The Enigmatic Arun Shourie: Acid Dreams on Dharma Nights

Arun Shourie was once a shining sabre in defence of democracy. Why is he arguing for an RSS takeover of the BJP and what does it say about him?

September 12, 2009 in People
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The Gospel Shourie, in emphatic mid-argument

The Gospel Shourie, in emphatic mid-argument
Photo: REUTERS

A COUPLE OF weeks ago, in the middle of its extremely public meltdown and equally public family drama, the BJP suddenly sacked Jaswant Singh for reevaluating Jinnah. It was a desperate measure cut for desperate times and came wrapped with many wishful intentions: the desire for a distraction; the desire to declare renewed certitudes; the desire for a simple show of strength. And, briefly, despite the loud criticism in the media, it did look as if the BJP had closed ranks.

But just when Singh was starting to look particularly forlorn, Rajya Sabha member and party elder, Arun Shourie came out with his devastating interview to Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta. He criticised LK Advani, Rajnath Singh, Narendra Modi and Arun Jaitley — some of them friends more than merely political associates — and defended Jasw – ant Singh’s right to have contrarian views and write a book. He lashed out at the “great pygmyisation” of leadership. And his scathing metaphor of the BJP as a “kati patang” (an adrift kite) and its leaders as “Alice in Blunderland” and wannabe Tarzans is bound to sizzle in popular memory for a while. This seemed vintage Arun Shourie: the fearless crusader exhilaratingly speaking truth to power, defending liberal values, daring the party to sack him for it.

Yet, in the same interview, Shourie invited the RSS to seize overt control of the party and casually, almost indifferently, flicked away the butchery of Muslims in Gujarat 2002. He spoke at great length about Prime Minister Vajpayee’s anguish and dilemma over Gujarat and concluded, “Frankly, I must say, I was more affected by Atalji’s pain than by what had happened in Gujarat. Maybe this is my inhumanity or something. I can’t claim that I was that great liberal…” No matter which end of the political divide you stand on, it would be difficult to find a more chilling reaction to one of the most savage events in India’s recent history. This is not just defence or denial or prevarication, it is dismissal. Cool, indifferent, unapologetic. And completely self-assured.

It would have been easy to dismiss Arun Shourie in turn — coolly, unapologetically — if he was merely an extreme right ideologue, a sort of Praveen Togadia sophisticate. But Shourie occupies a much more complicated space in middle-class imagination. He is the editor par excellence of the 70s and 80s, the shining sabre who stood up to the Emergency, exposed Bofors and famously had chief minister Antulay sacked. He is the legendary defender of human rights who campaigned for 40,000 undertrials languishing in jail. And he is a man of unquestionable financial honesty. When he adopts the high moral ground — or his preferred voice of white heat outrage — people tend to listen. Even the fractious BJP was checkmated by his interview. It’s not just Shourie’s deft timing or evocation of the RSS that protected him; his public reputation was a shield too. Sacking him, the BJP knew, would be a colossal PR disaster; they understand the immunities of the holy cow.

Shourie occupies a complicated space in middle-class minds. He is fascist, a liberal knight and a righteous crusader

This adumbral position between liberal knight, self-righteous crusader and unselfconscious fascist makes Arun Shourie a very ambiguous, even sinister, presence in India’s public life. As Prabhas Joshi, Jansatta editor and a peer, says, “His suggestion to the RSS betrays the quintessential Shou rie. He wants a democratic political party like the BJP to be chained lock, stock and barrel by an organisation that calls itself “cultural” and does not believe in parliamentary democracy or the Indian Constitution. And he wants this democratic party to be taken over by jhatka (sudden death)! Who would want such a thing? Only an autocratic, dictatorial mind. Arun Shourie is a timeserver and climber who wants to dictate whatever he considers intellectually superior into the democratic polity of this country. Any man who does not believe in democracy and is in politics is a very dangerous animal. Be very afraid of him.”

