By Prof. S.N. Misra
There is really no general history of India, post-independence, barring Bipin Chandra’s “India after independence” (2000) and Rama Chandra Guha’s “India After Gandhi” (2007).
While there is a good deal of writing on themes such as partition, Kashmir, the Sino Indian conflict, the Naxalite Movement and economic reforms, there is no journalistic sweep of modern India; ranging from Nehru’s socialism, Indira’s emergency, P.V. Narasimha Rao’s desecration of secularism and Manmohan Singh’s flirtation with neo-liberalism.
Mr. B.G. Verghese First Draft fills up this void and reminds one of Mr. M.C. Chagla’s delightful autobiography ‘Roses in December’ (1973) where he sets the subtext for ethical writing, shorn of malice or sycophancy. Similar refrain is discernible in Verghese’s 573-page tome where firmly believes that “pessimism stems from looking at events too narrowly, without the perspective of time and space”.
It has imbued him to look at the big picture “where we want to be and then work backward to the optimality of trade-off and what is that we must now do or not do, in order to achieve that goal. For Verghese history repeats itself and we pay a deep price when the leaders become vainglorious.
Verghese joined Times of India in 1949 when Bombay’s seven islands were being patiently connected through a process of reclamation. He had the company of N.J. Nanporia the polymath and R.K. Laxman the cartoonist and Prince of Editors, Frank Moraes who wrote “Witness to an Era”.
Moraes sent him to Egypt in 1950 to cover the decline under Nahas Pasa under the weight of Feudalism and Corruption. But his real fling with Journalism started when he covered China’s incursion into Tejpur in November, 1962. He was the lone Journalist who covered the ‘Himalayan Blunder’ when other journalists departed Tejpur ‘to seek safety rather than stay within news’.
He writes Tejpur was a ghost town. The State Bank had burnt its currency chest and the charred notes wafted in the evening breeze. The administration had unlocked the gates of the mental hospital and its 30 odd bemused inmates were wandering around the town, like lost souls, poking at ebbing fires of in incinerated papers that the Chinese must not read at any cost. The North Eastern States felt that Nehru’s comforting word for there did not carry any muster and the Indian state had bidden farewell to them.
While he is an intrepid admirer of Nehru’s commitment to liberal democracy and secularism, he is anguished because of his imperious attitude towards Nepal and haughtiness in dealing with Ayub Khan when he stopped over at Delhi to suggest ‘joint defence’ for the two countries. Nehru’s peremptory remark “defence against whom” drove Ayub to the arms of the Chinese to sign a peace treaty the same year. Verghese strongly feels that Nehru should have resigned in 1958-59 when he at the crescendo of his charisma.
Verghese joined an unsure Mrs. Gandhi as Prime Minister in 1966 as her Principal Information Advisor. This was the time when she had to take a decision for devaluing the Indian rupee, which completely backfired. Mrs. Gandhi felt greatly let down by her advisors and acclaimed economists. But she showed greater spine while dealing with Mr. Richard Nixon during the Indo-Pak war of 1971 and carved out Bangladesh, earning the sobriquet of ‘Goddess Durga’ from her arch rival Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
However, her relentless pursuit of populism and sweeping nationalization of Banks and coal mines steeped India into Hindu rate of growth (3.5%). Gunnar Myrdal, the Nobel prize winner commented that India under Indira had ‘arrested social development’.
Verghese left South Block in 1972 to join Hindustan Times as the Editor in 1972. Bhupesh Gupta, the veteran parliamentarian, called for a full public enquiry as he was carrying all PMO’s secret to Birla HT. KK wanted Verghese to write a favourable peace on Sanjay Gandhi’s Maruti Project which Verghese after a visit to the factory called “a piece of monumental nonsense that reveals a degree of naivety and arrogance that was truly extraordinary”.
He also wrote strongly against the emergency and its high handedness. But Mrs. Gandhi did not get him arrested, unlike most other Journalists as she respected his objectivity and dignity.
It would be interesting to draw a parallel between him and P.N.Haksar who almost ran the PMO during Mrs. Gandhi’s time. Haksar was shunted out to the Planning Commission in 1975 as he dared to speak against Sanjay Gandhi. His wife was also arrested. Sanjay was the nemesis for many politicians. This cost Mrs. Gandhi the election of 1977 dearly. Jayaprakash Narayan became her bete noire with corruption as the these. The hubris of maternal affection became the nemesis liberal democracy.
Mr. B.G.Verghese was equally sceptical of P.V.Narasimha Rao for his prevarication in not dealing with desecration of Babri Masjid in 1992 firmly. He also gives glimpses of undue favours that was shown by the political regime to Dhirubhai Ambani in Patalganga Project and how Gurumurthy acted as a go-between Goenka and Giani Zail Singh when the relationship between the PM and the President had touched its nadir. History is now repeating itself as Verghese wrote, when the Ambanis are again in the news for their alleged shady ‘offset deal for Rafale Aircraft and Gurumurthy is trying to scuttle independence of RBI by becoming a Board Member!
Mr. Verghese stood for independent journalism and specialised in developmental journalism. Mrs. Gandhi wrote in 1965 “you have been doing excellent job by your constructive and impartial reporting of our development projects”. He got Magsaysay Award in 1975 as he understood what needs to be done for improving India’s agricultural productivity and bolstering India’s small-scale industrial sector. He felt the pulse of India’s two perennial trouble spots; the farmers and the marginal industrial sector.
But most importantly he was not a lap dog to his proprietor K.K.Birla who had to approach Delhi High Court to restrain him on his editorial comments. In a historic judgment the Delhi High Court observed in September 1975 that “the editor is the living articulate voice of the press and the value of the newspaper lies in its content, the selection of which is the sole and undivided responsibility of the editor”.
Mr. Verghese ensured that while covering the events his closeness to political leaders did not emasculate him of the objectivity and fearlessness that should be the touchstone of every journalist. He writes “it takes ego to write an autobiography and honesty to get it anywhere near right”. India today is marked by the hubris of intolerance. The Journalists of today, who mostly try to be complicit with the powers that be, and prefer to be candles in the wind would profit immensely from reading this peerless pens sketch of modern Indian History.
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The author teaches Economics. E.email@example.com, Ph-91-7381109899
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