Revealing the inside story
Governance and the sclerosis that has set in
Why do journalists become politicians? There are three broad answers to this question. The first is what might be called the honourable one. All of us should enter politics, not just criticise things from the outside. This applies to all educated people — and why should journalists be an exception?
And then there are the two not-so-honourable reasons. Many people who are drawn to political journalism are less attracted by the journalism than by the politics. Once they get a chance to play an active part in the political process they are happy to dispense with the journalism which afforded them entry into the arena and do what they really enjoyed anyway.And the third reason: politics can deceptively easy from the outside. Journalists meet politicians, advise them, criticise them and then conclude that most politicians are idiots and that they could do a much better job themselves. So they join politics and then discover that things aren’t quite as easy as they seemed from the outside. The same politicians who once pretended to accept their advice now refuse to take their phone calls. And once you get into politics, your life as you used to know it is over. Your privacy vanishes. Your house is full of people. Your time is not your own. Your self-respect is mortgaged to your leaders. And, after having been an influential commentator, you are now just another MP who has to follow the party line.
Of the journalists who have entered politics, most have been disasters. Some survive as spokespeople on TV programmes. Others are regarded as fixers. Few achieve any measure of respectable success.
By any standards, Arun Shourie has been the most successful of those journalists who have entered politics. His reasons were entirely honourable — he is a rare exemplar of the first category — though I would argue that perhaps he deserves a category all to himself because he is not a journalist in the traditional sense of the term.
A trained economist, Shourie could have continued to make a good living working for international organisations abroad but came back to India because he wanted to contribute something to the country of his birth. Long before the exposes that made his reputation (the Antulay cement scam, for instance) he was already writing books that were more scholarly in their approach. When he joined the Indian Express, he seems to have seen this as an extension of his resolve to make a contribution. He was never a on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand kind of journalist. You always knew where he stood and he was not afraid of the consequences these stands would entail.
His contribution to Indian journalism is profound and significant. He introduced us to the notion of the journalist as investigative crusader and transformed the way that an entire generation — mine, as it turns out — looked at the profession. No Indian journalist will — I suspect —ever have as much impact as he did on how the profession defines itself.
By the 1990s however, Shourie’s halo had begun to fade — among journalists, at least. The reasons were not difficult to find. Most journalists, in the early 1990s, were anti-BJP; Shourie was happy to be identified with the liberal wing of the parivar. Journalists liked simple open-and-shut exposes and short, concentrated opinion pieces. Shourie, on the other hand, seemed to have tired of the limitations of the standard journalistic formats. He no longer seemed to want to edit anything. He suggested that people had wearied of ‘atrocity-journalism’ (his phrase). He was more interested in ideas and argued that journalists should abandon the safe he says/he disagrees kind of ‘balanced piece’ in favour of original research that yielded conclusions. His own pieces became longer and longer. They dealt with subjects that were more and more specific in nature (and therefore less ‘sellable’) and were packed with information and ideas.
And then there was the BJP connection. When Shourie accepted a Rajya Sabha nomination from the BJP, his critics and many jealous rivals argued that he had compromised his independence by joining a political party. I never quite saw it that way. I believed that Shourie, who had set out to make contribution, had decided that he had exhausted all in the journalistic methods of doing this. He now wanted to try other things.
The test came when he was asked to join the Vajpayee government. Shourie now had two options. He could use his ministership to turn himself into a dial-a-quote politician, happy to accept any invitation to appear on TV and eager to use his power to increase his constituency within the party. This was a course that many of Shourie’s more careerist contemporaries followed. Or, he could reject the celebrity-status that accompanies ministership and concentrate on making a difference within government.
As this book demonstrates, he chose the latter course. Everybody paid lip-service to disinvestment but nobody had the will to fight the obstacles that prevented it from going ahead. Only Shourie had the guts, the intelligence and the patience to remove each and every roadblock and to take it forward.
All his stints in various ministries were characterised by the same determination to change things by getting to the bottom of every issue, by refusing to simply accept the self-serving advice of bureaucrats and by sometimes demonstrating a terrifying rage that blew away all obstacles.
His focus here is on the administration; on how the system is so rotten from within that most people are content to just let things be because they wouldn’t know where to begin if they had to change anything. It is an important point because too many of us in the middle class are content to blame politicians for India’s ills. Shourie show us that the bureaucracy — composed of middle class people like us — is at least as much to blame.
There’s more to be written of course. Anybody familiar with Shourie’s time in office will have heard some of the rumours he does not confirm: about the cabinet minister who opposed disinvestment in public while his daughter was calling up stock-brokers to offer inside information on the proposed public issues; about the fat cats who manipulated the markets to profit from PSU issues, and about the minister he publicly humiliated at a cabinet meeting.
I expect Shourie is saving all that up for a second book. Certainly he has no shortage of enemies. Despite being the most efficient instrument of liberalisation in the NDA government, the BJP tried to deny him a Rajya Sabha nomination earlier this year apparently because Pramod Mahajan felt that he hadn’t contributed enough to the party’s election campaign. Shourie’s problem is that his single-minded focus on getting on with the job at hand meant that he had few friends within the parivar. The RSS and VHP still regard him as ideologically suspect; the Swadeshi Jagran Manch thinks he is too pro-West; his colleagues resent him for his integrity; and even LK Advani, once his great ally, lost patience with him in the last days of the NDA government.
But Shourie knows how to face obstacles. He got his Rajya Sabha nomination anyway — after AB Vajpayee intervened on his behalf — and no future BJP Prime Minister can afford to ignore a leader of Shourie’s intelligence and capability.
This is an important book. It is the first authentic account of how the government functions written from the inside by a keen observer. But it is only half the story; the politicians get away.
It’s the political book — which Shourie will write one day — that I’m really waiting for.