April 05, 2020
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He Was A Camera

B.G. Verghese is one of our most feted journalists. He tells the story of independent India as he saw it unfold.

He Was A Camera
Getty Images (From Outlook, October 25, 2010)
He Was A Camera
First Draft: Witness To The Making Of Modern India
By B.G. Verghese
Tranquebar | Pages: 587 | Rs. 695

George Verghese is an outstanding and highly respected journalist of our time. And he has written more books than many of his fellow-professionals might have read. He and I have been friends for nearly six decades. From adjacent seats in the press gallery, we both reported on the nation’s apex legislature in an era when Jawaharlal Nehru could legitimately speak of the “majesty of Parliament”. How things have changed or deteriorated since then! This, together with a comprehensive, vivid account of independent India’s triumphs and tragedies, its entrepreneurship, corruption and sloth is the essence of Verghese’s aptly titled First Draft. Intertwined with these chronicles is George’s own life story. Journalism is called the first draft of history, and there couldn’t be a more perceptive witness to the making of modern India than Verghese.

‘Araam haraam hai’—Rest is taboo, Panditji had said. Setting the tone for this 573-page volume is the chapter titled: ‘The Nehru Era: Work to Work’. Verghese is very critical of Nehru but admits that it was he who “laid the foundations of a liberal, democratic and plural society and a mixed economy that had given India a place in the world though some felt it was inclined to punch above its weight”. In my view, the Mahatma was India’s liberator, Nehru its moderniser.

A high point of Verghese’s career was his work as information advisor to Indira Gandhi during her first three years as prime minister (1966-68). She is the dominant character in five chapters—Enter Mrs G: ‘Madam Prime Minister, Sir’; A Mandate for Change; A Long Day’s Journey into the Night; No Talking! There’s An Emergency; and An Unhappy Second Coming. During his tenure in the pmo, Verghese found his boss to be gracious and supportive. But writing her speeches were a torture: she chopped and changed till the last moment. His ideas, though repeatedly accepted by the PM, never made any headway.

Later, as editor of Hindustan Times, Verghese became increasingly—and not unfairly—critical of her. Of Indira’s leadership during the disastrous descent towards the Emergency, he writes: “By 1974 Mrs Gandhi was riding high but found herself in a political and ethical bog of her own creation.... [S]he turned away from proven advisors to embrace a coterie that flattered her ego and fed on her inchoate fears for their own self-aggrandisement. Emerging from the shadows and soon to lead the pack was her younger son, Sanjay.” Verghese  describes Sanjay as his mother’s “nemesis”. No wonder, in 1975, at Indira Gandhi’s behest, the owner of Hindustan Times, K.K. Birla, sacked Verghese most shabbily. The chapter, The Editor’s Den, should be compulsory reading for those having anything to do with the media.

Any praise for Verghese’s book is well-deserved but one can’t agree with everything he says. Some of his best friends have often said that being an activist for many good causes, Verghese could sometimes be a “bleeding-heart liberal”. On some of the issues—such as his rose-tinted view of Pakistan and even of Zia-ul-Haq or his staunch opposition to the Indian nuclear arsenal—he eventually changed his mind because of rude ground realities. But on several other matters of this kind, including Sikkim’s merger with the Indian Union in the mid-’70s, he remains adamant. Indisputably though, Verghese can argue his case or analyse a complex problem with the utmost thoroughness.

In the 1977 general elections—the “new dawn” they ushered in was sadly short-lived; Indira Gandhi was back in power in 30 months flat—Verghese contested as an Independent from his home state of Kerala with the full support of the CPI(M). He lost but refused a nomination to the Rajya Sabha. What he doesn’t reveal is that of the donations made to him by friends, admirers and strangers, some money had remained unspent. Dividing it proportionately, he returned the money to every donor.

Verghese’s vision of India’s future is refreshingly optimistic. He believes that its “inner resilience, diversity and values” would ultimately triumph, and adds: “If I have been roundly critical of many events and trends, it has been to sound a note of caution rather than utter a cry of despair.”

One hopes other witnesses to the post-Independence era would emulate George Verghese and meticulously record their impressions. The historian needs all the evidence he or she can get because the government’s appalling archival policy denies access to classified documents of the entire age.

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