National Interest: 8,618

That’s the number of characters this farewell column has. Why I have inflicted this on you, dear reader.

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: June 14, 2014 6:26 am
shekhar-main National Interest has employed storytelling as a way of opening out, explaining and then building an argument.

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.

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.

sg@expressindia.com

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  1. R
    Ramki
    Jun 14, 2014 at 4:21 am
    Saay mornings are not going to be the same anymore. Thank you SG for two decades of engagement. Look forward to reading you in your new avatar in National Interest!
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    1. L
      Lalit Mawkin
      Jun 15, 2014 at 1:37 am
      Wish you all thebest shekharji. It was difficult forms to read your long article since I suffer from ARMD. But Athens ofit I said yes you make sense. I read express I my I pad and have enjo reading you and listening toyour walk the talk. So keep walking All the best
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      1. N
        nitin
        Jun 14, 2014 at 7:32 am
        Thank you shekhar ji for believing in yourself, even if it was impossible to say what else you believed in.
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        1. O
          Observer
          Jun 14, 2014 at 5:25 am
          Great work Shekhar. Best of luck in your new adventures! Keep us informed and entertained!
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            adal singh
            Jun 14, 2014 at 6:29 am
            A columnist can't check outburst of his opinion about a social or political event. So Gupta Ji u r a writer ,u have shaped IE &vice versa , u will continue to express yourself ,may be on different forum & in different way, but in the same straight language.We expect to read you very soon. On which forum it is to be seen. Thank youShekhar Ji !
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            1. A
              Ajay Kumar
              Jun 14, 2014 at 4:58 am
              It has been amazing reading you over the years. Saays are never going to be the same. Thanks for enlightening us in ways only you can. There is a unique Shekhar way of arguing on a subject and this is going to be missed.
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                amit kumar
                Jun 14, 2014 at 7:12 am
                We hope to read you again in the national interest.
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                1. A
                  A K
                  Jun 14, 2014 at 3:03 am
                  National interest was the main attraction of I E on every Saay . We will miss it now. For people like us who started reading I E during the period Shekhar was with the India Today and later joined I E it is a great loss. National Interest is not only informative but shows the real picture which is hidden in a very simple narrative but interesting way.
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                  1. B
                    B .
                    Jun 18, 2014 at 1:09 pm
                    Rational picture of journalism!Namaste!
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                    1. B
                      B
                      Jun 16, 2014 at 7:42 pm
                      8618 - National Interest –Adieu - Mr. ShekharNational Interest - 8618.............Mr Shekhar Gupta - 19 years – Incredible, looks as if it was only yesterday whenI saw you in Rohtak. Truly time pes swiftly when one is in love with it otherwise it is quite depressing. Mr. Gupta, It is not that readers of paper will miss you but you will also miss a lot of readers like me who only love to read Indian Express without expressing a word. You have maintained the fiery, fearless and forceful spirit of The Indian Express. I have been a regular reader of Indian Express since 1960 and have witnessed the journey of this newspaper very closely. This paper has a tradition of having valiant and brave editors in the past. I may mention the time of great editor Frank Moraes, a marvelous person and courageous editor among the galaxy of editors like Pothan Joseph, Chalapathi Rau and R K Karanjia. During Indo – Pak war of 1965 Frank was himself reporting from the battlefield donning the robes of war correspondent. I still vividly remember the exchange of long correspondence on Hinduism betweenthe two intellectual giants - Frank Moraes and Dr. Karan Singh. Frank published his view point on the front page and equally published Dr Singh’s reply on the front page of The Indian Express daily. His regular column ‘Ariel’ was eagerly awaited on every Sunday.Then it was the time of ‘emergency’ and paper was asked to remove the then editor V K Narsimhan but it was the fearlessness of the paper that only the name plate of the editor was removed and he continued to edit the paper from ante room. Of course, by paper I mean the great person RNG – Ram Nath Goenka – a lion in Journalism. He had the guts to defy the orders of the (Emergency) Government to remove Narsimhan. Being owner of the paper, he had all the rights to air his views through it, but as I can recollect, he appeared in the paper only once when he challenged Indira hi for her orders of keeping ‘Surveillance ‘ over RNG movements. As he was a freedom fighter from the period of Pt Nehru, he allowed to publish his rebuttal to government in the newspaper.Mr. Gupta, your weekly column and Walk the Talk will continue to ring the bells in the ears of the readers. Your series on Ministry of External Affairs and on 1984 riots are exceptional contributions besides others. Yes, National Interest runs its course in The Indian Express. Adieu– have nice time. - B N Goyal, 917 Golden Farmer Way, Mississauga, L5B 1W4, ON, Canada (Phone – 647 – 430-0409)
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                        Brijesh
                        Jun 14, 2014 at 5:24 am
                        The ritual every saay morning for the past many years has involved reading national interest before breakfast :) . From a now-32 year old who has grown up reading national interest for the past 10 years, many thanks Shekharji, and wish you the very best!
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                        1. C
                          Chandra Jay
                          Jun 14, 2014 at 5:01 am
                          Great;good for an intellect primal weep(if there's anything like an intellectual weep)but I want to insert a hollow phrase to Shekharjee's 'intellectual boredom'
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                            Devesh Rai
                            Jun 14, 2014 at 7:01 pm
                            Shekhar sir,I have to agree that not all the time I liked your article but all the the time I read yours. Beauty of IE and yours writing was always to show different perspective. That is what I aspect from news paper when I hold it over morning tea. I hope IE would be same without you. Best of luck for your new endeavors.New editor has a big shoe to fill in. All the best
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                              jay
                              Jun 14, 2014 at 4:27 am
                              We also don’t want any conclusion, judgment or any wish list.. These are the part of readers’ endeavor .We want articles having maximum dimensions and aspects.
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                              1. S
                                Sid Gautam
                                Jun 14, 2014 at 1:38 am
                                Thank you Mr. Gupta for remaining a scholarly and humble editor for this long. Best wishes for your future activities.
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                                  Ashish Goel
                                  Jun 14, 2014 at 4:35 am
                                  Thank you shekhar Ji. I have come to read NI (acronym!!) around 2 years ago and since then I am hooked to it. Like so many youngsters I also resented your stand towards the w Anna movement but gradually realized the sagacious position that express took. Though I disagree with both you and wise ranbir kapoor on the use of twitter but I sincerely hope that you will continue to enlighten the reader. All the best!!
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                                    OJas
                                    Jun 14, 2014 at 3:23 am
                                    Thank you Shekhar ji for all those years of wonderful writing! I am a 17 year old boy who has been reading you since I was eleven.... Your articles have shaped my thinking in a huge way!
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                                    1. K
                                      Kerala Varma
                                      Jun 14, 2014 at 2:33 pm
                                      Wherever you go you cannot change your spots!
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                                      1. K
                                        kr
                                        Jun 14, 2014 at 6:33 am
                                        Thank you Mr. Gupta for writing National Interest. I have been a regular reader of yours for past 13 years. I hope to follow you to India Today whenever it appears there.
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                                        1. M
                                          Manish Kumar
                                          Jun 15, 2014 at 6:52 am
                                          Thank you, will miss you. This one column is one of the must read on weekend.
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                                            Janardhan Rao Maddu
                                            Jun 14, 2014 at 12:17 pm
                                            Okay bye Shekhar,hope to see you somewhere else with your column.
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