Arun Shourie is a person who had a strong presence in Indian media, politics and economics. He set a good example of investigative journalism in the country. He talks about his political and personal life, which is full of uncertainties. He answers the question why a journalist like him, all of a sudden, joined the BJP. He criticises in strong language contemporary politics and the functioning of the Central government. That makes his past links with the BJP quite amusing.
Srikant Kottackal: You were born in 1941, before Independence and the Partition, at Jalandhar in Punjab, deeply connected with the Partition. What are your memories of that period?
Arun Shourie: My father HD Shourie was a government employee. I am the eldest among three siblings. Though I was born at Jalandhar, my earliest memory is related to Lahore in Pakistan. My maternal grandfather had a house there. One evening, my mother was standing in the balcony of the house with my younger sister on her hip. I was standing beside her. I could see in the dim light of the setting sun a marriage party moving on the road below. It was a very beautiful sight. This is the first, most beautiful memory in my life.
Is the house still there?
May be. May be not. I can answer only in this way. Mehbub-ul-Haque was the the finance minister of Pakistan. I had worked under him at the World Bank. I had gone to Karachi in 1975 to attend a meeting. When I went there, I saw the house of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Mohenjedaro. After I saw all of them, Haque asked me which other places I wanted to see in Pakistan.
“I want to go to Lahore”, I told him.
“Lahore? What is there?”. He was surprised.
I had two desires: One, to meet poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, and another to visit my grandfather’s house. I went to Lahore, accompanied by an official of the bank who served as my guide. I knew only the name of the colony. I also remembered it as a three-storied building with a beautiful balcony. When I reached there, I found many houses similar to the one I had in my mind. And as many balconies. Finally, I returned to the hotel at Karachi unable to identify the building. My flight to Delhi was in the morning at 6. Around 1 at night, I got up, a little surprised, by the knock on the door. The room boy had come to give me an envelope. There was a written note and a few photographs in the envelope. The note said, “The pictures of all the houses with balconies in the colony where your grandfather lived are here. Ask your father and mother to identify the building in question and then return”. Till now, none of us has been able to identify the building. That makes my first memory even more beautiful.
Your father HD Shourie is a person whom the whole country respects. What are your memories about your father and what are his achievements?
During the Partition, my father was responsible for the Hindu relief camps on the Pakistan side. Former Prime Minister IK Gujral and his younger brother and artist Satish Gujral had told me about how my father was at that time. Both of them had fled from Pakistan and come to India during the Partition. The picture they portrayed about my father was like this: They were afraid of going to the other side of the relief camp. This was because there were some criminals there. They would not hesitate to do anything. One day, an officer in Khaki uniform, accompanied by three policemen, walked towards that area. There, he told the criminal gang: This is an opportunity for you to surrender your arms. Otherwise, we will kill all of you. That person returned only with the arms they surrendered. The man who walked towards the criminals and returned was my father. I remember that when Satish and IK Gujral said this they were emotionally surcharged.
I grew up seeing my hard-working father. He would come home with a lot of files. He would see the files till 1 o’clock and would go to bed only after completing the work. After Independence, he was appointed as Deputy Commissioner of Rohtak. There is a market named after him — Shourie market — at Rohtak. I learnt that it was my father who was responsible for the market getting that name only many years later. Everybody in our family was invited to a function at the market. It was there that an elderly person told me about the incident. Once there was a big flood. The market was submerged. My father who was the Deputy Commissioner reached there with a bucket in hand. Will you be able to remove the flood water with one bucket? When he was asked this question, he replied, "every family would come forward with one bucket each and the water would be removed." That is what happened. The market was saved. We had assembled there to commemorate the event.
My father had no problems on his hand; he had only solutions. Even after retirement, he lived only to solve the problems of the common people. Kuldip Singh, who was a former judge of the Supreme Court, had told me that the judges would stand up when my father arrived there and ask him: “Shourie Saheb, what order are you giving us today?” They all knew that it was not for any selfish reason that he went to the court. What he took up were all public issues. It was to solve them that he lived. I remember what PC Alexander, who was Indira Gandhi’s Principal Secretary, had once told me. In the post-Partition period, Alexander was an official in the ministry which sanctioned funds for industrial development. Officials would come from every state demanding money. The policy was to sanction funds depending on the need for the same. My father would go to the ministry on behalf of the state of Punjab. Whatever be the project for which he asked for money, it would be sanctioned. Alexander also told me the reason for the same. “Shourie would study his case very well in all its finer details. He had an answer to all the questions. It was a pleasure talking to him”.
