699; 224 pages