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Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Arun Shourie: Deeper than this govt… systems have decayed over time… (But) Mrs Gandhi had some shame

The former Union minister talks about why the decline of courts and democratic institutions in this government is worse, points out differences between Vajpayee and Modi regimes, and reasons why he is not enamoured with numbers in policymaking as situations change. The session was moderated by National Opinion Editor Vandita Mishra.

By: Express News Service | Updated: November 3, 2020 12:46:27 am
Arun shourie, former union Minister, economist, journalist, author and social activist. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

VANDITA MISHRA: In your latest book, Preparing for Death, there are two strands of renunciation. One is a steady distancing from the external world. The other is renunciation through immersion in it. Which has it been for you?

ARUN SHOURIE: There are two very distinct ways. One is Gandhiji’s way — he was immersed till his last breath. And the other is (social reformer) Vinoba Bhave’s way. He distances himself from all public activity in the end… But where these two things come together is that it was not a renunciation of external things but, for instance, of the ego. And that is also the teaching of the Gita. Act, not only without the expectation of fruit but also without the illusion that you are the actor. All these are synonyms for the abating of evil. And so we should not think of the two traditions as either/or.

VANDITA MISHRA: You are facing a corruption case in a Rajasthan special court. For somebody like you, who has been a crusader against corruption, how are you dealing with it?

ARUN SHOURIE: You could be angry. But the teaching is, at that time, don’t focus on the event. Focus on your reaction to that event….

Every setback, like every success, is an opportunity to examine our own mind. It is to look at ourselves and get to know the mind better. For instance, those days, I was quite upset. But I did not stop my daily routine of meditation for 45 minutes and yoga. I was able to do all that without the thought of appearing before anybody… I don’t mind that at all. We are nobody. Gandhiji stood before magistrates, so did Lokmanya Tilak. So, we should be humble….

VANDITA MISHRA: Do you feel let down by this regime?

ARUN SHOURIE: I think this regime is the ripening of things which have been happening for 40 years. This suborning of institutions, investigative agencies, the police becoming the private army of every chief minister. And the way the Supreme Court has been conducting itself in many cases and the sense of their priorities… They can find time for… Arnab Goswami or (late actor) Sushant Singh Rajput, but not for Kashmir or migrants? So it is this regime that is accelerating that process. It is brazen in using the instruments. But the problem is much deeper than just this regime. It is the progressive decay over time of all institutions, starting with Parliament, the legislatures, bureaucracy, judiciary, and the media. This enables the people… to change the norms. Today, the norm is ‘I have no norms. I don’t give a damn…’ So that is the culmination of a long process. That is why the problem is much deeper.

VANDITA MISHRA: You have provided a great perspective on the decline of the courts. When and why do you think it has reached the point that it has?

ARUN SHOURIE: Mrs (former PM Indira) Gandhi had many redeeming qualities, for instance, a sense of shame… That is missing in the rulers of today. But this whole notion started with (former law minister) Mr P Shiv Shankar’s phase of a committed judiciary and committed bureaucracy. She (Gandhi) superseded three judges. And that set a precedent that if you don’t do what I want you to do, I will act accordingly… I have always felt that more trees are brought down by termites slowly hollowing them out, rather than by the axe. So we as citizens have to wake up in time. And in the case of the judiciary, the way to ensure accountability is… to continually monitor judgments.

VANDITA MISHRA: You said the crisis of institutions is not really a creation of one regime. That’s true. But what is it that we cannot put on the previous regimes?

ARUN SHOURIE: I did not want to suggest that, ‘This has been going on for a long time, so what is surprising in it?’. Even if murder has been going on for a long time, that does not justify my murdering anybody today. So it is the responsibility of the rulers to reverse course if things have been going wrong. After all, in Mr (PM Narendra) Modi’s case, he was not elected to continue, he was supposed to change things. Things have been bad in the lower courts for a long time. But those sitting as law ministers today were supposed to reverse course. Have they done anything to improve not only the condition of the courts but also the procedures? No. They just want their statements applauding the Prime Minister to be prominently displayed…

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It is not that the present regime is merely continuing what was happening earlier, it is accelerating the decline of one institution after the other.

VANDITA MISHRA: What are the crises that are special to this regime?

