IndiBlogger - The Indian Blogger Community Vilakudy Days: October 2005

Vilakudy Days

Monday, October 31, 2005


NOAM CHOMSKY needs no introduction. His dissent against the US imperialistic policies has caused ripples across the world. He has offered the rest of the world and the US administration in in particular glimpses of the other view of the American population. What the US does according to its whims and fancies has no approval of the entire population. Chomsky, a linguist, has toured worldwide protesting the US attacks in Afghanisthan and Iraq. His was the most powerful dissent voice. The last time, when he came to India, I remember, he had got a rousing reception. From Delhi to Madras to Kerala. In Madras, the Music Academy Hall at Mylapore was brimming with listeners. And in Kerala he was given a red carpet welcome given its Communist leanings. Some of the questions by listeners left Chomsky amused. In Delhi, at JNU, he would have got a even better audience, who might have understood every word of what he said. Every word counts. That is why he has been voted recently as the greatest intellectual in the world.

Here I am downloading an article from The Guardian. Don’t just read. Read and Think. Because he is one of the very few people who can make you think.


Despite his belief that most journalists are unwitting upholders of western imperialism, Noam Chomsky, the radical's radical, agrees to see me at his office in Boston. He works here as a professor of linguistics, a sort of Clark Kent alter ego to his activist Superman, in a nubbly old jumper, big white trainers and a grandad jacket with pockets designed to accomodate a Thermos. There is a half-finished packet of fig rolls on the desk. Such is the effect of an hour spent with Chomsky that, writing this, I wonder: is it wrong to mention the fig rolls when there is undocumented suffering going on in El Salvador?
Ostensibly I am here because Chomsky, 76, has been voted the world's top public intellectual by Prospect magazine, but he has no interest in that. He believes that there is a misconception about what it means to be smart. It is not a question of wit, as with no 5 on the list (Christopher Hitchens) or poetic dash like no 4 (Vaclav Havel), or the sort of articulacy that lends itself to television appearances, like no 37, the thinking girl's pin-up Michael Ignatieff, whom Chomsky calls an apologist for the establishment and dispenser of "garbage". Chomsky, by contrast, speaks in a barely audible croak and of his own, largely unsuccessful, television appearances has written dismissively: "The beauty of concision is that you can only repeat conventional thoughts." Being smart, he believes, is a function of a plodding, unsexy, application to the facts and "using your intelligence to decide what's right".
This is, of course, what Chomsky has been doing for the last 35 years, and his conclusions remain controversial: that practically every US president since the second world war has been guilty of war crimes; that in the overall context of Cambodian history, the Khmer Rouge weren't as bad as everyone makes out; that during the Bosnian war the "massacre" at Srebrenica was probably overstated. (Chomsky uses quotations marks to undermine things he disagrees with and, in print at least, it can come across less as academic than as witheringly teenage; like, Srebrenica was so not a massacre.)
While his critics regard him as an almost compulsive revisionist, Chomsky is more mainstream now than ever as disgust with the Bush government grows; the book he put out after the twin towers attacks, called 9-11, sold 300,000 copies. Given that until recently he worked full-time at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, there remain suspicions over how he has managed to become an expert, seemingly, on every conflict since the second world war; it is assumed by his critics that he plugs the gaps in his knowledge with ideology.
Chomsky says this is just laziness on their part and besides, "the best scientists aren't the ones who know the most data; they're the ones who know what they're looking for."
Still, of all the intellectuals on the Prospect list, it is Chomsky who is most often accused of miring a debate in intellectual spam, what the writer Paul Berman calls his "customary blizzard of obscure sources". I ask if he has a photographic memory and Chomsky smiles. "It's the other way round. I can't remember names, can't remember faces. I don't have any particular talents that everybody else doesn't have."
His daily news intake is the regular national press and he dips in and out of specialist journals. I imagine he is a fan of the internet, given his low opinion of the mainstream media (to summarise: it is undermined by a "systematic bias in terms of structural economic causes rather than a conspiracy of people". I would argue individual agency overrides this, but get into it with Chomsky and your allocated hour goes up in smoke). So I am surprised when he says he only goes online if he is "hunting for documents, or historical data. It's a hideous time-waster. One of the good things about the internet is you can put up anything you like, but that also means you can put up any kind of nonsense. If the intelligence agencies knew what they were doing, they would stimulate conspiracy theories just to drive people out of political life, to keep them from asking more serious questions ... There's a kind of an assumption that if somebody wrote it on the internet, it's true."