My mother’s nature was also like this. She was a very compassionate lady. Like father, she also had only solutions, not problems, on her hand. Since every family person knew this, they would rush to her whenever there was a problem. There were no good schools at Rohtak those days. That is why I had to study in a boarding school in Delhi. The first school at Rohtak was started by my mother.
What did such parents hand over to you?
They gave us the freedom to decide. At the same time, they also taught us to maintain certain principles in life at all times. My siblings and I built up our lives on those principles they taught us. That is how we live even today.
How did the school and studies influence you?
I had told you that I studied at the Model School in Delhi. We had a principal — MN Kapoor. His was a rare personality. He tried to maintain the British standards in the school with clear ideas of nationalism. That needs to be specifically mentioned. It was he who transformed me in a different way. The school laid great emphasis on sports, drama, debate etc besides, of course, studies. Once a week, one famous person would visit the school and address the students. I still remember the speech delivered by Pyarelal, who was Mahatma Gandhi’s secretary. He told us: “You would be disappointed if I tell you about the great deeds done by Gandhi. How can we do those things which Gandhi did, you may wonder. I would, therefore, urge you to try to become a four-anna Gandhi. That is sufficient. Those sentences were a revelation to me.
What were your other interests at that time?
I was mostly interested in sports, especially hockey. At school and, later, at St. Stephen’s College, I was captain of the hockey team.
What was the position in which you played?
First I was centre half. Later, I moved to right half.
As captain, I had to see the whole field. For that Right Half was better. Lajpat Rai, who was the Right Half in Dhyan Chand’s team, was our coach.
What about reading those days?
Then and now, it is Urdu poems and detective stories that I read most.
How come that such a Shourie became an officer at the World Bank?
The unexpected had a great role to play in my life. You will understand this as we move on. The job at the World Bank was also like that. I had received a scholarship from a university in New York. I joined. Soon after the course, I applied for the job. In the meantime, I got a job in the House of Tatas. My marriage with Anita was fixed. I was one of the six who were selected by the World Bank. It was a good job. I joined.
Remembering you as a writer and journalist, let me ask, did you enjoy the job at the World Bank?
In the initial period, I enjoyed the work a lot. The reason was that the job at the bank opened my life to new horizons. I worked in many countries — Brazil, Kenya, Egypt, Panama, Sri Lanka. This meant new worlds and a new life. Gradually, I got disappointed.
India, India alone. India was far away from me. It was during that time that I got the two-year Homi Babha fellowship. One reason I accepted the fellowship was that I would be able to get a job by remaining in India. The Petroleum Minister was DK Barooah. I got a job as Economic Adviser in the ministry. Those days there was a leftist leader, Sukhmoy Chakravartty. He told Barooah: Don’t take him. He is a World Bank man. I did not get the job. I returned. By the year 1976, I reached a stage where I could not continue in the Bank. I had got fed up so much. It was during that time that our son Adityan was born. He had a premature birth, in the seventh month. While he was in the incubator, a Pakistani nurse came and told me: “I am not supposed to tell you this. If it is known that I told you, I would lose my job. But I cannot keep it secret, either. Something has happened somewhere. I think the baby did not receive adequate oxygen while was in the incubator. What she said was true. Adityan became a victim of cerebral palsy. We realised with broken heart that he would be wheel-chair borne all his life. It was the doctors who told us that family life with the grandparents in India would be better for him. Thus, I resigned from the job at the World Bank and returned to India. Now Adityan is 42 years old. He is still on wheelchair. He cannot even talk.
It is the journalist Arun Shourie whom everybody remembers and respects. How was your sudden jump from the World Bank into journalism?
