Arun Shourie: A devil-may-care attitude and passion for ‘facts’
Dressed plainly, a pen and a pair of reading glasses in the breast pocket of his shortsleeved linen shirt, Arun Shourie looks nothing if not alert. He has something of the eagle about him — a strong nose, wings of grey hair, watchful eyes shaded by stern eyebrows, a readiness to pounce. His alertness is intellectual but also practical: his wife Anita, who has Parkinson’s disease, and his son Aditya, who has cerebral palsy, are both upstairs, and they may need his help at any time. We are in his office in Delhi, which is decorated with original cartoons, including one of Indira Gandhi riding a tiger while reading a paper saying ‘Emergency Powers’; in the second frame, the tiger looks fatter and the prime minister has disappeared.
While we are talking, Aditya Shourie appears in his wheelchair. He is wearing a hat and mittens, ready to be taken out for a walk. In his father’s words in his book Does He Know a Mother’s Heart?, on religion and suffering, “He cannot walk or stand. He can see only from the left side of his eyes. He cannot use his right arm or hand. He speaks syllable by syllable. Yet he laughs — you can hear his laughter three houses away.” Aditya looks at me and raises his left arm. “He wants to shake your hand.” The father strokes the son’s face, helping him to move his head.
The next day, Shourie tells me that Aditya has been the centre of his universe for 40 years. “He knows he’s the king. His world is music, family, family parties. We were in Washington when he was born and had never been through this experience of having a child. He was lying in an incubator, with syringes in his head. We didn’t know what to do. It was a terrible month. Every day I was carrying Anita’s milk to him in a test tube.”
Shourie had studied in India before going abroad in the early 1960s. “I don’t feel I’m a very deep person,” he says in his soft voice, “but I don’t shrink from where the facts lead.” His PhD was on the allocation of foreign exchange between ministries, and was a damning condemnation of the Indian system. “I realised that some decisions on technology and products were being made by government officers who had never been to a factory.” In 1973, by now a rising star at the World Bank, Shourie again stepped out of line in an essay for ‘Foreign Affairs’, arguing that India needed a market economy.
“Growth is a besieged deity,” was the opening sentence. “The number of people living in abject poverty has not been diminished in spite of 25 years of development effort … the controls and programs which were instituted to channel benefits to the poor have in fact ensured them for the rich and the powerful.”
Shourie enjoys pursuing ‘the facts’ wherever they may lead him, even when his logic causes outrage. His views on Islamic law saw him attacked by a crowd in Hyderabad, and his book on BR Ambedkar, Worshipping False Gods, provoked some Dalit activists in Pune in the 1990s to pour coal tar over his head. Before the Bihar elections, he described the NDA government as “Congress plus a cow”, and said that Prime Minister Modi was keeping silent on incidents like the Dadri killing while his colleagues stirred up trouble. Shourie was the first of the old guard to rebel and break ranks, and he was followed after the BJP’s defeat in Bihar by the likes of LK Advani and Yashwant Sinha.
Critics of Shourie who view him as a hypocrite, a betrayer, a sour man angry not to have been given a job in government, may underestimate his obstinacy. In the 1970s, he threw up a good position at the World Bank to return to India at a time when his more ambitious contemporaries were leaving. “I had lost intellectual interest. We had a very happy time in America, but my thoughts were elsewhere.”
As a consultant to the Planning Commission, he again blotted his copybook by pointing out that figures in the Third Five-year Plan had been falsified. During the Emergency he wrote statements for Jayaprakash Narayan, and in 1977 found his vocation as an investigative journalist and editor, only to divert to supporting the RSS and the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Atal Behari Vajpayee, when he became prime minister in 1998, made Arun Shourie a Rajya Sabha MP and a minister, managing disinvestment and revolutionising India’s telecom industry. “I was surprised, because I wasn’t a party member. It was a great opportunity to implement the ideas I had written about in the 1960s. Atalji gave me absolute latitude.”
Until recently, Shourie appeared to be on an inside track. Before last year’s general election, he would prepare briefing papers for Narendra Modi and go to Ahmedabad to discuss them. “We had meetings from around 6-11 pm, and during that time he would show total focus. I was impressed. We talked about black money, national security, banking. I told Modi that a leader’s task is to pull the levers like a train controller in a signal box: it is not to check the train or tap its wheels. I said once you are in Delhi you must take everyone together. Modi said to me, ‘When the bride goes from the maternal home to her husband’s home, her gait, her speech, her clothes, her demeanour has to change.’ I thought he would do it.”
Does the Prime Minister share his economic views? Shourie looks at the ceiling. “He doesn’t believe in disinvestment. This government has shown an almost criminal neglect in improving tax administration. His idea of development is to have a few large projects like the Sardar Patel statue, which turns out to be made in China, or a bullet train from Ahmedabad to Mumbai, rather than spend that money to improve the speed of all trains in India by 15 mph. He’s increasing the role of the state in everything. ‘Minimum government, maximum governance’ is just a slogan.”
Is Shourie being disingenuous when he criticizes the provocative statements and silences of BJP leaders in the run-up to the Bihar elections? “I’m absolutely astonished the Prime Minister would go so far just for one state election. Modi has the power of Jesus – he raises the dead: the Congress Party, the leftist intellectuals.”
Shourie’s devil-may-care attitude towards the conventions of public life may be conditioned by his personal circumstances. From the start, he and Anita incorporated Aditya and the consequences of his disability into their lives, supported by their families. When he was a minister, Shourie would take his son to the cafeteria for lunch. He is often told that he has set an example to others. “A woman came up to me at an airport and I thought she was going to talk the usual things about government. She said: ‘I am the mother of a spastic child, and you have written on my behalf.”’
Politics comes second. When I ask him if differences of opinion are ever an issue with his brother-in-law Suman Dubey, a friend and advisor to first Rajiv and then Sonia Gandhi, he answers: “They’re absolutely irrelevant. Suman Uncle is one of Adit’s favourites. Suman usually does things very quickly, his photography or whatever, and if Adit wants something done immediately, he will do like this — .” Shourie scrapes a long index finger along his jawline. “It means that he wants it to be done fast, like the one who has a beard, Suman!”
Does Arun Shourie mind being thought of as a maverick? “Why should I mind? I’m not looking for a job, a new wife, or a daughter-in-law.”