Shourie, Arun, The Commissioner for Lost Causes, Viking by Penguin Random House India, New Delhi, 2022, Price:999 , pp. 600.
Tasbeel Umar Haydri
Indian Journalism was under strict censorship during Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi’s government. Later, former Bharatiya Janata Party president Lal Krishna Advani–who was part of the Jan Sangh government that came to power after ousting Indira Gandhi— reprimanded the media for their character during Emergency in iconic words: You were asked only to bend but you crawled.
However, when the Emergency was lifted on March 24th 1977, Indian journalism gradually recovered from that sorry state of affairs. Among the names which were credited to restore the credibility of the media, one was Arun Shourie (economist in World Bank). He came to India because of sheer circumstance – the illness of his son, Adit – that he digressed into this profession and the man who promoted him was none-other than Ramnath Goenka, the proprietor of the Indian Express. Their encounter was a splendid stroke of luck when Sukhomoy Chakravarty was appointed as Economic Advisor of GOI instead of him, Arun Shourie then started writing for the Seminar and then for Ramnath Ji.
In his latest book The Commissioner for Lost Causes, he launched a crusade against corrupt politicians and the misdeeds of the system. For this, he used a line of young reporters, and outstation correspondents to zealously pursue stories and sustain lengthy follow-ups in the courts. He mentions in the initial pages of the book itself that this is not his autobiography neither is this book to be considered as a historical record, rather he channels the main ideas through his journey as a journalist. The main concept he follows is the amount of fieldwork and the extent reporters went to bring out the truth, facts, and justice.
He along with his colleagues went to criticize ministers, officials, and even the Prime Minister of the country. He revisits some of his sensational exposure in journalism. For example, the Bhagalpur blinding; trafficking of tribal women on the Madhya Pradesh-Rajasthan border; fund collection scandal at the trusts set up by A.R. Antulay, the then Chief Minister of Maharashtra; Anti-Defamation Bill aimed at curbing press freedom; misuse of institutions, including judiciary; and distrust between the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and President Zail Singh, who even contemplated dismissing the PM and was assured of support from Ramnath Goenka and Vijaya Raje Scindia.
Fortunately, better sense prevailed, the author informs us, due to his own and L.K. Advani’s timely intervention. He also talks about the relationship he maintained with his young reporters; unlike the old school editors.
Shourie trusted his young reporters and backed them whenever needed. Arun Sinha, an engineer by profession, worked alongside Shourie in the Bhagalpur blinding case. This emerging reporter encountered the horrific incident of blinding the criminals by the police during which he had to face officials and their threat. At one point his reports were being challenged by the then CM of Bihar Jagannath Mishra, this is where Shourie stepped in and supported the finding of Sinha. Shourie even went on to interview Mishra at his official residence over the infamous Press censorship bill of 1983, where he dominated throughout the proceedings and confronted Mishra that he was being influenced by the central government for the formulation of the bill.
Shourie and Sinha through the medium of newspaper showed the whole country how can the officials and government be held responsible for their actions, they also pressed Mishra to resign as a sign of moral responsibility towards the general public for denying and hiding the barbaric incident in Bhagalpur. Later Sinha went on to become one of the renowned journalists still working in Goa.
Ashwini Sarin was a young reporter from Delhi who went on to buy a tribal woman named Kamla in Madhya Pradesh to expose the human trafficking going on in the state. Sarin was in direct contact with the people engaged in the crime showing the risk he went on to. Sarin at one time also went to Tihar jail on a drinking case to cover the inside story of the drug abuse among the jail inmates and the atrocities they had to face from jail officials. These two stories became a landmark among news reporters.
The author adopts a style of writing which keep the reader engaged and does not feel the burden of such a laborious work by the author. One thing that distinguishing the author from others is his approach to translation. Arun Shourie believes that translated text does not carry the same emotion or context that was meant to be conveyed thus he does not translate the conversation carried between him and others. But he does provide the translated text in the footnote.
Shourie while working in the Indian express worked under a proprietor who gave him a free hand and they were even close friends. But when he joined the Times of India here he was not held in high esteem much, also the owner was not anti-Congress thus Shourie was working in an environment not pleasant to him to continue in this field.
In the late 1990s he got a call from Kushabhau Thakre, the then BJP President, Shourie was to be elected for the seat of Rajya Sabha. He was to be elected from the state of Uttar Pradesh and as per the law he had to acquire a residence over there, and so he did, a room at his cousin’s in Noida. He had to attain at least 33 votes to win, he was told that a party memo was sent to the party members to vote for him and he need not worry. Shourie didn’t even meet any of the 33 members who were going to vote for him. So, a journalist who spoke highly of rights and wrongs, and criticized politicians for bending the laws, was himself involved in a not-so-fair election and acquired a residence in UP to attain a seat at the Rajya Sabha.
Shourie abandoned his pens to storm the political arena. He went from carrying political complaints and policy prescriptions to the hustings seeking the approval of the party member. It is not that this was the first instance that a journalist was shifting to politics Pramod Navalkar of Shiv Sena, Kumar Ketkar of Congress, and currently MJ Akbar of BJP have been successful transitions. Most journalists have this political tendency, as a desire to change the world for the better – but for themselves – they want to be recognized for their work, they want awards, bigger salaries, and higher status. Shourie was also now a tiny cog in a gigantic machine, trying to win appraisals of the party leaders. As Obi-Wan once said, “You have become the very thing that you swore to destroy”.
Though Shourie has a strong association with the BJP and served in the Vajpayee government as a minister, he has often been critical of the present Narendra Modi government. But in his book, he has hardly made any mention about the present regime. Perhaps he wants to avoid controversy and remain focused on his years as a Journalist.
(Tasbeel Umar Haydri is pursuing Master’s in International Studies from Jamia Hamdard, New Delhi)