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25 books and thinking: Need to hear more voices,says Shourie

ARUN Shourie’s new book “We Must Have No Price — And Everyone Must Know That We Have No Price” (published by Rupa and The Express Group),which is to be released tomorrow at Crossword,Kemps Corner in Mumbai,is in several ways different from his previous 24....

ARUN Shourie’s new book “We Must Have No Price — And Everyone Must Know That We Have No Price” (published by Rupa and The Express Group),which is to be released tomorrow at Crossword,Kemps Corner in Mumbai,is in several ways different from his previous 24.

Firstly,it’s more ambitious in scope than those that have gone before. The essays in this volume range across several issues that have been central to political debate in India over the year just concluded. That,too,is a departure: this is,perhaps,of Shourie’s recent books,the one that has the most of a ripped-from-the-headlines feel.

There are sections on internal security; on strategic thinking in India (or the lack thereof); on recent budgets and economic “dream teams”; on reforming higher education; and an analysis of India’s international negotiating position on climate change. And,of course,the last section discusses the continuing troubles of Shourie’s ideological home,the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Several of the essays are modified from speeches given over the past year,including special named and endowed lectures at various locations,including the United Service Institution of India,the Asian Development Bank,and IIT Kanpur. But many,too,are based on speeches that Shourie originally delivered in the Rajya Sabha,of which he is a member.

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Shourie told The Indian Express that he was fortunate in one way: at least he had a way of “getting his speeches read,and thus listened to.” But most of the best of our parliamentary conversation,he felt,was unjustly ignored. “In my 10 years in the House,I recalled excellent speeches by Dr P C Alexander,” he went on to say,but none of them “received the attention they deserved. It was not necessarily the fault of the parliamentary secretariat: he pointed out that we live in times where chaos in the House “makes the front page but a studied speech goes unreported.”

Some of the work is prescient,some of it startlingly timely.

One piece,for example,talks of the need for the military leadership to insistently — his italics — provide strategic advice to the civilian leadership. He backed this up with instances in which the military had failed to do this — during the Vietnam decisions in the US,for example — and decision-making had suffered as a result.

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But,given the negative response to the current army chief’s recent statements,how workable is the idea of a more “insistent” leadership? Shourie says that it was important to “use institutions like the National Defence College to help civilians and top brass reach a common appreciation” of military,economic and diplomatic necessity. But “a one-year programme would not substitute for building traditions,” he added.

Shourie’s books have helped build his formidable reputation for meticulous,exhaustive fact-finding. Is it possible,he was asked,to make a secure living as a public intellectual in India? Was it easier or more difficult than it had been 10 years ago — has liberalisation made any concrete difference? Shourie identified two major ways in which Indian discourse had changed. “There are many more outlets now,” he said. So if he didn’t find a newspaper willing to publish his work,“there would be some other way to get it out,” and to try and give his ideas traction.

On the other hand,he believed that making a living out of it wasn’t getting any easier; there was simply “insufficient opportunity”. He himself relied on “Parliamentary earnings and consulting fees” to fund his research.

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“I am lucky in some respects,” he added. His long and distinguished career in the media,including as Chief Editor of The Indian Express,ensured that he started out with sufficient name recognition; and his continuing association with this newspaper as a contributor has ensured that his unique voice has always found a forum in the public consciousness.

But “more voices needed to be heard,” Shourie said. For,if the quality of Indian policy discussion was to be improved,there’s no alternative but to make research and careful fact-finding more appealing,he said. What’s needed? “More think-tanks should be financed,so that their product can underpin opinion and policy.” Without more people able and willing to do serious research,in the Shourie style,public conversation could very well be taken over by the shrill and under-informed.

First published on: 09-01-2010 at 04:05 IST
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