Two Class Acts Within A Week

Updated: May 18 2003, 05:30am hrs
Trust Arun Shourie to ask uncomfortable questions. Questions he has been asking with missionary zeal. Questions that are a cocktail of research, amusement and anger. Questions that have got him into trouble. Questions that are often an answer unto themselves.

Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee must have known what to expect when he asked Mr Shourie to join his council of ministers (Mr Shourie was later promoted to Cabinet rank). Some say Mr Vajpayee even wished that there was someone who could control populist streaks in an unruly coalition.

So far, Mr Shourie hasnt disappointed. Not only have his questions been there, he has dug his heels and not obliged his detractors by quitting out of frustration. Whether in closed-door tete-a-tetes with the PM and deputy PM L K Advani or within the political cacophony of the Cabinet Room, the former journalist has had his questions ready. Some have been askedin the trademark whispereven as the PM looked on indulgently. Others have been committed to a notebook, but kept aside. Not to be forgotten, merely in holdover. Neat notings that the nation will hear about some day or the other.

Some of Mr Shouries questions have dared former Cabinet colleague and now Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary Pramod Mahajan. Mr Shourie has ignored the fact that Mr Mahajan is the PMs political hatchet man. Or the open secret that Mr Mahajan is great chums with a key member in the Prime Ministerial family. He has gone on to ask his questions. Mr Mahajan, too, has never made a secret of his uneasiness over Mr Shourie just as the saffron brigade has often referred to Mr Shourie as woh patrakaar (that journalist).

Not surprisingly, Mr Mahajan and Mr Shourie have crossed swords frequently. For one, the sort of deal their ministries struckwhen Mr Mahajan was communications and infotech minister and Mr Shourie was incharge of disinvestmentwith the Tatas over the sale of Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd. True to his style, the PM did not intervene in the rather public contest in which his two key aides were indulging. He kept his distance and it was left to Mr Advani to wave the white flag.

The latest face-off is with Mr Shourie holding charge of both disinvestment and communications and infotech portfolios and Mr Mahajan looking anxiously at decisions taken while he was the lord and master of communications. Mr Shourie hasnt just questioned Mr Mahajans pet project, Media Lab Asia (MLAsia), a controversial research initiative of the government of India in collaboration with the Massachussets Institute of Technology. He has gone ahead and terminated the MIT contract and requested MLAsias highly paid staff to leave. This to a project leadership that enjoyed direct access to Mr Mahajan and a bureaucracyincluding within his own IT ministry and the Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs)which had very kind things on the file about MLAsia while Mr Mahajan was in the saddle.

What followed was a series of media interviews. MIT claimed it had refused to go along with the direction the new IT minister was taking. A top aide questioned Mr Shouries commitment to rural development. Mr Shourie was upset. He countered saying he had fired MIT with good reason. How could MLAsias CEO be paid 20 times the salary that was given to the chairman of Indias Space Commission, he asked. How could MIT be paid $5 million for an exclusivity contract that the government has in any case, he wondered. What did MIT have to show as its contribution during the pilot zero year for which they had been paid $1.74 million (tax free) of the Indian taxpayers money Why havent board members in MLAsia not made any contributions to the corporate corpus

Not for Mr Shourie the MIT argument that MLAsia was a corporate project that needed to cough up corporate salaries. Or that benefits of such research arent harvested in one short year, that much of it is spent on nudging the IIT bureaucracy and finding an office and a CEO. Finally, it was MIT Media Lab president Nicholas Negroponte who blinked. The celebrity professor realised that much water had flown since Mr MahajanMr Negroponte was on first name terms with himwas Indias IT minister. The MLAsia name was Indias property. So was the right to stall MIT from taking up any similar project with the same principal stated objective anywhere in Asia. In Mr Shourie, India had a minister who had read the fine print. He knew what his legal rights were and he wouldnt let go only because Mr Mahajan would get upset.

The result In an email, Mr Negroponte turned philosophical. He asked The Financial Express to help lower the volume of the story. We appreciate that this is his (Mr Shouries) country, but it is a shame to lose this kind of research. We look forward to some collaborations in the future, Mr Negroponte observed in the email. FE went back to the IT minister to ask whether he would tie up with MIT at some future date. Another minister would have been diplomatic. Not Mr Shourie. Kya karna hai (whats there to be done)... Kya sochna hai (whats there to think) he said with very little fuss. (Those who have worked under Mr Shourie say the softer he gets, the angrier he usually is.)

While MIT was still reeling under Mr Shouries onslaught, the countrys parliamentarians and those within his own party didnt have much better luck. Mr Shourie had relented under their intense pressure to cut down fixed-line tariffs of the state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd (BSNL) and Mahanagar Telephone Nigam Ltd (MTNL). No politician had bought his argument that tariffs are the preserve of Pradeep Baijal, chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, and till recently Mr Shouries disinvestment secretary. Colleagues within the Cabinet had gone running to Mr Vajpayee complaining that Mr Shouries refusal to listen would cost them votes. Even BJP president M Venkaiah Naidu had complained against him.

So, what did Mr Shourie do He decided to attend the joint press conference of BSNL and MTNL. In his mind was a clear message. Not some soundbite, which he could conveniently side-step the next day. He was about to revive an unambiguous attack on politicians and parliamentarians.

It is not just government. It is the political class at largeI also belong to that classthat is responsible. We (BSNL, MTNL and the government) had to take this decision because of the protests that were exemplified in Parliament, he said.

As reporters scribbled furiously, Mr Shourie asked whyand all of that was on the recordthe political class always resorted to concentrated bullying of this kind whenever a reform process was initiated. The reporters got their copy. But politicians across party lines couldnt stomach what Mr Shourie had dared to ask. Rumours that he must now leave the communications portfolio gained ground. Mr Shouries decision to curtail his foreign trip only fuelled further speculation.

So far, the PM has not said anything that indicates change.

True to style, having made his point, Mr Shourie has gone quiet. Does Mr Vajpayee want someone who can keep asking those tough questions Would he rather have him inside the government and ask rather than free him from the oath of secrecy Only the PM has the answers.