The overwhelming emotion of watching Arun Shourie snipe incessantly at Narendra Modi is one of profound sadness. The dazzlingly brilliant public intellectual is so overcome with bitterness these days that he frequently lets hatred interfere with his objectivity. Once Shourie could find no fault with Modi. Now, he finds a byzantine conspiracy in even the prime minister’s shadow.
It was breathtaking to note the bilious animosity during Shourie’s NDTV interview on Tuesday where he appeared to ostensibly criticise the NDA government’s handling of the economy. His animus for Modi is so naked, so thick that it could as well be cut with a knife. Even the interviewer, a known Modi critic, appeared to be taken aback by Shourie’s bluntness. An undercurrent of waspish, dark humour ran through the entire programme where Shourie, a former economist with the World Bank, frequently mocked the prime minister and suggested that the government’s policies reflect Modi’s intellectual inadequacy.
There is nothing wrong with Shourie’s criticism. This government needs more of it. The Opposition — a motley crew of divergent political forces bound together in their hatred for Modi — is a discredited lot. Their criticisms hardly inspire public confidence. The Congress, fighting for survival under an entitled dynast, is so politically disempowered that its voice is now taken even less seriously.
In little over three years, the BJP has increased dramatically its national footprint. It is prominent in states where it had little presence. It has also become the largest party in Rajya Sabha. It’s too early to take a call on 2019 Lok Sabha polls given that even a week is a long time in politics but at this moment, BJP’s ascendancy has given the NDA practically a free hand in policymaking. Though no one can accuse of the NDA of policy paralysis, it has erred on the side of action, taking some deeply disruptive steps that have dragged down the economy.
There is huge space here for constructive criticism. As Udayan Mukherjee writes in Indian Express, “Many radical moves have been attempted, perhaps with good intent — and measured on a scale of sheer boldness, they are impressive. The problem is that many of these policies have been ill conceived, inadequately debated or pondered over and badly implemented. In that, the government can certainly be accused of having been trigger-happy. We are a nation of poor people, even a crusader needs to tread gently. Else you run the risk of trampling over people’s lives, livelihoods and aspirations.”
A shining light in the Vajpayee cabinet, Shourie, along with Vajpayee, was responsible for ushering in the second generation of reforms. With his intellectual heft and experience, Shourie could have been a guiding star even in criticism. It is therefore doubly painful to see him indulge in base personal attacks, and in effect, let Modi off the hook.
One of the easiest way to lose an argument is to attack the person instead of her idea. It reeks of intellectual laziness. In his rage against Modi, Shourie probably didn’t realise the logical inconsistencies in his charges.
He called demonetisation “the largest money-laundering scheme ever, conceived and implemented entirely by the government.” That would imply an ulterior motive. It hints at corruption at the highest echelons of Modi government. That the prime minister “allowed” (to go by Shourie’s logic) the dishonest a chance to launder their black money into white implies that he was in cahoots with the corrupt. The charge, in line with Manmohan Singh’s allegation of “organised loot and legalized plunder” is equally an ode to Modi’s infinite cunningness that he successfully masked a corrupt plan as a morality play and managed to win elections.
This, however, militates against Shourie’s next remark that demonetisation was an “idiotic jolt” and a “suicidal step”. Was all that conspiracy actually a suicidal plan? One cannot be a cunning fox and an idiot at the same time!
This leads us to the larger point. In choosing to attack Modi’s integrity and casting aspersions on his intellectual prowess instead of pointing out the loopholes in policymaking, Shourie makes Modi appear a larger-than-life figure. Brilliant as he is, Shourie could have offered a way out of the economic morass. Instead, he managed to impose on the prime minister an unintended greatness that Modi will accept with glee because it is precisely this sort of blind, bilious criticism that has helped Modi build his political career.
Shourie either has not learnt from the plight of Modi’s critics, who have launched vicious personal attacks only to see it backfire at the hustings — we need not look far beyond Arvind Kejriwal — or, he might be Modi’s secret admirer.
Shourie is now finding faults with Modi in places where he had discovered virtues earlier. For instance, in an interview to The Economic Times in 2014 when Shourie was a Modi cabinet aspirant, he had praised the former Gujarat chief minister’s administrative qualities, the very stuff that he finds revolting now.
To a question by the newspaper on Modi’s style of functioning, Shourie had said: “Everyone discusses and comes to a view and the decision is taken. The file goes back and everyone reports back within a fortnight. That’s how Modi functions. Those things will get done swiftly. Fast decision making. He is much for follow-ups. There is a timetable for tasks. The second thing he can do is making state CMs partners in governing India.”
If Shourie finds Modi “authoritative” now, he was efficiency earlier. On Modi’s impact on BJP, he had said, “The party will be managerially more efficient. It will work like a machine. Modi’s government and style of functioning will modernise the ideology of BJP. My advise has always been to leave contentious issues like Ram Mandir and Common Civil Code. Leave Modi alone to deliver good governance. Everything else will be taken care of.”
A year later, when realisation had set in that Modi has no plans for Shourie except for a seat in ‘Margdarshak Mandal’ and the attacks on the prime minister have become sharper and shriller, Shourie, in 2015, said during a book launch that Modi’s PMO was the “weakest ever”.
On Tuesday, he called Modi dictatorial, which isn’t exactly how a “weakest PMO” is supposed to function. He ridiculed Amit Shah as a “famous economist”, accused Modi of ruling by “revelation” (ilhaam) and labeled the NDA government of two-and-a-half men. The profound irony of his accusations, that “whenever they are confronted with inconvenient facts, they try to bury it in avalanche of abuse. I have a constructive suggestion for them. They should publish a list of persons in advance who they think are frustrated” was no doubt lost on him.
Particularly disconcerting about Shourie’s descent into illogic and label-peddling was the fact that he didn’t even feel the need to stay within the short and narrow of data. He claimed that Indian economy has collapsed in a heap and is growing at a measly 3.7 percent when the World Bank, an institution he may recognise, praised India for clocking “robust growth” just last month.
Shourie’s condition, to modify Ram Guha’s description of Arundhati Roy in an essay back in 2000, is the difference between “super patriot” and “anti patriot”. There is none. As Guha wrote in The Hindu: “The super-patriot and the anti-patriot use much the same methods. Both think exclusively in black and white. Both choose to use a 100 words when 10 will do. Both arrogate to themselves the right to hand out moral certificates. Those who criticise Shourie are characterised as anti-national, those who dare take on Roy are made out to be agents of the State. In either case, an excess of emotion and indignation drowns out the facts.”
One feels more than a tinge of sadness to describe Shourie so but in his unbalanced wrath against Modi, he has not noticed how the empowered, elitist clique that he had fought against his entire life, is now exploiting him to further their propaganda. This clique which has now embraced Shourie, will dump him the moment his bitterness stops being of use to them. His words may not resonate beyond this “liberal” echo chamber — and may even politically benefit Modi — but it will certainly diminish in stature a giant of a man.