ARUN SHOURIE: First is the complete throwing away of all norms. The Aadhaar Bill and several other Bills were said to be money Bills. Therefore, they were not sent to the Rajya Sabha. So, this is the complete throwing away of all norms. And this has happened time and again. Second, is the perversion of discourse. If you see the falsehoods which have been uttered, I think they are exceeded only by (US President Donald) Trump. And the third is one for which the country will pay for a very long time. Nobody can know everything… So to make it a practice to stay away from all expertise and push out anybody who is regarded as an expert, opens not just the regime but the country to great danger. I am certain that this applies to the Chinese intrusions, the management of the economy and the reforms in courts…

If you had what (former US President Abraham) Lincoln called ‘a team of rivals’, then you would be hearing more. This was (former PM) Atalji’s (Bihari Vajpayee) great quality. He would meet and listen to all sorts of people. He would give you the confidence that you could talk to him without any difficulty or fear of reprisal. Today, people shun, fearing the reaction of the PM or (Union Home Minister) Amit Shah. Then governance comes by revelation. One night, you decide and carry out demonetisation. Then, for the next eight months, you defend its consequences. The same thing happened to migrants… But could the PM and his secretariat not have foreseen this? Or when it became visible, could they not have acted? What kind of government says that we cannot pay compensation because we don’t know how many migrants died?

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: History has examples of individuals at the helm suddenly changing the nature of institutions that they lead. For instance, TN Seshan in the Election Commission, or Y V Reddy in the Reserve Bank of India. So what is absent today?

ARUN SHOURIE: The institutions are the persons who man them at that particular time… Individual judges have changed the course of justice in the Supreme Court… Institutions are not something abstract, they are the individuals who man them. The problem is in this selection of persons who will be there. For instance, in legislatures, it is the party high command which determines who will be your candidate. Parliament or a state legislature is not an abstract institution. It is the type of persons who were offered to the public and the public chose… So that then determines how the institution will behave. This is what happened in the judiciary. Former Justice (J S) Verma, who was the author of the collegium system, had said that it has become a bargaining place… On the other hand, if you give the Executive, like the current assertive one, greater authority, you will have an even more disastrous judiciary.

ANANT GOENKA: World over, more and more people are voting based on identity even at the cost of the economy and jobs. Why is this happening? And why have journalists missed the trend?

ARUN SHOURIE: The fact that they are voting in a particular way does not justify a particular criterion. I think they may be voting against the alternative and not for the person. We read too many theories into the outcome. But the outcome may be determined by several factors. It may just be what I see in the alternative… All of us got so fed up with the inactivity under Dr Manmohan Singh’s government in the last two years that we imagined the Gujarat model to be what the facts today reveal it was not. So people may fool themselves and then pay for the consequences….

ANANT GOENKA: Do you think that people today care about free speech and free press as they used to 10-15 years ago? Or is it not as high as it was in their priority list? Has it become collateral damage in the current political scenario?

ARUN SHOURIE: The answer is all of these. But under the guise of free speech, nonsense is being spread. For instance, the lies on social media or Republic TV. I would not be as liberal as the Americans phrase it, ‘The right to free speech is the right to protect the speech which I hate.’ If somebody is spreading untruth, I would not stand up for his rights… That is a short-sighted view… But I think people are gravitating to see us, those in the media, as a problem and not as a fortress which needs to be defended. In (The Indian Express founder) Ramnathji’s case, who were the defenders? They were the readers… Every time there was a raid on Ramnathji’s house and on The Indian Express…, the circulation went up. This was because the readers felt that it was not just their (the media’s) voice which is being choked, ‘my voice is being choked’. Today, the reader does not see that in the overwhelming proportion of the media. That’s the problem.

NIRUPAMA SUBRAMANIAN: So, how should journalism then proceed in this day and age?

ARUN SHOURIE: We must continue to do our duty, which is speaking truth to power. Power often means the people who are misled on reservation, communalism, lynching and so on. We must continue to speak the truth to them irrespective of what is fashionable today. There was a wonderful sentence that Justice K Subba Rao (known for his dissenting judgments) had said, ‘I am writing for the brooding sense of the future’… We should not have that much empathy for people. If they don’t listen to the truth as you are portraying it, they will pay for it.

VANDITA MISHRA: Do you have a doubt about the course that you eventually took vis-à-vis this regime?

ARUN SHOURIE: No. I waited for six months before I spoke and till the evidence was in front of everybody. And then I only crystallised that evidence. I don’t think I would have lasted 15 days if I had been inside the regime because there is a character to the regime. Why would I not have been thrown out?… There is a view about the type of person who should be there. I would not have fitted in.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: You mentioned how the government doesn’t value expertise. Do you feel that is the case on China? The government has in the foreign minister an experienced diplomat who possibly knows what is happening. What, in your view, is the way forward?

