Arun Shourie on his days at The Indian Express, what’s changed since then, what’s new about the current establishment, the media’s challenges and the weakening of institutions. The session was moderated by Vandita Mishra, National Opinion Editor
Vandita Mishra: You quote VS Naipaul on the art of non-seeing, something you have raged against. Fighting for lost causes seems to agree with you as the cover has a photograph of you and your wife, you are smiling…Looking back, what are the moments that made you smile like this?
I don’t have any particular story in my mind but I do remember the special bonds that I forged over time as a journalist. Similarly, in government, there were just one or two dramatic occasions. But what matters are bonds. I’m absolutely certain that if I were in need and I rang up any one of my friends with whom I have worked, they would go out of their way to help me.
Vandita Mishra: Considering all the big cases that you fought — the undertrials, Kamala, Bhagalpur blindings and Bofors — these could be grist for the mill of whataboutery. People could say that the Indira, Rajiv or VP Singh government, too, responded with obfuscation and saw conspiracy theories behind dissent. What’s different about this Government?
The answer is the scale. Murder has always been going on but slaughter is a different dimension. Yes, there were lies on Bofors but today, you have to search for a truthful statement on everything, not just GDP figures. Similarly, electoral bonds are nothing but institutionalised corruption.
The second most visible differentiator is the fact that the BJP is working according to an ideology. And it is our great failing, including mine, to have not studied it. The RSS ideology, since Dr Hedgewar’s time in the 1930s, is single-minded, defining Hindus as those who follow Hinduism, who subscribe to thousands of years of culture, who are purist and reject other influences.
You have to be different from the person whom you are going to take on. If you are little Modis, then people will already reference Modi, who is in the stratosphere…telling them about his dictatorial tendencies won’t hold
The third difference is technology by which BJP cadres amplify what anyone says. Then somebody else says the same thing and it becomes the new normal. Sometimes, people don’t work out the implications of a stray statement. For instance, while launching the hologram of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said, “Our nation is thousands of years old.” If that be the case, then the question would automatically arise, how is Gandhiji the father of the nation? Now, this question was actually raised soon after Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 but died down following charges of conspiracy against the RSS. Now it is being revived. This is very significant because Panditji (Jawaharlal Nehru) is not, I repeat, not the problem for this government. But Gandhiji is. So, after the erasure of Panditji, it will be the erasure of Gandhiji. Somebody might just say, how is Gandhi the father of the nation, efface him. Ours is a motherland, how can it have a father?
Ritu Sarin: As an editor, you’ve been a conscience keeper and activist. And in the Zail Singh episode, you seem like a participant in politics. Is it possible for editors to play this role now?
When I was working in The Indian Express, nobody recognised me as a journalist. When I was in government, nobody recognised me as a politician. But I did stand up for what I felt was wrong. I remember the time when Tarlochan Singh (then President Zail Singh’s aide) had asked me whether the dismissal (of then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi by Zail Singh following their tension) would happen. And I had given all my reasons as to how it would be unconstitutional. Whether I was with the paper (The Indian Express) or not, I would still have rushed to Rashtrapati Bhavan the way I did. Gianiji, too, did not think that an editor had come though he must have felt that he (Shourie) had brought sneh (affection) and a message, that the earlier message had been rescinded. But other than that, he would just say, a Punjabi has come.
No one knew Kejriwal in 2013 but Modi was studying him. He asked IT wizard Rajesh Jain to come to Delhi and study AAP’s campaign methods. Modi recognised that AAP’s door-to-door approach was worth studying
Ritu Sarin: How would you like people to remember you as, considering you joined the Government…and there is a bit of a defensiveness there?
No defensiveness but I would be known only as Adit’s father. I don’t think I’m priding myself for it or anything but when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was PM, the personnel supervisor at the Parliament security gate exempted me, saying, “Shourie saab, your identity is not of a minister, we read your articles in college.” It was an important lesson that we should not become our jobs and worry about the perks that go as the froth subsides. I was inspired by my father, who, at 75, taught himself painting. He was a one-man Common Cause and until 94, was as active as anybody else.
Vandita Mishra: These days the government can go straight to people using technologies and social media. What are the media’s challenges now?
We are not important to the government. So, the government should not be important to us in our writing also. The best stories in this newspaper have been done by field reporters or by getting documents out through RTI or otherwise. Those things are in spite of the government, not because of the government.
However, a few years from now, even the few freedoms we have for occasionally doing a story that’s inconvenient to the government will not be there.
Therefore, we must find ways to disseminate news. We must now set up networked groups in which people collect information and disseminate it one at a time.
