Glimpses of two generals and a prime minister

BY KARAN THAPAR| IN Books | 21/07/2018
There was also a fourth interview with a memorable story, though it happened entirely off-camera.
From KARAN THAPAR’s ‘Devil’s Advocate—The Untold Story’


Book extract
Devil’s Advocate—An Untold Story
Author—Karan Thapar
Harper Collins publishers
New Delhi, July 2018



Extracted from Chapter 5,  Starting a Career in Television


The highlight of my work on Eastern Eye were three interviews, but for reasons that had nothing to do with Birt.*   They were with the heads of government of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, the three countries whose natives comprised Britain’s Asian community. Each interview attracted attention and got talked about for rather odd reasons.

The interview with General Hussain Muhammad Ershad, then dictator of Bangladesh, became notorious for the way it ended. The general fancied himself as a poet and had composed a few special stanzas which he was determined to read out. With a solemn voice and a look suggesting that he had something important to say, his verse began: ‘From the green fields of Bangladesh, bristling in the sun, to the good people of Britain, where there is none...’

I just about managed to keep a straight face, but it was sufficient to convince the dictator that i admired his poetry. he promised to send me more. Fortunately, either he forgot or his staff ensured it never reached me.

The interview with Pakistan’s General Zia-ul-haq is memorable for what happened halfway through. We were, I think, quarrelling over Benazir Bhutto and whether in Zia’s Pakistan she was free to say and do what she wanted to.  His tense face was proof that this wasn’t a line of questioning he was comfortable with. the tight smile on his face looked decidedly false.

Then suddenly from the porch outside the drawing room where the interview was being recorded, came a sound of car doors banging noisily. It’s not the sort of thing you would expect when you’re interviewing a military ruler. However, it completely changed the general’s mood. interrupting himself, he explained: ‘that’s my family coming home. You must meet them afterwards.’ this seemed to relax him. He was a different man thereafter.


The interview wasn’t broadcast live, but it was sent via satellite live to London and, thereafter, broadcast without editing. Thus, everyone heard this little interlude and it attracted as much attention as anything else the general had said.

For me, however, the memory that lingers is of the general’s elaborate courtesy, though, to be honest, it was manufactured, even if artfully. When the interview ended, he escorted me to my car which by then was waiting in the front porch. After thanking him and bidding adieu, I got in and the car drove in a half-circle as it negotiated the round garden at the front of the house. When it was at the other end, with the porch at the back, Gen. Zia’s aide-de-camp (ADc) suddenly said: ‘look back, Mr Thapar, the general is waving.’

i turned to discover Gen. Zia standing exactly where he had shaken my hand and bid goodbye. now, however, he was waving at the departing car. Clearly, this was a practice the general had made a habit of. What’s more, his ADc was aware of this, which is why, even when we had our backs to the general, he was able to alert me. No other interviewee, either then or in the decades to follow, has used courtesy so deliberately to create a favourable impression.

The third interview, this time with Rajiv Gandhi, became famous because of what it revealed about him. For a start, the audience fell in love with his dimples and engaging smile. though articulate, he had a shy manner that was endearing. But it was his language that caught everyone’s attention. it was informal and quite un-prime ministerial. i don’t remember what my question was, but this was the answer that won all-round praise: ‘You don’t expect me to tell you on telly, do you?’

There was also a fourth interview with a memorable story, though it happened entirely off-camera. this one was with P.V. Narasimha Rao, then union home minister. It took place in January 1985, weeks after Indira Gandhi’s assassination and Rajiv Gandhi’s notorious defence of the sikh massacre that followed on the grounds that ‘when a big tree falls, the earth will shake’. In one of his answers, Narasimha Rao said something similar. I noticed, but let it pass. This was a ten-minute interview and i needed to move on to other issues rather than spend time pursuing an indiscreet response. But unknown to me, Narasimha Rao was clearly disturbed by what he considered a damaging lapse.

The interview over, I returned to the hotel and was taking a shower when the phone rang. I reached out from behind the curtain to take the call. The voice on the other end claimed to be Narasimha Rao.

‘Sure,’ I snapped. ‘And I’m Rajiv Gandhi. now stop it, Siddo, and let me have a shower.’ This was precisely the sort of prank my nephew, Siddo Deva, would frequently play.

‘No, Karan, this really is Narasimha Rao, the home minister.’

‘I’m sorry, minister. I thought you were my nephew trying to make a fool of me. What’s happened?’

Narasimha rao explained that he was worried about something he had said in the interview. He believed it could inflame opinions in India which, under the circumstances at the time, was not just undesirable but could be particularly damaging. Would LWT drop that answer?

I told the minister that the interview had already been sent through satellite to london and I would have to ask my bosses if they were willing to make the cut. I wasn’t sure whether the answer would be yes.

‘Please try your best,’ he requested. I promised I would.

When I rang up LWT, I discovered that this was a matter that had to be referred all the way to the top. So it wasn’t a short or simple phone call. Eventually, when it ended up in John Birt’s hands, the answer I received was a delight.

‘Tell Mr Rao that we make a career stitching up ministers,’ Birt began. ‘Now, for a change, it will be a pleasure to unstitch one instead.’

Narasimha Rao got the joke at once. I could tell he was laughing, even though I couldn’t hear the sound over the phone. ‘Tell Mr Birt I’m grateful and I like his sense of humour.’


*  John Birt, London Weekend Television’s director of programmes, later Director General of the BBC.


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