Is there? It's clear, suddenly, that Chomsky's opinion can be as flaky as the next person's; he just states it more forcefully. I tell him that most people I know don't believe anything they read on the internet and he says, seemlessly, "you see, that's dangerous, too." His responses to criticism vary from this sort of mild absorption to, during our subsequent ratty exchange about Bosnia, the childish habit of trashing his opponents whom he calls "hysterical", "fanatics" and "tantrum throwers". I suspect that being on the receiving end of lots "half-crazed" nut-mail, as he calls it (he gets at least four daily emails accusing him of being a Mossad agent, a CIA agent or a member of al-Qaida), has made his defensive position rather entrenched. Chomsky sighs and says that he has never claimed to have a monopoly on the truth, then looks merry for a moment and says that the only person who does is his wife, Carol. "My grandchildren call her Truth Teller. When I tease them and they're not sure if I'm telling the truth, they turn to her and say: 'Truth Teller, is it really true?'"
Chomsky's activism has its roots in his childhood. He grew up in the depression of the 1930s, the son of William Chomsky and Elsie Simonofsky, Russian immigrants to Philadelphia. He describes the family as "working-class Jews", most of whom were unemployed, although his parents, both teachers, were lucky enough to work. There was no sense of America as the promised land: "It wasn't much of an opportunity-giver in my immediate family," he says, although it was an improvement on the pogroms of Russia, which none the less Chomsky can't help qualifying as "not very bad, by contemporary standards. In the worst of the major massacres, I think about 49 people were killed."
The house in Philadelphia was crowded, full of aunts and cousins, many of them seamstresses who weathered the depression thanks to the help of the International Ladies Garment Union. Chomsky was four years old when he witnessed, from a passing trolley car, strikers outside a textile plant being beaten by the police. At 10 he wrote his first political pamphlet, against the rise of fascism in Spain. "It was all part of the atmosphere," he says.
The Chomskys were one of the few Jewish families in an Irish and German neighbourhood, and Chomsky and his brother fought often in the street; he remembers there were celebrations when Paris fell to the Germans. His parents kept their heads down and until their deaths, he says, "never had an idea of what was going on outside".
Chomsky had a choice of role models. There was his father's family in Baltimore, who were "super-orthodox". "They regressed back to the stage they were at even before they were in the shtetl, which is not uncommon among immigrant communities; a tendency to close in and go back to an exaggerated form of what you came from." He smiles. "It's a hostile world."
Or there was his mother's family in New York, who crowded into a big government apartment and got by solely on the wages of a disabled uncle, who on the basis of his disability was awarded a small newsstand by the state. Chomsky chose the latter and his radicalism grew out of the time he spent, from the age of 12, commuting to New York at weekends to help on the newsstand.
"It became a kind of salon," he says. "My uncle had no formal education but he was an extremely intelligent man - he'd been through all the leftwing groups, from the Communists to the Trotskyists to the anti-Leninists; he was very much involved in psychoanalysis. There were a lot of German emigres in New York at the time and in the evening they would hang around the newsstand and talk. My uncle finally ended up being a pretty wealthy lay analyst on Riverside Drive." He bursts out laughing.
It was a time, says Chomsky, when no one knew what was going to happen. They discussed the possibility of a socialist revolution, or of the country collapsing entirely. Anything seemed possible. Compared with these sorts of discussion, he found high school and, later, college, "dumb and stupid". He was thinking of dropping out of the University of Pennsylvania when he met his second mentor, Zellig Harris, a linguistics professor who encouraged him to pursue his own academic interests. Chomsky had grown up in a household where language was important; his parents spoke Yiddish and his father wrote a PhD on 14th-century Hebrew, which the young Chomsky read with interest. And so he pursued a study of linguistics and many years down the line formulated a ground-breaking theory, that of "universal grammar", the idea that the brain's facility for language is innate rather than a function of behaviourism. It sounds to me as if he was an arrogant young man who thought, with some justification, that he knew more than his teachers. Chomsky bridles at the word arrogant and says: "No. I assumed I was wrong and took for granted that the standard approach [to linguistics] was correct."
Even though he went on to study at Harvard, he still, in a rare concession to the romance of outsidership, describes himself as "self-taught".