ARUN SHOURIE: The appointment of the foreign minister (S Jaishankar) was a wonderful idea of Mr Modi. At least we have one professional. I am not sure of the extent to which he is listened to… Secondly, it’s very good that the CDS (Chief of Defence Staff) has been created. But I don’t want to discuss the person who has been selected. If it is the same type of person, then you are not going to get contrary advice…

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Have the Chinese gone back? But we are being led to believe that talks are on… So the people are not being taken into confidence. The appointment of Mr Jaishankar is a wonderful exception to the norm. And he certainly would be among the persons who would know these things… You don’t just have to have an expert, you have to give the expert the confidence — ‘I want to listen to your independent advice.’

For example, in Mr Vajpayee’s case, I found that his natural scepticism would bring out in you the contrary point of view. That’s not what I hear about the government today. Independence does not mean being contrary. But from the few (ministers) that I meet, I do not get that they have the confidence to speak their mind. Otherwise, we would not be getting the types of jerky decisions that we are getting.

SHUBHAJIT ROY: So what is the way forward?

ARUN SHOURIE: Be realistic about China… You think this is the worst form of violence? The way is to prepare for much greater violence in the future. And it takes 30 years to prepare. You can’t do it overnight. This is true of defensive power. And China is a disruptive power. So they can concentrate on one field of activity, for instance, becoming proficient in cyber warfare. And their idea is to disrupt and disorient a society in two minutes through (interference in) integrated power network, railway network, air traffic control systems, financial records, broadcasting systems, telecom systems. They repeatedly demonstrate their capability to do so. And we continue to shut our eyes to it.

SHYAMLAL YADAV: What is your view on the RSS?

ARUN SHOURIE: Mr Vajpayee was in the RSS but I don’t think his worldview was conditioned by that kind of thinking. Today, the RSS middle leadership has been completely co-opted by the government apparatus. And they are swept away by the small little things — an official car, being saluted… There is a misperception today that Mr Modi is mindful of the RSS. No. He knows that the senior leaders of the RSS are just froth. He has got all provincial leaders and key persons in districts in his hands. They are his instruments now. And ideology is always an instrument for domination.

P VAIDYANATHAN IYER: Externally, the country is grappling with China. And internally, the country is grappling with the economy. What do you think has gone wrong? And what are the short- and long-term reforms India must implement?

ARUN SHOURIE: First, let the government be truthful. I remember the explicit self-published review of some economic advisor (saying) that we will be growing by 1.2 per cent. Where is he?… Let’s be truthful and have confidence in the people of India. Tell them the truth. But on the question of stimulus packages and so on, I personally have never been enamoured of a number in government policymaking. For instance, the deficit should not exceed 3.3 or 4 per cent of the GDP. It’s a meaningless number. Situations change and we should not be stuck on a particular number. Similarly, for the inflation rate, I don’t think it’s a wonderful thing for the RBI to just keep sticking out the number and twist all policies to accord with that particular number. So if a stimulus is required, go in for that. But it is not just throwing money and saying I have given the stimulus package. It is being able to implement that in useful projects in the future. And that capacity is lacking, because of the general weakening of the governmental system and its inability or unwillingness to be seen as harnessing the entrepreneurial and managerial talent in the private sector….

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Nobody believes the Rs 1 lakh crore (stimulus) figure. Every six months you are giving a Rs 1 lakh crore figure and nothing happens. So, truth would be much more diverse.

VANDITA MISHRA: In your book, one of the underlying themes is how one can turn adversity in their favour. Do you believe the crisis that we are in is going to leave us with something precious and beautiful? Are you an optimist?

ARUN SHOURIE: No, it all depends upon working at it. Adversity breaks down many people. So you have to work hard in converting adversity into a learning opportunity or better growth. I’m worried about job losses. I’m not worried about GDP going down… So (it’s about) useful production, and error remediation of the environment, creation of infrastructure, better thought out infrastructure in the Himalayas, rather than converting Kedarnath and Badrinath into Chardham Yatra and destroying the ecology of the place. So, many things have to be done. The short answer is adversity does not automatically become a beneficial thing. We have to work hard at it.

VANDITA MISHRA: Do you see that happening at all?

ARUN SHOURIE: Not at all. I would very much like to be corrected on this… And certainly, I don’t see that much hope in the conduct of our people. If the coronavirus were to just disappear tomorrow, I think our behaviour will revert to the past… I think of myself as a realist, as a person who sees things in front of him and does not want to turn his gaze away.

Why Arun Shourie

An economist who as The Indian Express editor had taken on the Indira Gandhi regime, Shourie went on to serve as a prominent member of the Vajpayee Cabinet. However, he has been at odds with the Modi-led BJP and has emerged as one of its most vociferous critics. Known as a crusader against corruption, he now has a case against him dating back to his time as minister.

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