Ringside view, incisive observations
Reviewed by Ram Varma

First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern India
By B.G. Verghese.
Tranquebar. Pages 573. Rs 695.

First Draft: Witness to the Making of Modern IndiaBorn with a silver spoon in his mouth, George Verghese studied at the elite Doon School which had opened just a year before his sojourn began; among his fellow students was Prince Karan Singh from Kashmir. He later joined St. Stephenís College in Delhi and went on to do his tripos from Trinity College in Cambridge following the footsteps of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Among his contemporaries there were I. G. Patel and Abdus Salam, the Nobel laureate, Jagat Mehta and Romesh Bhandari, later to become Foreign Secretaries, and S.D. Sharma who rose to become the President of India.

While still at Cambridge, he was offered the assistant editorís job in the Times of India which was in the process of changing hands from Bennet Coleman to the Dalmias. The editor, Sir Francis Low, had selected him and arranged a yearís internship with British newspapers, awarding him with a handsome stipendóin short, given the job on a silver platter, as it were. In the government hostel, where he lodged in Bombay as assistant editor, those who shared rooms with him were people like K.N. Raj, economist, and K.R. Narayanan who later became our President.

Soon afterwards, the newspaper started its Delhi edition, and Verghese shifted to Delhi and began covering Parliament. He observed that members were erudite and came well prepared and heard each other out with decorum and respect, unlike their present-day counterparts. Nehru would open debates and reply to them, with members and packed galleries listening with rapt attention.

The 1962 debacle devastated Nehru. "We were getting out of touch with the modern world and were living in the atmosphere of our own creation," Verghese quotes from Nehruís swan song. "Lal Bahadur Shastri," he says, "brought a quiet pragmatism to bear upon governance." Our forces had given a resounding rebuff to Pakistanís misadventure in 1965 under his leadership, but he unfortunately died after signing the Tashkent Agreement in January 1966.

Indira Gandhi, who had become the Minister of Information and Broadcasting in Shastriís Cabinet, apparently admired Verghese and his writings. After she became Prime Minister, she appointed him her Information Adviser, giving him an opportunity to see government from within and observe her from close. Verghese reveals many interesting aspects of her personality. Like on her visit to the US in 1966, when Lyndon Johnson, a giant of a man, gallantly asked her for a dance at a banquet he had hosted in her honour, she demurely declined, saying, "Oh, what would my people think".

In February 1969, she was hit in the face by a stone thrown by hecklers at a stormy election rally she was addressing at Bhubaneshwar. She remained on the rostrum, bleeding, and later joked about it. "Iíve got a long nose, I know, but I donít want a crooked one."

"She had guts and a sense of humour," Verghese remarks.

Verghese endeavoured earnestly to push several of his ideas on education and the North-East, to fruition, but despite Indira Gandhiís receptivity, he found "indecision and drift" all around, and when Mulgaonkar approached him on behalf of K.K. Birla to become editor of Hindustan Times, he returned to the mainstream of his life and work.

He brought a refreshing camaraderie in the HT, instead of acting like a top boss. He initiated a brave, innovative journalistic project, "Our Village Chhatera", featuring a village in Haryana, or, in his own words, focusing on "Bharat, next door, yet half a world away". But differences arose on coverage of matters like Sanjay Gandhiís project to make a "peopleís car". Birla asked Verghese to visit the factory, meet Sanjay and write about it. Verghese was not impressed by Sanjayís "contraption" being fabricated by a handful of workmen and told Birla what he thought of it. Birla was incensed and wanted to replace him with a pliable editor. The matter went to the Press Council which summoned Birla who couldnít explain why he wanted to sack the editor. A cartoon appeared, saying, "Mrs Gandhi admired; Verghese hired. Mrs Gandhi tired; Verghese fired."

Birla sought an injunction from the High Court against the proceedings in the Press Council, but the court ruled in September 1975 that while the owners had the right to lay down the policy of the paper, the selection of news and its presentation was the editorís responsibility. In the meanwhile, Emergency had been imposed in June, and he was fired the next day, though he was honoured by the 1975 Magsaysay Award for Excellence in Journalism. The Press Council too was abolished soon after.

By the time Verghese joined the Indian Express as editor in June 1982, the squabbling and non-performing Janata-Lok Dal government had floundered; Indira Gandhi had been returned to power while JP had died a broken-hearted man. Though Verghese had started to write his biography, he ended up writing a pithy, insightful history of India after Independence, which is quite natural in a way as all his life he has breathed and lived for the country. The book is a veritable saga of the eventful emergence of modern India.