Writings on the Wall is a metaphor I use for a different series of writings, from travels across India, mostly during elections. The logic is, wherever you go, you can read the mood, fathom the change, anticipate trends and ideas by reading what is written on the walls. But why repeat this as I write my farewell National Interest in the pages of this great newspaper?
It is because if you had walked into our buzzy, young and somewhat overly colourful newsroom for many of these years, you would have seen a vinyl, now frayed and lost, sadly, that read: The left thinks we are right, the right thinks we are left. The unwritten footnote to that was, if we are noticed by both sides across the great ideological divide, and if we end up needling both, we must be doing something right. If you had read this banner, you would have known this is a seriously opinionated paper that loves to jostle for argumentative space, the more contentious the better, and then speaks its mind. As the paper’s editor for nearly 19 years, I have been the biggest beneficiary of this freedom and space, and National Interest has run uninterrupted — or mostly so, barring some short periods of intellectual boredom. It is not my case that every call the column has taken has been right or righteous. It has gone wrong on occasion, most embarrassingly with a fact or name from political history, which, though extremely rare, is inexcusable, given how unforgiving Express readers are. Over the years, I have also been asked many tough questions on the somewhat unusual and unpopular positions I have taken, and some touching ones: why are you, and the Express, so obsessed with always having to take clear positions? Why don’t you also tell us each side of the argument and then give your own conclusion? My answer to that has sometimes been audacious: do you really want the Express opinion pages to start reading like some of our recent superior court judgments? And mostly facetious: arre baba, on the one hand is the Hindustan Times, on the other hand is The Times of India, so who will read the Express unless we take a clear but well-argued stand.
Obituaries of serious, long-form (particularly in my case) opinion have been written many times in these years. Attention spans have shrunk, sentences have become shorter and any word with more than two consonants is cut to size — all to make a profound thought fit into 140 characters. At the same time, India has become more opinionated. So everybody has a point of view already. How do you prise open, join an argument then, or dare to disagree?
Serious opinion writing has been threatened with extinction by many other viruses, from growing boredom with the commentariat, or the “thoughter” class (the ubiquitous Lutyens subjaantawala who has thought everything through already), to the rise of the personal blog, to that weapon of the smuggest mass self-satisfaction: a Facebook “like”. Underlying all these threats is not the rapid change in the platforms or formats in which opinion reaches you but that other pestilence: the wide confusion of well-argued opinion with what is called, as everything is these days, in an acronym, POV, or Point of View. When everybody already has a POV, how do you argue or put forward an opinion instead, which looks at facts and draws a conclusion, even if as hypothesised? How do you disagree with an audience whose mind is already made up? A bigger challenge: how do you get them to read 1,200 words — or in my case, before my edit page colleagues start sniggering, more like 1,400 words of opinion that takes as much time reading as Arnab Goswami would to demolish his entire nine-headed panel’s arguments?
National Interest has employed storytelling as a way of opening out, explaining and then building an argument. I am conscious of that other threat: storytelling being dismissed so judgmentally as “anecdotes”. I love reading your blogs, Shekharji, I love your anecdotes, I am often told by strangers, and I cringe. But then, as they say, never argue with the customer and if she says she likes your product, just say thank you and carry on doing the same. But the reason I object to the description “anecdote” is a serious one. I was trained as a reporter and I will always be one. I see a story in everything, and then every story helps you reach a conclusion. You cannot write opinion any more as sermons, streams of consciousness or as your wishlist, never mind the facts. Nobody would read you. Nobody would even be irritated enough to write you an abusive tweet. Reporting, marshalling of facts, recollections from the past and continuing encounters as a shameless, incorrigible reporter are the roti-dal of my opinion writing, and the justification for next week’s National Interest. If this column has evolved into a genre of its own over these years, it is because I have been allowed to approach it primarily as a reporter, quoting from conversations at a level of confidence and access that only my years as a reporter and most privileged position as the editor of The Indian Express could have brought.
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The question I am asked most often is, why are you not on social media? I keep fielding it with the usual ghisa-pita excuses, laziness, absent-mindedness or just that very handy George Clooney quote: I won’t risk an entire career on 140 characters. But these do not convince anybody. Am I then afraid of disagreement, abuse and calumny? I do not believe so, and in any case, what choice do I have? I get plenty of abuse every Saturday morning, anyway. My worry emanates from somewhere else. You can call this old-fashioned, but the person who shone this light for me was not Clooney but your favourite Bollywood star, Ranbir Kapoor. I asked him why, unlike almost all his contemporaries, he wasn’t on social media (‘I want to be the biggest star and the greatest actor’, Walk the Talk, IE, July 18, 2010, iexp.in/VoF91106). This was almost four years ago, when he was still in his 20s. There is a problem with that, he said. Everybody you address there is your friend, they all love you, so it can make you very delusional, that everybody loves you and that everything you are doing is right. It’s like having your mom as your audience, he said, it can be very misleading. The young Kapoor is so wise. Because very few today have the intellectual confidence of a Raghuram Rajan, who stated on the day he took over as RBI governor that he had not come in to collect Facebook likes.
I believe you should never say never, so who knows, perhaps I too will inevitably enter the echo-chamber of social media. But my worry will then be that National Interest should not change its character. One of the biggest and newest threats to old-fashioned opinion writing is just this: the columnist’s ego. You address your followers, guessing their responses, and tailor the message accordingly. One of the more difficult — and ultimately so intellectually satisfying — positions National Interest took was on the Anna movement and the anti-politician mood it unleashed. Can I forget the kolaveri of abuse after the column titled ‘Jantar, Chhu Mantar’ (National Interest, IE, May 14, 2011, iexp.in/vNs91099)? It was risky then to anticipate the quick dissipation of the Anna movement, the constitutional and moral illogicality of the so-called Jan Lokpal Bill and later, the hyperbolic rise of the Aam Aadmi Party. The reason National Interest argued with the Anna movement’s use of the tricolour and Bharat Mata ki Jai was also a principled and old-fashioned one: how can I argue with you once you wrap yourself in my country’s flag or wave it at me? It does not become any less my flag too, even if I disagree with you.
Engaging opinion writing, therefore, tends to be more about disagreement and argument than about affirmation and endorsement. Nineteen years of National Interest have also taught me that Indian discourse is by no means so trivialised that more and more people won’t read serious opinion and then respond, even if it is in disagreement. I am, of course, spoilt by two more things: the freedoms of The Indian Express and the very special, questioning personality of its readers, among the most thinking, free-speaking Indians.
So thank you very much, dear Express readers, for staying the course even if I irritated you more often than I made you smile. With this farewell piece, National Interest runs its course in The Indian Express, truly my alma mater. It will be back soon elsewhere. The only promise I make is, it will continue to inform, provoke and sometimes infuriate you, as it has for nearly two decades.