Shoma Chaudhury, the executive editor of Tehelka, does a much-required re-examination of Arun Shourie, the former editor of the Indian Express, who occupies an “adumbral position between liberal knight, self-righteous crusader and unselfconscious fascist”, in the context of a recent interview with his protege, Shekhar Gupta.
“Shourie 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 Indira Gandhi, Ramnath 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, V.P. Singh’s handling of the Ayodhya movement and Goenka’s sense that Shourie was no longer in his control.
“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, B.G. 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.”
Photograph: courtesy Outlook
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Also read: The sad and pathetic decline of Arun Shourie