WHEN George Orwell noted that writers are fundamentally 'lazy' he did not have either columnists or me in mind, although I cheerfully admit to being infected with the disease. Except for a brief spell during unemployment when I undertook a weekly column for Sunday, I have never presumed to instruct the nation on a daily or weekly or fortnightly basis. Thus, in the conventional sense I am not a column writer although from time to time I make forays into the territory.
Yet, even by my indolent standards, I have for the past few months been unusually reticent. Some friends - I can name at least two! - have observed the silence and urged me to pontificate more frequently even as they have wondered why I am struck speechless at a time when there is such an embarrassment of riches - Pokhran, attacks on minorities, Bal Thackeray's lunacy, sacking of the naval chief, the economic mess, etc. I think I owe some sort of explanation to my two friends.
Since I do not carry the burden of a deadline, I write when I feel I have something useful or interesting to communicate. It may not be blindingly original or make the front pages; however, if I were to merely regurgitate what was being already expressed by the legion of columnists in our press, I would have wasted scarce and expensive newsprint. For instance, if one produced 1,000 words condemning the violence against Christians without having either visited the scene of the violence or being privy to hitherto unknown knowledge, the column would commence as a failure and end as a yawn.
The worst columnists are those whose contemplations and conclusions are unexceptionable. The best are those who combine in roughly equal measure intelligence, insight and information, giving the reader a fresh perspective. At the very least they should leave him a few minutes of serious pondering. You can only perform the latter task if the urge to say something is compelling (in other words, you have detected a lacuna in what is already being said) and not dictated by a deadline. Alas, the urge to say something, in my case, is erratic. It can strike once a day or once a week or once in three months.
It is probably a failing, but when I put on the columnist's hat I am acutely conscious of not boring the reader and, to some extent, myself. The most effective way to avoid this is not to repeat - the quality of the prose notwithstanding - what your more enlightened writer colleagues are articulating. They at least have the alibi of periodicity; I don't.
Ever since the Vajpayee government came to power all we have had is bad news and more bad news. Crisis has followed crisis emphasising that a government which took office with enormously high hopes is mostly inept and sometimes dangerous. As a result, in the English press at least, the bjp-euphoria of April 1998 has quickly degenerated into ceaseless bjp-bashing. I have myself indulged in the activity but for the past three or four months have experienced a sense of fatigue. After all, how many times can you say that the prime minister is a nice man but totally out of his depth? How many times can you lament L.K. Advani's stewardship of the home ministry? How many times can you mock the antics of M.M. Joshi? How many times can you ridicule an impotent and fickle finance minister?
At our morning editorial conference we increasingly find that what looks to be a promising story idea needs to be abandoned because we would be forced to return to the same old routine - beating the government. The feeling of disillusionment and vexation with the Vajpayee-led coalition has been narrated ad nauseam, so it seems futile to go on and on when there is little prospect of correction.
The other reason for my silence revolves around the accusation hurled at the media that it is needlessly promoting non-existent gloom in the country. A variation of this theme states that while some gloom and doom undoubtedly exists, the media, particularly its English component, habitually exaggerates. I am not giving away any state secrets by revealing that not many days ago the prime minister (he had just returned from Dangs) told me that the attacks on Christians in Gujarat had been vastly overplayed. The English press has played a negative role, he said. There was not enough time for me to respond, but the refrain, as echoed by Vajpayee, is familiar: the nation is by and large at peace, and if it were not for the English press cynics, there would be a much more positive mood in the country. This view, I am loathe to admit, is shared by some sober and responsible citizens.
NOW, while it is true that the journalists stock-in-trade is 'bad' news, the media too is desperately looking for 'good' news (we are, unfortunately, asked to believe that in a population of 43 million in Gujarat less than 100,000 Christians would attack Hindus; if you do not subscribe to that position you are guilty of exaggeration.) Look at the enthusiasm with which Amartya Sen was covered, how every century by Sachin Tendulkar makes the front page. Therefore, the charge of media negativism is wholly without foundation.
The truth is we journalists are paid to reflect reality. We must tell it like it is. We cannot manufacture good news when all around us is bad news. That besides being a lie would amount to dereliction of professional duty. The biggest sin a journalist can commit is to spread false optimism merely to spuriously lift the spirits of the country and the coalition in power. These matters may seem elementary to you and me but to our rulers they suggest a conspiracy.
All this, of course, does not excuse my laziness, but I hope it partially explains why writing a political column these days is such depressing business.