The factor of the unexpected that I mentioned earlier had a role in this too. I wrote against the Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi while I was in the US. After returning to India, I went one day to the office of Radhakrishnan, who was the secretary of the Gandhi Peace Foundation. He was a close friend of Jayaprakash Narayanan. It was Emergency time and he had just been released from the prison. While we were talking to each other, one person walked into the room. He came calling Radhakrishnan “fat man, fat man”. I understood then and there that they were good friends. Our discussion was disrupted. I was a little upset. I asked Radhakrishnan: “Who is this man?” Radhakrishnan told me, “You do not know him? He is the one whom you said yesterday that you wanted to meet; Ramnath Goenka.
Goenka asked Radhakrishnan the same question that I asked him. Radhakrishnan replied: He is the one whom you said yesterday that you wanted to meet; Arun Shourie. An issue of the magazine Seminar which had come out then was full of my article titled “Signs of fascism”. Goenka had read it. I had heard a lot about Goenka. It was to Radhakrishnan that both of us had told that we should meet each other. From that day onwards Goenka and I became close friends.
How did that relationship bring you to journalism?
That is quite interesting. Goenka had a guest house in Bangalore. It is still there. One summer, my family and I went to stay there. Bangalore those days was very beautiful. While we were there, Goenka came for two days. I still remember. He spoke while walking briskly.
“What are you going to do?”, he asked.
“I am going to write a book”, I replied.
“Who’s going to read your book? Try to find a job”, Goenka told me in a harsh tone. He knew how to abuse a person in 113 languages. What job! As I stood wondering, he continued:
“I am looking for a young man for the Indian Express. I will call Mulgaonkar and tell him. You just need to go there”. He also gave me a designation: Executive Editor. That conversation was my Letter of Appointment.
Thereafter, it was another face of the Indian Express that the country saw. Arun Shourie let loose investigative journalism. The newspaper was filled with scoops that turned the nation upside down. The Bhagalpur blinding case in which the eyes of criminals were punctured, the Antulay scandal in which Maharashtra Chief Minister AR Antulay collected crores of rupees through five separate Trusts and the St. Kits scandal that shook VP Singh. Each disclosure was followed by threats. Protected by the black cat commandoes Arun Shourie reached office. Everyday there was a bomb blast on the pages of the paper in the form of news. Seeing this, Khushwant Singh called Shourie: “A very hard-working journalist”. At the end, He also got the credit for being a "twice-dismissed editor”.
In your opinion and based on your experience, what is real journalism?
Real journalism is a byword for strong responsibility. That is the real dharma of journalism. The second is also very important: Tell the truth to the centres of power. The centre of power may be the government. It may be a corporate. It could even be a group of people. A group which says that if you touch the cow, you would be killed, could also be such a centre of power. To tell the truth is journalism. Now people like Samir Jain say that journalism is infotainment. Journalism is about digging up the truth.
Is today’s journalism like that?
Not at all. What do you do these days? X said this, Y said this and Z said this… You would then put all of them together. You give equal opportunity to everyone. This is journalism of the lazy man. If this is what you do, it is not journalism. Reporting the tragedy at the Gorakhpur hospital is not to report every word of what Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath said. A journalist should examine the facts. He should analyse them and then find out the truth.
Does anyone do that kind of journalism in India?
Only the Delhi edition of the Indian Express. I read only this newspaper. What they do is real journalism.
What about visual media?
I do not watch television at all. Why should I watch the noise? If I watch NDTV, I can go to its website and get the news. Why should I tolerate the discussion? Besides, I am fully engaged in the writing of books.
You have written and published news which shocked the whole nation. How much pressure did you experience those days?
A lot of pressure. But I was actually enjoying them. This was because I had all the details with me. All the editors were against me. But, newspaper owner Ramnath Goenka was with me always. To those who used to complain against me, he used to say: “You write theses. He is doing the real work. You do journalism for the British. He does it for us. This has a future”. I fought against Indira Gandhi, Sanjay Gandhi and Antulay. I exposed facts, not individuals. Anyone can speak against me but no one can dispute the facts that I exposed. Both then and now.
