From 1969 till his death in 2004, Krishna Raj edited the Economic and Political Weekly (EPW) out of a tiny office at Hitkari House in the Fort area of Mumbai. An extremely competent yet self-effacing man, Raj ran EPW for 35 years over 1,800 issues, and died quietly in his sleep aged 67. Raj dealt with several battles not only between the left and the right, but also across bands of Marxists. None took away from the quality or fairness of the EPW. Yes, it leaned left. Yet, thanks to Raj’s commitment to debate, the journal had enough articles from across the fence.
Raj came from a milieu that didn’t prompt him to be in the limelight. He never wrote a signed piece in EPW. In his scheme of things, his job was to sift through piles of material stacked up on his tiny table, pre-select, send the longer pieces for refereeing, suggest changes to contributors, choose which piece went to what issue, and burn the midnight oil putting the weekly to bed. Through Raj’s tenure, almost every academic worth her name contributed, and every subscriber felt a sense of pride and ownership.
After Raj, the Sameeksha Trust which publishes EPW opted for C. Rammanohar Reddy, who took a huge pay cut when he quit The Hindu. Reddy was cut of the same cloth as Raj, and through much of his tenure EPW held on to its basic characteristic of being a reader’s journal — informative and fair, irrespective of a contributor’s political weal. Yet, the quality of articles started deteriorating. From the 1970s to the 1990s, EPW had excellent refereed articles and opinion pieces. In economics, articles by T.N. Srinivasan, Jagdish Bhagwati, Amartya Sen, Suresh Tendulkar, B.S. Minhas, Pranab Bardhan and, later, Ashok Gulati, Kaushik and Alaka Basu, Prabhat and Utsa Patnaik, Abhijit Sen, Pulapre Balakrishnan, Jean Dreze, Bharat Ramaswami defined the quality. That started to disappear.
Why? Here’s my conjecture. The earlier generation of economists who regularly contributed to the EPW became too old or passed away. Many of the newer breed either didn’t work on areas that were the EPW’s, or published in other journals that carried greater weight in their curriculum vitae. Bereft of a stream of good manuscripts, EPW’s editorial staff began accommodating sub-standard pieces. As Reddy recently observed: “The journal continued to appear with clockwork regularity but seemed to be drifting, as if what was published depended only on what came in” [The Wire, July 23, 2017].
Reddy left in early 2016 because of several factors, including his differences with the Sameeksha Trust. It caused a turmoil then but soon died down. The trust then chose Paranjoy Guha Thakurta as the editor. It was a big mistake. Either the trustees did not know where Paranjoy came from or ignored it, perhaps assuming that being EPW’s helmsman would change his journalistic persona. Paranjoy prides himself as an investigative crusader against the wrongs wreaked by corporate India often in collusion with the state. He lives to crusade and, like all journalists and column writers, he cares about his by-line.
Paranjoy tried to spice up the EPW the way he knew — by writing or commissioning investigative pieces and by creating a distinct anti-corporate edge. For most of his 15-month tenure, this did not bother the trustees, until the Adani group slapped a notice against two articles written by Paranjoy and others and insisted that these be taken down. Paranjoy then sent a lawyer’s response in his name and that of the trust without taking the trustees into confidence.
The trustees asked Paranjoy to take down one of the articles, which he did. Then they asked him to desist using his by-line, use a co-editor of the trustees’ choice and agree to the trustees drawing up a code of behaviour between the trust and the editor. Paranjoy refused, quit and shared everything with the public. Though Paranjoy’s style of working had created considerable disquiet among the EPW’s editorial staff, his friends in the fourth estate and others in academia backed him. And the Sameeksha Trust had egg on its face.
This too shall pass. More important questions relate to the future of the EPW. It is sliding, and urgent turnaround actions are needed. Here is my list. It is time to get fresh blood into the Sameeksha Trust. The median age of the trustees is in the 70s. Though eminent, most are light years removed from the web age. And few have any sensible set of ideas of where the EPW should be in 2020.
The EPW needs an energetic but sane editor, not a glory seeker. Moreover, it needs an editor with an address book strong enough to coax contributions from at least 100 good authors across the spectrum — who will still write because of the EPW and the editor’s request. Seminar, a monthly with far lesser subscribers, does this brilliantly: None can refuse the requests sent out by Mala and Tejbir Singh. I can think of five such editorial candidates who might be persuaded to take a sabbatical to turn the ship around.
The EPW needs to re-brand itself for today’s world. That requires several initiatives. First, it must reach out to university students and faculty to increase the subscriber base. Second, it must create four major EPW conferences covering different topics — public platforms that get funding to gather the best to discuss various aspects of the political economy and society. Third, it needs to better leverage its excellent computerised data base maintained by the EPW Research Foundation. I use it frequently. But how many do? Fourth, it needs to learn from The Economist how to create special projects to widen and increase the strength of its brand. And, fifth, while doing so, it needs to seriously improve the quality of its articles.
All these require effort and funding. The Sameeksha Trust should start a regular funding drive to increase its corpus and, if donors so demand, take annual donations for specific projects. That requires networking and energy. Hence the need for bringing in fresh blood in the trust. The EPW must be saved. But is the Sameeksha Trust up to it? There lies the question.