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, continued…