In an interview granted to India Today in 1981, you said: “Technically speaking, I am not a journalist. I am just a citizen. I use the medium of newspaper to tell the truth. If it is not there, I will seek other ways”. Did you look for any such ways?
Yes. There was an issue about a missing file. It was during the prime ministership of Indira Gandhi. The file is missing. That is what was said in Parliament. But I found out that the file was indeed at Indira Gandhi’s house. I wrote an article headlined “Case of missing file”. My paper told me that it was impossible to publish it. If it was published, it would become a breach of Parliament’s privilege. I flew to Bombay with that article. I met a legal expert there. He also accepted the newspaper’s contention. I returned to Delhi the same day. The photostat machine had not yet come into being. I took 75 cyclostyled copies of the article. I sent the article in a sealed envelope to all the MPs, including Indira Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. There was ruckus in Parliament. The newspaper where I worked was in trouble. They were unable to report why the issue cropped up in Parliament. The deadlock was over Arun Shourie’s article. In that case, why did not my paper publish the article? Some small newspapers in Delhi reported the matter. All were in trouble. It was decided to sack me. Goenka handed over the letter of termination to BG Varghese. The day the letter was to be handed over to me, a news came in the morning from Manila that Arun Shourie had won the Magsasay Award. Goenka immediately called Varghese and told him not to hand over the letter to me and withdraw the plan to sack me. I will tell you about another incident. Indira Gandhi troubled Goenka in many ways. Finally, he decided to compromise with her. I got the report that he was going to meet President Zail Singh in this regard. The Managing Editor of India Today was my brother-in-law Suman Dubey. I told Dubey: Take a picture of Goenka arriving at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to meet the President. They took the photo and published it. It became a big controversy.
You are the one who criticised Indira Gandhi the most. What were her strengths and weaknesses?
One of the main problems of Indira Gandhi was that she did not know anything about economics. Another main problem was that she was controlled by the Moscow lobby among the civil servants. People like PN Haksar and Kumaramangalam. They were all great men. But they were leftists with outmoded ideas. When India won independence, India was full of public sector organisations. Gradually, the private sector grew up. She could not reconcile to the growth of the private sector. The truth is that the Moscow lobby did not allow her to do so. This created economic instability. Thirdly, she used institutions for her own personal good. Pandit Nehru had great respect for institutions. During my childhood, I had personally seen the Parliament of Nehru’s time. Jayaprakash Narayan, Acharya Kriplani and others would be in the House. Even if half the seats were empty in the House, Nehru would be there in his seat. Some debate would be taking place. Nehru would listen very attentively and take notes. Because he believed that in his presence the quality of debate would improve. Indira Gandhi did not have this quality. What is the situation now?
One greatest thing about Indira Gandhi was that she did not sell India. Look at the pictures where she stands beside Nixon and Kissinger. You will understand this. Since Indira lived in the house of Pandit Nehru during the freedom struggle, she inherited certain basic qualities. In whatever she did, she would not go beyond a particular limit. When she did the wrong or when told the lie, she willingly became smaller.
Did you have any direct contact with Indira Gandhi?
Not at all. While I was a student, she came to our school with Pandit Nehru. I had a little talk with her.
You saw Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi at close quarters and criticised them. What is the difference between the two?
As I told you earlier, in the case of Indira Gandhi, she had a limit for everything. But for the Modi-Shah company there are no such limits. They will do anything. What Modi is doing now is not Indiraisation of the BJP but also Mayavatiisation of the party. Look at the ministers under Modi: Fadnavis, Khattar, Sarbananda Sonoval … people without any base. The only one who has some base is Yogi Adityanath. It was not at their expense that he made his base. Nobody has freedom. Everybody has to be dependent on Modi. They also have to be afraid of him.
What is the condition of Sonia Gandhi?
That is worse. Nobody has the guts to advise her. Nobody has the courage to help her too.
You are known as the Patriarch of investigative journalism. What was your style of functioning?