There were only a couple of years in the mid-1950s when he gave up activism altogether. He had met and married Carol Schatz, a fellow linguist, and they had three young children. Chomsky had to choose whether to commit himself to activism or to let it go. The Vietnam war protests were getting under way and, if he chose the former, there was a real danger of a jail sentence, so much so that Carol re-enrolled at college in case she had to become the sole breadwinner. But Chomsky was not, he says, the sort of person who could attend the occasional demo and then hope the world would fix itself.
"Yeah, my wife tried to talk me out of it, just as she does now. But she knows I can be stubborn and that I'll carry on with it as long as I'm ambulatory or whatever."
These days, Carol accompanies her husband to most of his public appearances. He is asked to lend his name to all sorts of crackpot causes and she tries to intervene to keep his schedule under control. As some see it, one ill-judged choice of cause was the accusation made by Living Marxism magazine that during the Bosnian war, shots used by ITN of a Serb-run detention camp were faked. The magazine folded after ITN sued, but the controversy flared up again in 2003 when a journalist called Diane Johnstone made similar allegations in a Swedish magazine, Ordfront, taking issue with the official number of victims of the Srebrenica massacre. (She said they were exaggerated.) In the ensuing outcry, Chomsky lent his name to a letter praising Johnstone's "outstanding work". Does he regret signing it?
"No," he says indignantly. "It is outstanding. My only regret is that I didn't do it strongly enough. It may be wrong; but it is very careful and outstanding work."
How, I wonder, can journalism be wrong and still outstanding?
"Look," says Chomsky, "there was a hysterical fanaticism about Bosnia in western culture which was very much like a passionate religious conviction. It was like old-fashioned Stalinism: if you depart a couple of millimetres from the party line, you're a traitor, you're destroyed. It's totally irrational. And Diane Johnstone, whether you like it or not, has done serious, honest work. And in the case of Living Marxism, for a big corporation to put a small newspaper out of business because they think something they reported was false, is outrageous."
They didn't "think" it was false; it was proven to be so in a court of law.
But Chomsky insists that "LM was probably correct" and that, in any case, it is irrelevant. "It had nothing to do with whether LM or Diane Johnstone were right or wrong." It is a question, he says, of freedom of speech. "And if they were wrong, sure; but don't just scream well, if you say you're in favour of that you're in favour of putting Jews in gas chambers."
Eh? Not everyone who disagrees with him is a "fanatic", I say. These are serious, trustworthy people.
"Like who?"
"Like my colleague, Ed Vulliamy."
Vulliamy's reporting for the Guardian from the war in Bosnia won him the international reporter of the year award in 1993 and 1994. He was present when the ITN footage of the Bosnian Serb concentration camp was filmed and supported their case against LM magazine.
"Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true."
But Karadic's number two herself [Biljana Plavsic] pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity.
"Well, she certainly did. But if you want critical work on the party line, General Lewis MacKenzie who was the Canadian general in charge, has written that most of the stories were complete nonsense."
And so it goes on, Chomsky fairly vibrating with anger at Vulliamy and co's "tantrums" over his questioning of their account of the war. I suggest that if they are having tantrums it's because they have contact with the survivors of Srebrenica and witness the impact of the downplaying of their experiences. He fairly explodes. "That's such a western European position. We are used to having our jackboot on people's necks, so we don't see our victims. I've seen them: go to Laos, go to Haiti, go to El Salvador. You'll see people who are really suffering brutally. This does not give us the right to lie about that suffering." Which is, I imagine, why ITN went to court in the first place.
You could pick any number of other conflicts over which to have a barney with Chomsky. Seeing as we have entered the bad-tempered part of the interview, I figure we may as well continue and ask if he finds it ironic that, given his views on the capitalist system, he is a beneficiary of it. "Well, what capitalist system? Do you use a computer? Do you use the internet? Do you take an aeroplane? That comes from the state sector of the economy. I'm certainly a beneficiary of this state-based, quasi-market system; does that mean that I shouldn't try to make it a better society?"
OK, let's look at the non-state based, quasi-market system. Does he have a share portfolio? He looks cross. "You'd have to ask my wife about that. I'm sure she does. I don't see any reason why she shouldn't. Would it help people if I went to Montana and lived on a mountain? It's only rich, privileged westerners - who are well educated and therefore deeply irrational - in whose minds this idea could ever arise. When I visit peasants in southern Colombia, they don't ask me these questions."
I suggest that people don't like being told off about their lives by someone they consider a hypocrite. "There's no element of hypocrisy." He suddenly smiles at me, benign again, and we end it there.

