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Why we must welcome more Oxford Union type interviews

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So often do we see on TV news channels that public figures – politicians mainly – utter things that everybody knows is a falsehood, much to the embarrassment of those who are expected to consume these diatribes as the ‘truth’. The said politician then goes on, either denying a very obvious fact, or emphasizing an untruth, resting assured on the knowledge that the listeners cannot or dare not challenge him.

Some time back a press conference was held on service tax where P.Chidambaram was answering journalists’ questions. When asked why lawyers had not been included in the service tax ambit, Chidambaram bluntly retorted, “Who says lawyers provide a service?” This was met with an embarrassed hush from the audience every one of whom must probably have thought, ‘Then what is it that the lawyers do?’ As all know, both P.Chidambaram and his wife are accomplished lawyers.

There was certainly a time when due to lack of exposure of their antics politicians were mostly able to get away with whatever they said or did by simply ignoring the few who questioned, or denying it, or claiming to have been misquoted. But today, when media scrutiny is so pervasive, and politicians and events so minutely covered, even then politicians fall back on their old habit of ‘ignore-deny-claim misquote’. The common citizen is left fuming at the sheer temerity with which they fool the people at large. Most people today are much better informed on political matters because of the same pervasive media. But apart from the few occasions when the odd bold journalist tears apart and exposes the foolish presentations of such naïve politicians, there is little succor for the helpless common man. Compounding this is the period of security that politicians enjoy between elections, when the more brazen among them tend to cross all limits of probity.

So, does the common man – the voter, the public, the ‘ruled’ – have nothing to fall back on for relief from the wily games our ‘rulers’ play? The wiles that play out in the form of absolutely ridiculous utterances that are dished out in spite of everyone knowing the reality?

Yes, there is.  And that is to show such people the mirror. So that they may see the sorry picture they cut with their ridiculously brazen statements. The more brazen among them – and they have indeed reached that plane too – will not care if the ‘locals’, the ‘natives’, have caught on to their game of uttering untruths or dishing out ridiculous statements left, right and center.

For such people, the new trend that we should welcome is the interview or debate – at the international level. One where the interviewer is not a ‘local’ or a ‘native’, but a journalist of international standing and one who prepares himself impeccably for the one-on-one. And also where in addition to the viewing audience worldwide, even the audience present at the venue of the interview comprises of well selected and extremely well informed and discerning people. Their spontaneous reactions to the interview as it goes along is a genuine representation of – the truth.

It is in this context that the recent interview of BJP General Secretary Ram Madhav with the Al Jazeera anchor Mehdi Hasan is relevant.

Compare two situations. One, where you may have just any typical present day politician replying to the questions (that were put up by Mehdi Hasan) in India and by a run of the mill TV reporter. Imagine what the answers would have been – the flat denials, the dodging of questions, the refusal to answer some questions – which will be aired as-is-where-is, and the ‘native’ audience will be expected to lap it all up faithfully (“what else can they do?”).

In the next situation you have an international journalist Mehdi Hasan doing a well-publicized interview with a senior politician Ram Madhav on foreign soil, at a reputed venue and with a very discerning audience as well as international viewership. Now the interviewer has done his homework thoroughly and knows that Madhav is an eloquent speaker and has an RSS background. The interviewer is also well aware of the current ground situation in India. So he’s prepared his questions accordingly which are searing, penetrative, and truth-extracting, and won’t allow any dodging of his questions. In fact, wherever dodging is attempted he points it out promptly. Where the answers are wrong he points them out too, and where Madhav makes a mistake, he pounces on such moments further winning the audience’s appreciation.

Beginning to get flustered, Madhav makes some more errors like saying “Your ISIS”, and unacceptable denials like “there’s no intolerance in India”, and face-saving refusals-to-answer like “we have taken steps but I won’t tell you about them now”. And to this last one Mehdi Hasan taunts, “Oh, you don’t want to say what steps you’ve taken; they’re secret!”  And then Hasan scores another huge one by making an embarrassing reference to the theory of ‘Akhand Bharat’ which Madhav defends sheepishly.

Interspersed in all of this – for about 47 minutes – there are sniggers and titters, and a few more incisive observations in the form of audience questions, as well as several observations from the expert panel.

And at the end of all this, even though Mehdi Hasan compliments Madhav on being a “strong interviewee”, you can see the expression of relief on Madhav’s face. The interview and its outcome become a raging hit on social media, the BJP is forced to distance itself from Madhav’s observations on ‘Akhand Bharat’, and the interview is a hot talking point even today.

So much for this interview. It is only a reference point. The true gist is that this is the kind of mirror that needs to be shown to our politicians for a reality check.  The more frequent, the better. The international stage is where they cannot get away with the lackadaisical statements and theories that they are used to dishing out to ‘the natives’ back home. This is where each word they speak will be measured for its true meaning and worth, and they’ll be pulled down to earth whenever they try to be too clever by half.

So for the sake of keeping our ‘rulers’ grounded to reality and to instil the fear of pretense and falsity, such interviews at the international level are really welcome.  Maybe, for the sheer truth value of such discourses, the politicians might be compelled to accept that TV scrutiny even back home is actually as penetrating as these international interviews, and thus their conduct and speech on home media also needs to be within acceptable parameters.

For starters, what could be better for the hapless common man?

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