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A K Bhattacharya: The ills of the age

A K Bhattacharya  |  New Delhi 

It is often said that Arun Shourie begins where most journalists end. If you don’t believe this, read at least a few of his essays included in the book under review.

Shourie does not stump you with new facts. He dwells on facts that are already in the public domain. It is this intelligent — and often agenda-based — juxtaposition of facts picked up from different published sources that helps him expose failures in governance. Journalists too have access to these facts. But most of them do not go beyond routinely presenting them to their readers. Even those who venture out often do that with little understanding and without placing the facts in the right context. Shourie suffers from no such shortcomings.

For instance, the two essays on the Manmohan Singh government’s five budgets (Jo hyper-bole so nihaal) — one of them written soon after the first budget, and the other in March 2008 — are examples of outstanding journalism. These are not essays where the budgets are analysed on fiscal policy or expenditure parameters. Instead, Shourie uses information provided in the budget documents of different years to expose the huge gaps between the promises made and the action taken. He points out how even these documents do not tell the whole story and often seek recourse to subtle obfuscation. In his inimitable — though often dense — style, Shourie tellingly uses an Italian phrase to describe this trait of the Manmohan Singh government — “suppressio veri suggestio falsi,” which means that to suppress the truth is to suggest the false!

The documents he relies on are available to all. In fact, some of these are documents introduced by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government with the much-trumpeted objective of imparting greater transparency to governance. But Shourie shows how facts given out in these documents are incomplete and often misleading. Not only that, with his perseverance and sharp and persuasive analysis, he tears apart the UPA government’s tall claims on inclusive growth, rural employment programmes and poverty alleviation schemes. He misses no opportunity to bring out embarrassing details of how the same Manmohan Singh, who as finance minister in 1991 was scornful of loan waivers announced by the VP Singh government, has endorsed a similar debt-waiver scheme as the head of the UPA government.

Included in this book are as many as 30 essays written on a wide range of issues concerning internal security, relations with neighbours, the India-US civil nuclear deal, economic reforms, disinvestment, the role of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, governance, Leftists, secularists and the media. Yet, the book retains an integrity of idea and thought that is not easily achievable in most which like the one under review are a compilation of essays written for contemporary publications over a period of time. Shourie achieves this integrity by sticking to a common central thesis that runs across all the essays.

Shourie’s belief is that facts in our country are no longer respected. Indeed, they are ignored by those who rule the country. This problem has been compounded by several other ills — superciliousness, trivialisation, reduction in people’s attention span, subservience to intellectual fashions, preference for opinion without information and targeting of persons instead of the issues they raise. There is one more ill that Shourie talks about — the media which, in the name of “balanced journalism,” has failed to get to the larger point and which has got used to the idea of dumbing down issues to its readers and viewers. He dwells at length on the increasing trend among some media houses to masquerade commercial message as editorial content and even guarantee positive coverage of corporate entities in return of equity stakes in the beneficiary companies. The essays, he avers, are in response to a media environment where facts are no longer analysed and the ruling classes get away without being questioned for their failure.

It is difficult to disagree with most of Shourie’s arguments, though his essays on disinvestment are largely an attempt to defend his own decisions as disinvestment minister in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government. There is also this doubt that will linger in your mind that some of his essays may not have given the other side of the story. That doubt arises because few essays in this book subject the actions of the NDA government to the same kind of critical scrutiny that Shourie reserves for the UPA government’s failures. That doubt will certainly disappear once Shourie comes up with an essay that looks at the five budgets that the NDA government presented. But will he?

Where Will All this Take Us?
Denial, Disunity, Disarray
Arun Shourie

Rupa & Company
604 pages; Rs 500

First Published: Thu, November 20 2008. 00:00 IST