Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Interview Arun Shourie

Arun Shourie, the senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader, sits today in the Rajya Sabha. He is one of India's most distinguished journalists, the author of some 24 books. In his last work Are We Deceiving Ourselves Again?, he questions with his usual incisiveness Jawaharlal Nehru's China policy.
The first thing that you notice when you enter Shourie's home is his collection of books. He probably belongs to the endangered species of well-read politicians.
He discussed this vision of India with Claude Arpi. Though often pessimistic about the future of the Indian State, he proposes workable solutions to make Indian democracy more responsive to the common man.

In the Indian Constitution, it is said that 'India that is Bharat'. In the current election campaign, one does not see much of Bharat. Everywhere one sees regionalism, casteism, religion, etc. What are your views on this?

There is no doubt that the electorate has been completely splintered over the years with the result that what used to be a national election, has (progressively) become a provincial election or even today a local election. The issues dominating people's minds and debated upon are only local issues, local candidates, local caste combination or local nexus of criminals.
These are the main determinants of the (present) elections, that is why we do not hear much of Bharat, or India as a whole. But we hear about local issues only.

Is it not worrying for the future? Tomorrow the government which will emerge from these elections may not be able to think of 'Bharat'?

There is no doubt about it.
I already feel that the core constituent of the last two coalition governments were the BJP and the Congress. The only objective of the other parties has been to weaken these two parties, so that whenever a coalition is formed, they can have a greater say.
Unfortunately, their perspective is very limited, their horizon is geographically narrow. They just want license, particularly the license to loot. This has happened with the present government. Ministers look upon their chief minister or the party chief as their boss, not at the prime minister.
These weak governments are under compulsion to splinter into smaller and smaller groups, regional groups, caste groups, interest groups, etc. There is almost no thinking for the country as a whole.
I am very apprehensive of the type of government which will come out of such an electoral process.

'The parliamentary system is not suitable for India'

With India having very serious concerns about Pakistan on one side, China on the other, is not the prospect of a 'regional' government worrying?

Absolutely. I have been writing about it, many have written about it. The government pays less and less attention about (national interests), that is why India is buffeted and slapped by terrorists, by China operating through Pakistan, by Pakistan operating directly, by Pakistan and Bangladesh operating together or by internal Left wing violence.
The Naxalite movement?
Yes, Naxalite violence.
With the situation becoming worse election after election, do you see a way out?
One solution would be for these two big parties (which are becoming smaller) to cooperate with each other. It is not likely to happen. This hurtling down, this is no longer a drift, is very rapid. It will continue till the day the system is not able to manage the situation or due to a serious internal or external shock. Then people may think of constitutional changes.
Do you think this particular parliamentary system is suitable for India? Would a Presidential system be better?
No, it is not suitable. I have argued this point in a book about our system (parliamentary system); what we have made of it, what we can make of it. I have mentioned the type of changes which should be made for us to cope with the (present) situation.
The Presidential system is a more comprehensive system, it may be suited to India, but we may not be suited to the system.

Something like the American or the French system?

Elements of them may be suitable. For example, in the French system, you have two rounds of elections. Today you have 95 percent of the Lok Sabha members who are elected on a minority vote. If you have two rounds, at least you will have a more representative body.
In the American system, all the ministers are appointed outside the legislature. In our case, it could be a proportion, let us say one third is appointed outside the legislature. Changes of this kind could be made. Or compulsory voting or all elections (EM>regional and national) to be held simultaneously. Such changes should be made.

'The media is as superficial as the politicians'

What are the BJP's prospects in the election?

I don't know, in fact I have never met anybody who has been able to forecast the elections results in India, because it is more and more an aggregation of local results.

National issues, like climate change, the global financial crisis, foreign policy are never mentioned in the campaign. Could you comment?

Yes, you don't hear about them. The financial issues appear only if price of commodities like onions have raised, then: 'Who is responsible for it' or if jobs are lost, 'Who is responsible?'
The present government will say, it is the fault of the previous government. We will say, 'it is the fault of the present government.' It is at that level. There is no deep examination of issues (facing India) by the electorate.
The politicians have a vested interest to keep the debate at this level. Previously, whatever would happen, the media would go into depth (into the issue). As you know, today the media is as superficial as the politicians. It is even more ephemeral, one day there is a big issue, the next day, it is forgotten. 'Breaking News' (sometimes) lasts a shift, not even for the day.
Your generation of journalists were very knowledgeable, what about the new generation?
Knowledge is regarded as old fashion. Sometimes journalists hear that I had spoken in Parliament or a particular issue is (being debated); journalists come and insist (to have my reaction). They come with a microphone and TV crew. They tell me: 'Sir, there was an issue in the morning, what was the issue?' I tell (the subject of the debate) the chap who then says: 'Sir, our editor is sending us, please tell us what question we should ask you.' (Laughs.) It is a really a fact.
Or questions like this: 'Please, sir, tell us, are you for the Budget or against it?' What can you respond? This is the level that issues are treated.
It is true for the Budget or any other matters, 90 percent of journalists will ask you such questions. In fact, one of my previous books is an attack on the state of Indian journalism (today). It is part of the problem (confronting India).