Sunday, October 30, 2005


In an increasingly globalised world - read Americanised world- it needs COURAGE to stand up against the self-claimed sole world super power in any partof the world. Iraq and Afghanistan have learnt it the hard way. Possibly, Syria and North Korea will have a taste of the super power effect sooner or later. But a small country, that too under the nose of the US in Latin America, is standing up against the US and fighting a lone, worthy battle. The man, who leads the way with his unique policies, is none other than Hugo Chavez.
The above listed article taken from the NEW YORK TIMES proves that Chavez is here to stay. And he has arrived on the world stage.


Firmly in power and his revolution now in overdrive, President Hugo Chavez
is moving fast to transform Venezuela's economy by bucking free-market planning with what he calls 21st-century socialism: founding state companies, seizing abandoned private factories and establishing thousands of cooperatives and worker-run businesses.

The populist government is reorganizing the country's colossal oil industry, taking a bigger share from private multinationals. Planners are reorganizing the banking system, placing stringent restrictions on lending while creating state banks. Venezuela is also developing a state-to-state barter system to trade items as varied as cattle, oil and cement as far away as Argentina and as near as Cuba, its alley.
"It's impossible for capitalism to achieve our goals, nor is it possible to search for an intermediate way," Mr. Chávez said a few months ago, laying out his plans. "I invite all Venezuelans to march together on the path of socialism of the new century."
According to many mainstream economists, the change is simply a mix of plans taken from the protectionist policies of the 1960's and others adopted from Cuba and countries of the former Soviet bloc. It may not be communism - as detractors contend it is - but it mixes socialism with capitalism and what some call improvisation.
Many of the president's grandest plans are put into practice at the year-old Ministry for the Popular Economy. Planners there have already created 6,840 cooperatives that employ 210,000 people nationwide, many producing for the state.
The banking system is crucial to the government's plans. Regulators tightly control interest rates and demand that private banks devote 31.5 percent of all loans to agricultural projects, housing construction, tourism and microcredits, loans to tiny startup businesses.
The new measures - which include the seizure of factories, mines and fields the government says are unproductive - are playing well domestically. Mr. Chávez has an approval rating topping 70 percent.
"I'm not afraid of socialism and never have been," said Rivas Silvino, who works in a diaper factory run by workers and managers under a state co-management plan. "The world is afraid. I say, don't be afraid."

