I’ve known P Chidambaram longer than most other Indian politicians. Way back in 1989, when I was considering returning to India after Nisha’s death but still not sure of my future plans, Rajiv Gandhi asked Chidambaram to take me to dinner and brief me about the political lie of the land.
At the time, Chidambaram was staying on Aurangzeb Road, which is where I arrived one evening at 8. He took me to the House of Ming at the Taj Mahal Hotel. In those days, it was considered one of the finest restaurants in Delhi. He ordered generously and the evening that followed was as intellectually eye-opening as it was a gourmet’s delight.
It led to an interesting relationship. We didn’t become friends, nor were we particularly close, but Chidambaram has always been willing to give me interviews. In the decades that followed, I must have done one every year.
So you can imagine my surprise when, in June 2008, I asked for an interview and he responded by saying he would only agree if I accepted his conditions. At the time he was finance minister and a little upset about an earlier interview in 2006. That interview was about the UPA government’s reservations in education for the Other Backward Castes . In an attempt to point out how shortsighted, if not contradictory this policy was, I referred to a newspaper article that suggested that even Chidambaram himself might qualify for these reservations. The newspaper was wrong and Chidambaram got understandably upset. It clearly rankled with him and so, two years later, he would only agree to an interview if I accepted his prior conditions.
I soon realised I had no choice but to agree. Otherwise I wouldn’t get the interview. However, Chidambaram insisted that I send my producer — who, at the time, was a young Jawaharlal Nehru University scholar called Manish Tiwari — to meet him so he could personally inform him of the conditions.
“Why don’t you tell me?” I asked. “After all, they apply to the interview and I’m the interviewer. So it’s best to tell me.” Chidambaram flatly refused. “I insist you send your producer. I’m only going to talk to him.”
So off Manish went. When he returned, he looked both surprised and crestfallen. “The man has only one condition,” he said. “He’ll give the interview if you agree that he has the right to decide whether it’s broadcast or not. If he doesn’t like the way it went, he’ll tell you not to show it and he won’t explain why. That’s all he wants you to accept.”
Actually, that one condition was a lot. Chidambaram wanted the right to veto. No self-respecting journalist would ever have agreed. That was my initial thought too. However, I also realised that the interview would never happen if this was my final stand. And the finance minister was someone we needed to interview. So I consulted Rajdeep Sardesai, then editor of CNN-IBN, the home of my programme Devil’s Advocate. After a long chat, we decided that we would accept and risk Chidambaram imposing a veto. We both thought that it was unlikely to happen. The man was probably just being difficult. To be honest, Chidambaram can at times be a very awkward customer.
The interview was held in one of the rooms adjacent to the finance minister’s office in South Block. Shubhashis Gangopadhyay, who was his adviser at the time, was present right through the recording. When the interview ended, Chidambaram turned to him and asked if it was okay. Poor Shubhashis was quite taken aback. I don’t think he expected this question. Fortunately, he nodded his head. And with that, the interview was cleared.
However, Rajdeep and I were very conscious of the fact that the interview had been recorded under strict conditions and both of us felt it would be dishonest, as well as journalistically improper, to hide that from the audience. So on the following Sunday night, 29 July 2008, when it was broadcast, the interview was both prefaced and post-scripted with captions. I guess they were a bit like health warnings! The one at the start read: “As a condition for granting this interview, the finance minister demanded the right to clear it as well as to deny clearance without giving any reason. CNN-IBN was forced to agree, otherwise the interview would not have happened.”
The one at the end read: “This interview has been broadcast exactly as recorded and the finance minister did not ask for any change.”
That, Rajdeep and I felt, would keep our journalistic honour intact. The interview was broadcast at 8.30 p.m. It ended shortly before 9 and immediately thereafter, the phone started to ring. It was an angry Chidambaram.
“Why did you put those captions? It wasn’t part of our agreement and it wasn’t an honourable thing to do.” He was spluttering with rage.
“Mr Chidambaram,” I began as softly as I could. “If there is nothing wrong in a minister laying down conditions for an interview he’s giving, then why is it wrong for a journalist to make those conditions public? If you were right, so was I. But if you were wrong, then I too have erred.”
He banged the phone down and wouldn’t agree to another interview for a couple of years. In fact, that seems to be his pet response whenever he gets upset. It happened once again in late 2018 and, therefore, as I write, he is on what I used to call in my college days “the no-speaks”.
Reprinted with permission from HarperCollins