Coomi Kapoor: What would you say was more rewarding and impactful: journalism or politics?
I don’t know about the impact but both periods were interesting and exciting because of two individuals. It would be Ramnathji (Ramnath Goenka) for journalism and Vajpayeeji for politics. I liked whatever I was doing at that point of time. It’s not one or the other. Both roles came to me by happenstance. I’ll quote Ghalib here: Lai hayat aae qaza le chali chale/ apni khushi na aaye, na apni khushi chale (Came with life, will go with death).
Vandita Mishra: When you fought pitched battles with the government, the court would act as a friend of the Press. Now with institutional authority waning, how do you see the challenge?
The investigative institutions, the police, in fact all institutions are in a very bad way and the challenge is infinitely greater. Ramnathji would always say, “Nahin, abhi hathiyar chhodne ki koi zaroorat nahin hai, court hai (there’s no need to drop your weapon, the court is still around)!” Now, whether the court is there or not, one judge can speak in favour, the other may not.
As journalists, we can keep a hawk’s eye on institutions, particularly the financial, regulatory institutions and even the RBI, regardless of the growth figures they give out. It’s an absolute scandal. If you read the speech the late Arun Jaitley gave while introducing the Bankruptcy Bill, the resolution limit was 90 days. Yet cases are pending at the NCLT for years. Every reform has been proclaimed as great and nobody sees what’s happening on the ground.
Vandita Mishra: You argue that in reportage or commentary, you should not be giving all sides of the story, you form a conclusion and give it to the reader. What about the middle ground in the time of polarisation?
This is one of the pills for laziness. Our job is to look at the facts and report them as we see them at that time. Maybe we will be wrong, we’ll correct them later or somebody else will point out the facts. Let’s take the hijab controversy in Karnataka. You have a wonderful article of Faizan Mustafa and then you give a contrarian column on the other side. You are giving analytical pieces on different viewpoints. But as far as facts are concerned, there can be no middle ground.
Ritu Sarin: Did you struggle with confidentiality issues while writing this book? Did you debate whether discussions should be outed given the fact that Ramnathji is no more?
No, I did not struggle at all. I remember being criticised over my account of a lunch with the then Karnataka Chief Minister Gundu Rao. I had asked him, “What do you feel about Mrs Gandhi?” He said, “She can give me the keys and go to sleep.” I wrote about what transpired but the then editor Nihal Singh decided not to publish it on grounds of privacy. So, I sent it to (MJ) Akbar and he published it in Sunday magazine. I sent our resident editor E Raghavan back to Gundu Rao, telling him to ask Rao not to contradict for I could have recorded that conversation. Gundu Rao did not contradict but said the revelation was wrong as the information was a matter of privacy. I am nobody’s confidante. It may not be the right attitude and you should not have it, provided you don’t mind losing friends. If the matter is of public concern, then your account is your little contribution, maybe just a comma in the writing of history.
Vandita Mishra: In the book, you quote Gandhiji as saying that the adage, yatha raja tatha praja (as is the king, so are the subjects), is just half the truth. It is also yatha praja tatha raja (as are the subjects, so is the king). Do you think that people have changed and are endorsing polarising politics?
People have not shifted but they have been instigated. For example, there was anti-Semitism all over Europe, below the surface, for 2,000 years. But when you scratched it, almost everybody participated in identifying and isolating the Jews. We saw how old animosities were fanned during the break-up of Czechoslovakia or among Trumpists. Then you have a mob and with state protection, there’s no limit. Everybody can be instigated to beat up small, poor people in the name of any big cause. People haven’t shifted but the lid has been lifted. Be it the namaaz row in Haryana or the hijab controversy in Karnataka, their echo reached UP where elections were due. This is part of the BJP’s technique.
Shyamlal Yadav: The BJP is an election-winning machine. Can a challenge come to it from outside or inside?
Not from the inside. It’s no longer a party but an electoral machine. It has a sadhan (resource) which the others don’t have and that is the cadre of the RSS. The RSS is rationalising that its agenda is being carried out. Besides, the top leadership of the RSS is now just the mukhota (facade). The second-rung leadership and the cadres have all been co-opted by Mr Modi and are now his army. The only possibility of a challenge is external, if other parties join forces.
Anant Goenka: Do you believe that the mainstream media is to blame for not addressing majoritarian insecurity? Would that be one of the reasons why the BJP strategy is working so well?
Yes. Nobody in the mainstream media or in the academic community has looked at the primary literature of the RSS. So that neglect of ours has certainly contributed to the current state of affairs. We are surprised by what is happening while they are correct in saying, “Hum jo kehte hain wohi karte hain (We do what we say).” But we were not listening.
