BG Verghese, Kuldeep Nayar and Arun Shourie: The Express Story
India passed through many political upheavals after the Nehru era, especially when Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister. During the Emergency imposed by Indira Gandhi from June 1975 to March 1977, the press was under enormous pressure but Indian Express Chairman R N Goenka refused to yield and carried on bravely to function as the Opposition after Gandhi jailed the Opposition leaders during her two-year reign of terror.
As a junior sub-editor in the Express edition in Bangalore and later in Kochi, I had a close look at the way the print media functioned, the personal predilections of top journalists and how they influenced the course of events. Goenka trained his guns on the government through high-profile editors like B G Verghese, Kuldip Nayar and Arun Shourie. During the Emergency and before, Kuldip Nayar was one of the most prominent editors in India and worked along with V K Narasimhan, a staunch opponent of the Emergency, in the undivided Indian Express.
When I was in Bangalore between 1975 and 1977 as a fresher, Kuldip Nayar was sent by R N Goenka to all centres to study the problems of the editorial department. One day he came to the editorial room and asked me whether I had any problems. I kept quiet as my only problem was his intimidating presence. Finding me tongue-tied, he turned to others. But he perhaps wanted to slight the then powerful News Editor and used to sit before him with his one leg raised on his table. Later, as we know, Kuldip Nayar was locked up by Indira Gandhi during the Emergency.
Investigative journalism reached its zenith with Arun Shourie, who worked along with B G Verghese and Kuldip Nayar in the Express after the Emergency. B G was Editor-in-Chief, Kuldip Nayar, Editor and Arun Shourie, Executive Editor. Arun Shourie had felled the then Maharashtra CM A R Antulay with his expose on the cement scandal and hence remained unchallenged in Express. But B G was more concerned about journalistic ethics, though he had also exposed the foundation stone-laying farce of Indira Gandhi as PM earlier in the Hindustan Times when he was its Editor. He had to go as he earned the displeasure of Indira and hence the proprietor. Before he joined the Express and during the general elections after the Emergency was lifted, he contested as Janata Party candidate from Mavelikara and was roundly defeated by B K Nair of the Congress.
During the election campaign, he dropped in at the Fort Kochi office of Express where I joined in February 1977 and introduced himself to me saying he is B G Verghese and wanted our support. There were only a few others in the office at that time and we gave him good coverage. When he took over as Editor-in-Chief, he visited us again and had a talk and impressed us with his British accent, similar or better than Shashi Tharoor’s.
Arun Shourie used to send his hard-hitting articles through the teleprinter at the last minute after sending an alert saying ‘Standby for a report by Arun Shourie’ and the entire press would be cleared of other matter. His pieces would begin on page one and take the whole Op-Ed page. And most often, the edition would be late.
Once he released an adverse report on Indira Gandhi. Shourie had a private meeting with the former Karnataka Chief Minister R Gundu Rao who spoke to him saying everything was off the record. In the course of the talk, he described Indira Gandhi in highly derogatory terms. Later, Arun Shourie wrote a report containing all his remarks. B G Verghese saw the report only after it was released and quickly sent an alert to all Express centres to stop the printing and hold the report. But some centres, including Kochi, had already printed the first edition.
There was no mobile phone at that time and the Kochi office sent a car chasing the first-edition van and intercepted it at a railway crossing somewhere near Palakkad. But the next day, there was a countrywide uproar, and Express faced several court cases also.
After the Janata Government led by Moraji Desai collapsed, the Shourie brand of investigative journalism died out gradually and Express lost its teeth with the coming in of editors like Suman Dubey, H K Dua, N S Jagannathan, etc. Dua had started off as a proof reader and was neutral politically and otherwise.
Once he came to the Kaloor office of Express and our Resident Editor M K Das encouraged us to present our problems to him. I, as a senior staff member, prepared a paper containing our demands, including pay hike, and presented it to him during the editorial meeting. He went through it and said he will solve all our problems. We believed it too. The next day when he was about to leave, P Venugopal, Bureau chief, gave him a cover containing the reporters’ issues. After reading it, he gave it back to Venu saying, “I have not come here to receive memorandums.” That was how he tackled the editorial complaints. But later, when Prabhu Chawla took over as Editor-in-Chief, he gave a raise to whoever M K Das recommended.
Express editors faced several court cases also over many reports. The then Resident Editor of Kerala had to even appear in a court in Punjab several times. But the editors never budged because of their commitment to the profession.