So far, no noticeable exodus of foreign companies operating in Venezuela has occurred. Banks and oil companies are making record profits thanks to oil prices that have left the country, the world's fifth-largest exporter, awash in petrodollars. This year, the oil industry is generating $20 billion for the government, nearly $8 billion more than last year.
Still, there is restlessness in the boardrooms, with executives worried about government intervention, which is sometimes seen as haphazard and improvised. Economists say the government has not made the investments needed in the oil sector. And political analysts and mainstream economists warn of recession and dourly note that foreign investment is about a third of what it was five years ago. They say that Venezuela's vast oil profits give the illusion of prosperity - the economy's growth rate is 9.3 percent - but that if prices fall, or Venezuela's growing spending catches up, the economy could founder.
Domingo Maza Zavala, the director of the Central Bank, warned of recession as soon as 2007. "There is uncertainty and instability because of the strategies being used by the state," he said in an interview. "If there was a strategy, defined, well established and clear and with objectives, this would create a climate of confidence that could generate a recuperation of investments."
In the tumbledown barrios where Mr. Chávez draws much of his support, it is easy to see why the new system has been warmly welcomed. The hills around Caracas and the farms in the outback are filled with cooperatives and other businesses in which the state plays an important role. Workers produce everything from shoes to corn.
Aura Matos, 28, is a seamstress in a state-run textile factory that sells to the state, a job she has held just a few weeks. "I was in my house, with nothing to do, and President Chávez and God gave me this opportunity," Ms. Matos said as she took a break from sewing jeans and blouses.
One of the government's most ambitious ventures is a new state airline, price $110 million so far. The airline, Conviasa, now has three planes, which regularly serve Bogotá, Havana and other nearby destinations. It plans to expand to 14 jets in about a year and travel as far as Beijing and Europe.
What about competition in this cutthroat industry? "The philosophy is not to compete, but to cooperate with other airlines," said Wilmer Castro, who as Venezuela's tourism minister oversees the airline. "Our policy is to have fares that are lower than the others in the market."
Another project gives workers a stake in the ownership and management of tottering private companies. In return, management - made up of the original owners and the workers - receives government credits and other incentives.
"The businesses closed by the neoliberal system - factories and farms - are reopening, but it's done by the people," said Elías José Jaua, minister of the popular economy. "This is a state that has the duty to push and support this."
The state is also founding a mining company, an iron and steel company, a tractor factory and a state computer company, which Mr. Chávez says will produce "Bolivarian computers" in honor of his guiding light, the 19th-century independence hero Simón Bolívar. The government has even spoken about acquiring nuclear technology from Brazil and Argentina - emphasizing that it would be for peaceful purposes, like energy production or medical care.

Sunday, October 23, 2005


Seems like. Hindustan Times editor Vir Sanghvi reviews a book on Ramnath Goenka by BG Vergehese. Here is the piece.