Second, we did not pay attention to the people they have mobilised. For instance, we talk to ourselves in very small circles. But the RSS has been working since the 1940s to bring into its fold groups like the sadhus. They are influential in society but it never occurred to us to reach out to them and make sure that they do not become the instruments for things that are, let’s say non-Hindutva. In our neglect, they have become easy prey for others.
Anant Goenka: For instance, the emotions of the Kashmiri Pandits and the way they have been brought out by one film. Do you think the mainstream media has ignored the issue?
I am not a very good reader of newspapers, so I don’t want to comment. But in this art of not-seeing, we don’t want to look at what’s happening. Kashmiri Pandits would have suffered from the same aversion to seeing the facts. Not that they were singled out.
Rakesh Sinha: What is the difference between the Opposition of a majority government like Rajiv Gandhi and the Opposition now?
I was interacting more with the government than with the Opposition. The selective bias was maybe because of the people I was meeting. Also, governments are so much larger in our mental space than the Opposition.
Still, I will say, it’s not as if the country is in peril. Each of you (Opposition/regional leaders) as individuals are in peril. So at least for that reason, get together. Gulliver was brought down by Lilliputians. But that’s not just going to be by stitching together. Each Opposition leader is a formidable figure in his/her state. Most leaders have a good organisation, reach; some of them have a reputation of doing good. But in the end, you have to be different from the person whom you are going to take on. If you are little Modis, then people will already reference Modi, who is a very big figure in the stratosphere. If the local ruler is as authoritarian or as oriented and if the government is as personality-oriented in that state, then to tell the voter about Modi’s dictatorial tendencies won’t hold. One has to be different.
Shubhra Gupta: How do you see polarisation playing out till the end? Is there a way where people with different ideologies can start having conversations?
The pattern is being set by people at the top that unless you are the sole of my foot, you are my enemy. This whole fanning of social media to abuse somebody is being done from the top. That is what is leading to polarisation. We should maintain our friendships, this politics is not that important. Why lose your friendship on that count? Nothing is going to change because of our opinions expressed to each other. So why make them so important in our lives? It’s up to us to defeat the designs of the government which wants to polarise us.
The second factor is that we must not give currency to labels. This is a bad habit acquired from the Communists. You are rightist, I will not examine your facts. Now it has become generic to the entire society. Whether I am for or against the PM, please examine the facts.
Shyamal Majumdar: You talked about regulators and how they have been almost hollowed out. Many people say that the RBI has become the cheerleader of the government. Others say it is being pragmatic. Your views?
It has become a cheerleader… The fact that people like Raghuram Rajan and Urjit Patel were removed or it was made difficult for them to continue shows the attempt to reduce the RBI to yet another instrument of power.
Narender Singh: Do you ever regret joining the BJP? Wasn’t it in the making, whatever is happening today?
Not as long as Mr Vajpayee was there. Maybe it was my blindness but I was very focussed on him and the work that I was assigned. He had a way of dealing with contentious issues. I remember the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) summit in Kuala Lumpur, where I was the Minister accompanying Atalji. At a press conference, after which he was to meet Sri Lankan leaders, somebody asked him to comment on the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s (VHP’s) call for a shila puja in Ayodhya. Atalji simply said, “Ayodhya walo se hum Dilli jakar milenge, abhi toh hum Lanka walo se milne ja rahe hain (I will address Ayodhya concerns in Delhi, now I have to meet the Lankans).” And he deflected the issue.
Rakesh Sinha: How do you see Rahul Gandhi and the Congress? Is there an issue or has the BJP been successful in shrinking him?
I don’t know Rahul Gandhi but the thing is he has stood up for the right issues against the government. This is not what I expected when he came into public life. He may be restricting himself to social media and may not have a mass base but he has taken up issues of considerable importance, much more than regional leaders. Maybe he should be the spokesman of the party and not someone who is running it.
Modi is a 24×7 politician, always devoting time to organisational matters in the party and listening to partymen. Congressmen have complained they don’t get appointments with the leadership. The problem with the Congress is not ideology or G 23, it is the fact that its cadre has disappeared. That is why Modi is concerned about AAP and not anybody else, because that party just has volunteers signing up. I remember I was in Ahmedabad in 2013 and no one knew Kejriwal. But Modi was studying him and he asked IT wizard Rajesh Jain to come to Delhi and study AAP’s campaign methods. Modi recognised that AAP’s door-to-door approach was worth studying. After Punjab, AAP may very well form the government in Himachal, it might be formidable in Haryana. And even if it gets 15 seats in Gujarat, it’s a victory.