In his interview, Shourie had bracketed his invitation to the RSS with a caveat. To paraphrase, he said, “I have asked them to ‘bomb the headquarters’ and be ethical guardians of the party but stay away from policy.” Even to the most novice citizen, this would seem, at best, a naïve hope, at worst, a cynical smokescreen. The smart parry of a tactician, not a considered intellectual position. Later at his residence, Shourie says, “Don’t believe a word of what Mohan Bhagwat (RSS chief) said at his press conference. Even at this moment, they are deciding who will go and who will stay and who will head the party. You will see the impact of all this in a few months.”

Such schisms in Shourie’s public positions go back a long way, but what makes it particularly fascinating is the combination of utter transparency and unassailable certitude that go with the schisms. The address of a website that compiles his writings contains the phrase “the voice of dharma.” It’s an accurate self-description: that is how Shourie sees himself. As an old associate puts it, “He wants to clean up the system, that’s the platform he works on, but he doesn’t want to clean up himself. He doesn’t believe in looking within. He started his political career as a Maoist, became a Gandhian during the Emergency, then briefly, a non-Gandhian Congress supporter and then joined the BJP. Yet he is authentic in every incarnation. He thinks there is no contradiction within him.”

In a line, Shourie is that disquieting being: a public intellectual who is completely anti-introspective.

An impostor at the pulpit.

A RUN SHOURIE, now 69, had an almost cinematic entry into the public eye. It was 1977; the Emergency was at its height. Shourie had written a series of courageous articles, among them, one called ‘The Symptoms of Fascism’. Though Seminarcould not publish that edition, the article was doing the rounds in secret. Shourie had a PhD in Economics from Syracuse University and was just back from the World Bank. The buzz around the article and a series of “happy accidents”, as he likes to call it, brought him in touch with the feisty newspaper proprietor Ramnath Goenka.

He was sacked twice but shourie’s years as an editor shone with inspiration: he was a lighthouse in a dark time

He joined the Indian Express as Executive Editor in January 1979 and over four blistering years of journalism, passed into media legend. Shourie rarely did the groundwork himself; his gift lay in creating moral frameworks and meticulous backgrounds – building stories into campaigns. The infamous Bhagalpur blinding case; the advocacy for the rights of undertrials; the buying of Kamala; the Antulay cement scam; the infamous Gundu Rao interview; the defeat of the Defamation Bill; and finally, the Kuo Oil scam. The Congress had come to symbolise corruption and anti-democratic practices: The Indian Express — and its most public face, the Goenka- Shourie duo — became the epitome of the fight against these mutilations. In 1982, with hundreds of cases against the paper, and allegedly under severe pressure from Mrs Gandhi, Goenka suddenly sacked Shourie. In 1987, with all his old warhorses gone or fading, he suddenly wanted him back and used Suman Dubey, Shourie’s brother-in-law, then editor of the paper and a friend of Rajiv Gandhi, to woo him back. A few months later, the Bofors scandal broke. More actinic years of journalism followed: the Bofors campaign and the campaign against Dhirubhai Ambani’s corruptions being the most high-profile. In 1990, Shourie was sacked again – unceremoniously, via teleprinter. There were cascading reasons: disagreements on reservations, the Mandal Commission, VP Singh’s handling of the Ayodhya movement and Goenka’s sense that Shourie was no longer in his control.

Gone was the founder-member of the human rights group pucl. shourie now endorsed tada, pota and much more

At any rate, Shourie’s years as an editor shone with inspiration: he was a lighthouse in a dark time. As his Magasaysay Award citation says, “He used his pen as an effective adversary of corruption, inequality and injustice.” He fought for civil liberties and the rule of law; he had an appetite for the big battles. Yet, even at the height of his defence of liberal values in public life, disappointingly, Shourie’s professional peers and juniors say that in person, he was an intolerant, abusive and dictatorial man, incapable of democratic dialogue. The archetypal god with clay feet. Stories — unfortunately all of them off-the-record — abound: how he fought and slighted co-editors, S Mulgaonkar, BG Verghese, Nihal Singh, Kuldip Nayar; how he ousted Suman Dubey; how he ravaged juniors. The ill-will is disconcerting. Yet, urged to come on record, all his detractors refuse: “He’s dynamite”; “He’s vicious”; “He’s paranoid.” These allegations can perhaps be discounted – temperamental shortcomings that pale before the staggering body of work. Personal animosities that cannot be substantiated.

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