First and foremost is collection of facts. The last fact would be collected. All the documents, if possible original documents, should be in our hands. Once all the facts are in hand, a very strong report would be published. It would serve as a strong punch. Never publish all the facts that had been collected in one go. When the first report appears, the person concerned would react. Then the next facts should be published. Then there would be a stronger reaction. Then the next installment of facts should be published. Thus, the opponent should be circled by facts in a stage by stage manner. Let’s take the case of AR Antulay’s Trust scandal. There were 102 cheques. There was no photocopying technology at that time. All the numbers of the 102 cheques were photographed. It is pointless to get only 101 cheques. Even the 102nd should be in hand. When I got that cheque, it was on Page 1. I published the details of all the cheques as to who gave them, how much money and which all organisations were involved. Such reports would be filed only after 10.30 pm during the final stages of the production. Otherwise, the news would leak. The story about Antulay was given a little earlier as the page had to be set. Every cheque number had to be clearly examined. All that needed time.
Which was the investigation in which you faced maximum pressure?
There were pressures in all the cases. As I said earlier, I enjoyed all of them. In the Antulay and Bofors scandals also, there were pressures. By using trade union leader Datta Samant, Antulay was able to close down the Bombay unit of the paper. When we started publishing Bofors stories, Rajiv Gandhi managed to get our Delhi office closed down. This was done in the name of workers’ agitation. I fought against both and won. I was able to frustrate all their attempts.
At what point did Arun Shourie abandon journalism?
I did not leave journalism. It was newspapers which sacked me. In Indian journalism, only three editors have been sacked: Pran Chopra from the Statesman, George Varghese from the Hindustan Times and I from the Indian Express. In India, there is only one editor who was twice sacked. That is me. That is my recognition as a journalist.
Were not Ramnath Goenka alive when you were sacked?
Yes, he was alive. But he was helpless. Nusli Wadia had just taken over the paper. They insisted on sacking two persons — Goenka’s economic advisor S. Gurumurthy and I. They gave me an 11-page termination letter. When I went to Goenka with that letter, he was not in a position even to talk. The letter was written by someone in his name.
How did you reach the BJP?
Again the unexpected happened. I was sitting at home, having lost my job. I got a phone call: “I, Kushabhau Thakre speaking”.
“Who are you?” I asked.
“Friend, I Kushabhau Thakre speaking”, he repeated. Even then I could not recognise him. Finally he said, “I am BJP President Kushabhau Thakre. Can you please come to the BJP office?
“Where is the BJP office?” I asked.
“You don’t know the BJP office?”, he asked in surprise.
Thakre sent me a vehicle and I reached the BJP office. When I reached there, he told me, “I met Atal Bihari Vajpayee, LK Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi. They all say that you should be nominated to the Rajya Sabha.”
I said “ok” and I became a Rajya Sabha MP. That is all.
On the strength of what ideology did you join the BJP all of a sudden?
The only reason for my joining the BJP was my state of unemployment at that time. By the way, what ideology do they have? It is opportunism pure and simple. (He laughs)
In that case, what if the Congress had invited you?
I would never have gone to the Congress. The party was still in the shadow of the Emergency. I was the one who opposed the Emergency very strongly.
You were part of a BJP government. Now it is a BJP government which is in power. What are the differences between the two?
There is no comparison between the two governments. At that time there was considerable inner-party democracy. Decisions were taken in a joint manner. All decisions were taken after elaborate discussions. I have debated even in Cabinet meetings. There was freedom for that. Everything was so transparent. Now Narendra Modi speaks and others obey him. That is all.
You have fought against corruption all your life. The main achievement claimed by the Modi government is the abolition of corruption. Your comment?
That is just a claim. No minister in the central government enjoys freedom. Nobody has a base of his own. All are controlled by Modi. Therefore, there is no personal corruption. At the same time, look at how elections are fought. From where does the BJP get so much money?
Ask election campaign specialist Prashant Kishore how much more money the BJP spends in every election, compared to other political parties, especially in UP and Bihar. I can’t say now whether Modi is corrupt or the BJP indulges in corruption. But many questions have come up. The most important is from where the BJP gets so much of money. There is a decentralised Emergency in force in the country.
It is said that you turned against the BJP because you were not given the Finance portfolio. Your comment?
For your argument’s sake, I can admit it. Even so, what is the answer to the points I raised. Are those points wrong?
At one time you were very close to Narendra Modi. Both know eac