In the 1970s, when my involvement with journalism was largely restricted to seeing the press from the perspective of a reader, there was no doubt in my mind that Ramnath Goenka, the Indian Express’s feisty proprietor, was one of the good guys.
In those days, people like myself tended to judge journalists and their proprietors on a single criterion: where did they stand on the Indira Gandhi issue? For many of us, Mrs Gandhi was, indisputably, A Bad Thing. She had subverted democratic institutions, imposed an Emergency, censored the press, locked up the Opposition, foisted Sanjay — her thug-like son — on the country and sought to centralise all power within her office.
This consensus — even more popular within the liberal elite in those days than the secular consensus is today — governed our views on everyone and everything.
And, judged on this criterion, Goenka was a hero. He had seen through Mrs Gandhi as early as 1971 and had encouraged Frank Moraes, his editor, to oppose her even as Indira-mania swept India. He had offered support and shelter to Jayaprakash Narain (JP) during the movement for Total Revolution. And, during the Emergency, he had fought the might of the Establishment in the interests of press freedom.
By the 1980s, when I became a full-time journalist, I had begun to question my early judgement of Goenka. I first met him in 1981 when he offered me a job which I was unable to accept and, by 1984, knew him quite well on a personal level. I would often go to the Express penthouse at Bombay’s Nariman Point for lunch or dinner and he was kind enough to drop in at my home. On one memorable occasion, he even attended a large party for my wedding anniversary where he grinned wickedly as members of Bombay’s then nascent social scene (this was before the invention of Page Three) fawned over him.
In 1990, when my son was born, he was gracious enough to phone to offer his congratulations and laughed uproariously when I told him that the infant, with his tight, pinched baby’s scowl, was a dead ringer for the elderly Ramnath Goenka. They say, in England, I told him, that all new-born babies look like Winston Churchill. We should say, in India, I suggested, that they all looked like Goenka. He was good enough to find this remark — which, in retrospect, I probably should not have made — hugely amusing.
And yet, he never offered me a job again. Even if he had, I doubt if I would have taken it. When you know somebody on a personal level, you get a better sense of what they really think. With Goenka, there was no doubt that he saw most journalists (with some exceptions such as S Mulgaokar) as playthings. He had no respect for professional integrity, regarded most of us as “unscroopoolus” people (which was a bit rich, coming from him) and enjoyed his power to appoint, transfer and sack his editors. Of one of his more famous Punjabi editors, he would say “Saale ko angrezi nahi aati hai” (I’ve cleaned up the quote — Goenka was very big on bad language).
He hired the gentle and thoughtful Darryl D’Monte to run his Bombay edition before also hiring his cousin Dom Moraes to run the Express’s Sunday magazine. Moraes and his wife Leela were frequent dinner guests at the penthouse and, according to Dom, Goenka would begin each conversation with “Sack Monto” — he never quite got his tongue around “D’Monte”. Later, he would describe D’Monte, who is an environmentally-conscious liberal, as “a bloody commie”.
Amazingly enough, in that era, the public at large did not hold his mistreatment of editors against him. Nor did anyone seem to care that he had no time for many of the basic rules of journalism. He would cheerfully use the paper’s news columns to promote his own personal agendas. He would bypass the Express’s journalistic establishment to plant articles written by a coterie of non-journalists to whom he was personally close. BG Verghese recalls being asked to carry an anti-Ambani piece under the by-line of JD Sethi, a Planning Commission member who had clearly not written it. When he refused, Goenka asked that the piece be carried under a generic byline (“By a Correspondent”).
Nor did Goenka make any pretence at objectivity. In the days when I knew him reasonably well, he suddenly turned against Dhirubhai Ambani whom he had, till then, described as his close personal friend. It was not as though Goenka had been unaware that Ambani bent the law to make money (Goenka’s own record in such matters suggests that he himself was no JRD Tata) and, in fact, he would often speak admiringly of Ambani’s many fiddles.
But then something — nobody knows exactly what and even his biographer is not sure — went wrong and Goenka turned against Dhirubhai. “Everybody rapes the system but this man wanted to make it his mistress,” was the only explanation I ever heard him give.
This was fair enough. There’s no doubt that the Ambanis were breaking the law and a good newspaper must expose scams. Except that Goenka went out of his way to not only consort with Ambani’s business rivals but to also claim that he was acting to protect Nusli Wadia, then Ambani’s principal competitor. “Nusli is an Englishman. He cannot handle Ambani. I am a bania. I know how to finish him,” he told me.
The Express’s campaign against Reliance was not run by the paper’s staff but by a small coterie consisting of S Gurumurthy, Goenka’s accountant and advisor, Wadia, Maneck Davar, a journalist who was not on the Express’s rolls, Jamnadas Moorjani, a businessman opposed to the Ambanis and by assorted non-journalist friends and allies of Goenka’s.
In this day and age, it is hard to imagine any proprietor getting away with using his newspaper in this manner, running a personal campaign against somebody on behalf of a business rival without the involvement of his own staff. And yet, in the 1980s, that’s precisely what many people admired Goenka for doing.
Finally, the Reliance campaign was to prove his undoing. Far from being the shrewd bania who would finish off Dhirubhai, Goenka was outwitted by Dhirubhai’s young sons (the father was in San Diego,
recovering from a stroke) who manipulated the situation so skillfully (with the help of forged letters) that a battle between Goenka/Wadia and the Ambanis turned into a national crisis that pitted Rajiv Gandhi against VP Singh (and Goenka). Once this war got underway, the Ambanis simply stepped aside.
Goenka did not realise how cleverly he had been outwitted. His response was to turn against Rajiv instead (which is exactly what the Ambanis wanted him to do) on the grounds that the government was not doing enough to penalise Reliance. After that, the Express lost all sense of proportion. Sleazeballs and racketeers like Chandra Swami
became fixtures at the penthouse, Gurumurthy and Mulgaokar consorted with President Giani Zail Singh and ghost-wrote a hostile letter to the Prime Minister on his behalf, thereby crossing all lines of journalistic propriety. (The Express ran the Mulgaokar-Gurumurthy draft of the President’s letter as a scoop, not realising that Zail Singh had made changes to the letter before sending it to Rajiv. The government then raided the Express guest house in Delhi’s Sunder Nagar and found the original draft with corrections in Mulgaokar’s handwriting.)
By 1988-89, Rajiv’s government retaliated with a series of unnecessary prosecutions. While this response did Rajiv no credit, it also turned the Express into the centre of all opposition to the regime. It ceased to function as a newspaper in any significant sense of the term and became an anti-government pamphlet.
Even then, Goenka retained his iconic stature because, to many people, he seemed to be replaying his heroic defiance of the Emergency regime. (And there’s no doubt that the Congress government behaved disgracefully again.) What people missed was that under this cover of defiance, Goenka was busy putting together a new Opposition alliance. His chosen candidate was VP Singh (who had been part of the anti-Reliance campaign) but Goenka’s real loyalty was to the Jan Sangh/RSS/BJP. His role was to bring the RSS/BJP closer to VP Singh.

