‘First Draft’ by B.G.Verghese
A conversation with the author after the release of the book
Justice V.R.Krishna Iyer released the autobiography of Shri. B.G.Verghese today in Kochi under the auspices of Kerala Press Academy. I was invited to receive the book and to have a book chat with the author. My remarks and the questions are below. The lines of his replies are indicated, but not full answers.
If I was asked to speak of B.G.Verghese ten days ago, I would have described him as a journalist, who has become a legend in his own lifetime. His outstanding work at the ‘Times of India’, the ‘Hindustan Times’ and the ‘Indian Express’ is the stuff that legends are made of. But today, having read his ‘First Draft’, I would describe him as one of the builders of modern India. As an editor, he has been a sentinel of personal and press freedoms, as an adviser to the Prime Minister he has been the architect of domestic and foreign policy and, as an activist, he continues to provide policy options on intractable issues ranging from human rights, environment, water resource and terrorism to Naxalism. ‘First Draft’ is testimony to the way he has helped shape modern India.
Verghese is a nationalist and an internationalist, having been born in Burma and educated at the Doon School, St Stephen’s and Cambridge and lived in different places in India, with short spells in Kerala. His story is also the story of modern India from the last days of the Raj to this day. In this narrative, the hero often fades into the background and his country comes to the forefront. But his portrayal of history is very personal, given his deep involvement as an influential commentator. As adviser to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, he did not confine himself to public relations and made policy recommendations on domestic and foreign policy. His disillusionment with the emergency and his passion for freedom landed him in the Janata camp, leading to his defeat in his only foray into electoral politics in Mavelikara. He was also a consultant to Defence Minister Jaswant Singh.
Today, he has the status of an elder statesman, with involvement in many causes, a highly respected voice of the conscience of India. We are fortunate to have him with us to present his memoirs to us and also to answer some of the questions arising from it.
1. Allow me, Sir, to drag you directly to the raging controversy about journalism today. Your book gives the impression that as a senior editor, you not only reported history, but also shaped it. You say in the book, “Indeed it was a routine ploy for us at the TOI to ring up party contacts and drop a hint about rumours of a possible Cabinet reshuffle to get the man salivating and ready to share insider knowledge about political goings-on.” In other places, there are hints of your getting politicians together to resolve one issue or another. Do you think Barkha Dutt and Vir Sanghvi went beyond such legitimate activities and brought discredit to journalism?
(BGV said that there was a fine line between contacts for the sake of gathering news and journalists getting close to lobbyists of corporations. Transgressions should not take place, but, happily, in the instant cases, there was no evidence of corruption. They themselves had admitted misjudgment.)
2. You were on the frontline in 1962 to witness what you call the psychological defeat, which was more than the military debacle at the hands of China. You deplore the “imbecility and paralysis that had come to characterize Delhi” at that time. In the last chapter of the book, you list the problems with China. But you say that “it is unlikely that 1962 can ever be repeated” because of China’s own vulnerabilities. But don’t you think China may decide to teach India a lesson again?
(BGV said that relations with China would remain complex. China had become assertive and there were instances of provocation from their side. But China would not embark on any adventure because of its position in the world and its own inherent weaknesses. But India should remain vigilant and also have a pragmatic relationship.)
3. During your stint with Indira Gandhi, you found policy making generally unsatisfactory with last minute changes in speeches and acceptance of ideas on the spot etc. You are specific about little integration between foreign policy and defence. “We did not have a clear world view or security doctrine”, you say. Do you think the situation has changed?
(BGV said that things had improved, but there were some problems. He quoted the response to 26/11 as an example of lack of coordination and cohesion in dealing with issues.)
4. Sir, let me take you back to your campaign in Mavelikara with the support of the non-Congress Parties including the Communists. Why was it that the anti-Congress wave was absent in Kerala? Why was it that your personality and passion for freedom did not get you votes?
(BGV explained the circumstances in which he entered the fray. Unlike in the rest of India, Congress did well in Kerala. He felt that though he did not get elected, his cause had won in 1977.)
5. You have dealt with relations with Pakistan at some length in your book. Do you think that the back channel solution on Kashmir will ever be accepted by the people of the two countries? As an expert on water, do you think that we can use the Indus Water Treaty as a pressure point on Pakistan?
(BVG explained the history of the Indus Water Treaty. It was the expectation that the deficiencies in the Treaty would be rectified when the relations improved. If the proposal to make the borders irrelevant were to succeed, it would be possible for both the countries to make optimum use of water.)
6. You speak in the book on the reasons for the Naxal violence. Obviously, you have considerable sympathy for the tribal people and you think that the Government’s plan for socio-economic development will not work. Do you think the Maoists are “Gandhis with guns”? What is your solution to the Maoist menace?
(BVG explained the reason for disaffection among the tribals, who revolted against injustice. The Maoists exploited the situation, leading to the present serious situation. Law and order should be preserved, but the grievances of the tribals should also be addressed. He did not agree that they could be called Gandhis with guns. Arundhati Roy, he said, was a good writer, but she should not overdramatize issues as she did in the case of Kashmir. He felt that she should not have been charged.)
In reply to questions from the audience, BGV said that the media made it out as though everybody was corrupt. He blamed the media for spelling disaster. Much was being said and written for the sake of breaking news. He was optimistic that, after the churning, which would bring up some scum, there would be a cleansing and India would emerge stronger.