Was your generation different?

I think so. Take the issue of the nuclear deal, 'Are you for or against it?' (To understand) you have to really go into the fine text. The issue was debated for three years in India. Now, for three years, I and (former Union finance and external affairs minister) Yashwant Sinha, we spoke against it. We read all the documents.
But I can tell you, not more than one correspondent who came to interview me had read the documents. And yet, apart from this correspondent and perhaps three or four politicians who had read the documents, everybody had an opinion: 'We should go with America!' Or 'We should be against!' This type of opinion!
The point that I am making is that the examination (of the issue) is not at all present and yet in that particular case (the nuclear deal), it requires no more than 75 pages to read. Except the few people that I mentioned, nobody has read that much.

'The quality of people in public life is abysmal'

Today, the archives of India are still 'confiscated'. Genuine scholars can't have access to historical archives. What is your opinion on this?

It is indefensible. All the persons interested in contemporary issues face the same problem. In fact, these issues are not even 'historical' issues; there are policy issues for India. Take the example of China or Tibet or Kashmir, the same policy, with the same assumptions, the same premises and the same delusions continue today. We should be able to study these documents and show the consequence of these presumptions. But we are not allowed, perhaps it is precisely for this reason!

Has this issue been debated in Parliament in detail?

When it is, the government gives nonsensical replies.

What about the Henderson Brooks Report?

The Henderson Brooks Report is one of the cases. (The problem is that) when clearly misleading answers are given (in Parliament), no consequences follow.
My last book on China begins with a declaration of Pranab Mukherjee in Parliament which contradicts the Joint Statement issued after the visit of President Hu Jintao to India in (November 2006). (Mukherjee's speech in Parliament) is a clear misrepresentation, an evasion of the Joint Statement (issued earlier). No consequence has followed.
Take the attitude of China regarding India's membership in the UN Security Council, it seems that China is quite agreeable.
The next morning after his visit, it was the headlines of the Indian press.
Possibly, but the Chinese never said that. It shows both what the Indian press can be made to swallow and use as their headlines the next morning and what a minister can say in the Parliament without any consequence to follow.

Once again, is there any hope?

At the moment, I feel that the level of awareness of the Indian public is very low, it is very superficial; the quality of people in public life has become so abysmal that there is a very real danger.
Do you think that a movement like the one started by your father (H D Shourie and Common Cause for the Indian consumers) could help to bring about changes in other fields?
It is necessary. Civil society should be strengthened, but at a very large level, because India is an ocean. A few attempts will not be enough to turn the tide. Another point is that it should be collected and beamed into public affairs, if each of us works only in one's own specialised field, (it is not enough).
Somebody is doing work on tribal areas, someone else on crafts, that does not improve public life. When the entire cloth burns, however good the embroidery on one's part of cloth, the entire cloth will ultimately burn. It is necessary to beam all (these efforts).
One good example is Gandhiji, whether it was leprosy work, or Ramdhun, or Charkha or Khadi or basic education, everything converged into a national movement. Today there is a lot of good voluntary work going on, but it is not collective or beamed on public life.

'67,000 people have been killed by terrorists. What more do you want?'

What can change this? An external attack?

I don't know. There are attacks all the time. In India, during the last 25 years, 67,000 people have been killed by terrorists. What more do you want?
It seems that for a certain press (including the foreign press), these attacks can be equated to terrorism, in J&K for example?
Yes, amongst the people who confuse further the issues, are the Indian media and the so-called Indian liberals. They just don't want to see the facts. They for example say, 'Pakistan like India is the victim of terrorism.' The fact (about Pakistan) is that they killed so many people in India, today it is boomeranging on them, but this fact is ignored.
Is the RTI a good instrument of change?
Yes, it is a good instrument. The Act was drafted by a committee headed by my father. But it should be used much much more.

What about getting historical documents through the RTI?

Today, even printed documents are not being released. I have written about this: Printed documents are still classified. We should try to use the Act to the maximum. The government will resist. But it will show some hollowness in the Act.
If information comes, it is good, if it does not come, we have made a different point (the imperfection of the Act) and it is also good.

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