Ironically, were Goenka to be around today then many of those who, like myself, admired him in the 1970s because we subscribed to the anti-Congress consensus, would disapprove of him on equally simple-minded grounds. Today, the ruling liberal consensus is secular and there’s no doubt that Goenka and the Express were actually the fore-runners of the BJP’s ascendancy in the 1990s. Or that Goenka was not above using RSS cadres for such commercial purposes as breaking strikes at the Express.
Goenka’s best friends were Nanaji Deshmukh and the Rajmata of Gwalior, both RSS-types. His chief advisor was S Gurumurthy, who is proud of his RSS links. His doctor and advisor was JK Jain (of Jain TV fame) who is hardcore RSS. His most famous editor was Arun Shourie, who later became a BJP minister. His lawyer was Arun Jaitley, who served VP Singh’s government in a legal capacity but found fame as a BJP minister. And the politicians whom Goenka was closest to were nearly all from the BJP.
Did Goenka run a battle against Rajiv on behalf of the BJP? It would make for a neat conspiracy theory but I don’t think there was any grand design to his activities. In 1984, he was ready to end his opposition to Indira Gandhi, calling her “a devi” (Verghese quotes me on this conversation in the book) and by 1985 was singing Rajiv Gandhi’s praises (“I will die a happy man knowing that India is safe in Rajiv’s hands...” etc).
My view remains that the old man was simply outwitted by the two Ambani boys (then in their twenties!) who managed to make Rajiv believe that Goenka’s real agenda was not Reliance, but a coup at the Centre which would result in VP Singh taking over.
Rajiv was politically inexperienced so he was easy to manipulate. But Goenka, who regarded himself as a master manipulator, should have known better. However, rather than see through their game, his first reaction was to lash out in anger. In the process, the Ambani conspiracy theory fulfilled itself. The Express conspired with the President against the Prime Minister, it launched scurrilous (and frequently baseless) attacks on the likes of Amitabh Bachchan and Sonia Gandhi, and eventually, it acted out the Ambani script to the letter by making VP Singh its candidate for PM (only to turn against him when he finally got the job).
At nearly every level, Goenka’s campaign was a failure. The Ambanis are much bigger — and much more legit — than they were in those days. Wadia is much more successful now that he’s not fighting political battles. And the Express’s journalistic credibility was needlessly compromised. Even when a scoop that damaged the Rajiv government did emerge — the Bofors papers — it was The Hindu that got it. The Express’s sole contribution was to try and embellish the Hindu’s scoop with stories that were either speculative or plain wrong and owed their origins to the likes of Chandra Swami.
It is to BG Verghese’s credit — and to today’s Indian Express, given that this is an authorised biography — that he is scrupulously fair. He leaves very little out even when it does not show Goenka in a favourable light. Though he writes with no obvious affection for his subject, he also writes with admiration.
And certainly, there was much to admire in Goenka’s life. At a personal level, I found him warm and human. He demonstrated great courage in the face of odds that would have destroyed a lesser man. He often showed great loyalty to his friends (including the Rajmata of Gwalior and Nusli Wadia).
But his greatest achievement was that he existed at all. Like William Randolph Hearst or Lord Beaverbrook, he was an old-style press baron obsessed with politics and power, impossible to suppress but with an ego that was also impossible to repress.
All this made him one of the great figures of 20th century India. What it did not make him was a force for good journalism. The Indian Express under Shekhar Gupta is a far fairer, much better paper than it ever was under Goenka.
Anyone interested in India in the second half of the 20th century must read this book. Verghese is fair, truthful and always readable.