There are columnists and columnists. They come in various intellectual shapes and forms. They are, thank God, not birds of the same feather. Some are serious scholars who are respected for their depth of knowledge, sense of objectivity and felicity of expression. Some are entertainers and gossip-mongers. Some are ideologues with a penchant to dogmatise; and some are plain propagandists whose sole aim is to idolise a person or promote a party or vandalise an institution not of their liking. They may write about politics, crimes, sports, cinema, arts, theatre, dance, drama or music or whatever is their chosen field of speciality, but they have their devoted fans not to speak of dispassionate critics. Which is par for the course.
Mani Shankar Aiyar hailing from an affluent family began his career as a diplomat, then gave up diplomacy for politics, apparently mesmerised by Rajiv Gandhi'soutlook and general record as Prime Minister and aligned himself unabashedly with the Nehru-Gandhi clan to become a determined exponent of dynasticism. In due course he became a columnist, specialising in talking on the BJP and its leaders, be it Atal Behari Vajpayee, Lal Krishna Advani or Jaswant Singh. From the day he started contributing first to Sunday, then, unhappily as he admits, to India Today and later to The Indian Express during what he calls a time of transition, he was determinedly at the throat of so-called Rightists with noticeable venom.
It was soon to become clear that Aiyar had strong views on many issues and had no hesitation in expressing them in equally strong language. Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express, in a foreword to the book notes somewhat delicately that ?there is never a mystery to what and who he (Aiyar) likes or doesn?t?. To press his point further, Gupta adds: ?There is no place for subtlety, kid-gloves, hypocrisy or diplomacy in Aiyar'swritings. Gently put. Surely Mr Gupta knows that one does not have to be ill-tempered and abusive in one'swriting to make a point? Is subtlety a vice and tact a questionable virtue to be shunned?
Aiyar wrote more or less continuously for some eight years from 1996 to 2004 when he had to stop his fulminations as a result of becoming a member of the UPA cabinet. During those surging years Aiyar wrote on a wide range of subjects like democracy, secularism, socialism, non-alignment and neighbourhood policy, the faces of which were steadily changing. Aiyar is unquestionably a well-read man. What is in question is not his inclusive knowledge but his understanding of it. And his instinctive condemnation of social and political developments that he cannot stomach.
Aiyar has his pet hatreds. Writing in October 1996 Aiyar shows little respect for his colleague, P. Chidambaram who he charges with once being a critic of Karunanidhi only later to befriend the DMK leader, which, according to Aiyar only ?goes to prove how dangerous it is to the unity of the Union are unscrupulous lawyers willing to sleep in any political bed to become Finance Minister of the country?. But that is mild criticism compared to what Aiyar has to say about BJP leaders of the eminence and stature if Atal Behari Vajpayee or Lal Krishna Advani. Aiyar accuses Vajpayee of fiddling while Godhra burnt, forgetting that his own icon Sonia Gandhi was also playing the same musical instrument when she and her acolytes could well have rushed to Gujarat following the post?Godhra riots. His hatred of Hindutva knows to bounds. Hindutva, according to him ?believes in demolishing places of worship, curtailing the right to propagate one'sfaith, expunging the concept of minorities and enforcing personal laws which abridge faith, customs and usage?.
He gives no evidence of the number of places of worship Hindutva-wadis have demolished and prefers not to mention the fact what Hindutva is opposed is not propagation of a faith but the not-so-subtle efforts at malignant conversion. He insists that the Ayodhya question is not, as Vajpayee stated, ?a problem left over by the last millennium? and ?a legacy of history?, but just a ?property issue? which shows his mind-set. His is the typical ?secularist? approach to politics which refuses to accept that Hindus sentiment has been deeply hurt and that had the Muslim community the grace to be accommodative and understanding, the Babri Masjid dispute could have been satisfactorily resolved in a win-win situation for both Hindus and Muslims.
The issue was not ?demolishing? a masjid, but being accommodative to Hindu sentiments of hurt suffered for over four centuries. Our secularists provoked the Muslim fundamentalists to fight for ?property rights? and with what disastrous results one does not have to explain. Aiyar writing on December 25, 2001 was strongly critical of the NDA government then in Delhi over the jehadi attack on Parliament, claiming that that attack on the Parliament was ?a monumental failure of intelligence and a massive failure of security?. What, one wonders, would Aiyar have written if he was free to do so, over what happened on November 26, 2008, when jehadis made Mumbai their target. What saddens one is not so much his one-sided approach towards issues of high importance, but the deplorable language he uses reflective of poor upbringing Criticism is fair and necessary and even to be encouraged but good journalism demands a certain restraint in voicing views that needs to be attended to. Is that too much to ask of diplomats turned politicians?
(Penguin Books (India) Pvt. Ltd. 11, Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi-110 017.)