Through the pressures, he never lost his sense of humour and the newsroom was always a fun place to be in when he was around.
I still recall my first attempt at writing a piece for the op-ed page in Business Standard. This was in 2006 or 2007 and having been away from journalism for nearly a decade, I was struggling to come up with coherent copy. But one telephone conversation with Sunil — we were in different cities and I had never met him in person — and I had all the perspective I needed. Few senior journalists make the time to help out their juniors, let alone share perspective. But Sunil was always generous with ideas; he added a couple of paras and some numbers to the text and it was that much more readable.
What I have admired most about Sunil, in all the years that I worked with him, is his integrity. No matter how well he knew a businessman or a minister, it never influenced his writing. He wrote with conviction, truly believing there would be change for the better, that the country would progress. Despite his distinct pro-BJP leanings, he has been one of the sternest critics of the NDA’s policies, especially on its telecom policies on which he exposed and took apart TRAI, at every step, for favouring a certain business house. Anil Ambani’s ADAG sued him on numerous occasions but that never deterred Sunil; he fought the pressure from vested interests.
But he told it as it was, criticising the government for its FDI and e-commerce policies — believing they were unfair — but also appreciating good work like the IBC. He spoke up against demonetisation but lauded the efforts at digitisation. FE has been among the most vocal on how shabbily the government treats foreign investments, on how the changes to the labour codes are incremental. But it has applauded the farm laws. In recent months, Sunil was among the first to point out the weaknesses in the government’s vaccination policy, especially how wrong it would be to cap pricing. In January 2020, at an interaction with the Prime Minister, where several economists and top professionals were present, Sunil had in no uncertain terms criticised the industry-unfriendly policies of the NDA government.
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He was always learning and he always gave credit to those from whom he learnt. And because of this, whether it was a discussion with Arvind Subramanian, Nandan Nilekani or Arundhati Bhattacharya, he could hold his own. Nandan Nilekani has said Sunil had that rare journalistic ability to traverse both conventional and contemporary subjects of importance to India. Most important, he wrote fearlessly and with complete command over the facts and figures. He did mountains of research — he was always up by five and had read all the papers by seven — sought out every possible angle and came up with a cohesive argument. The peons would be constantly fetching print-outs, and we would be appalled at the heaps of paper in the bins at the end of the day, but Sunil read everything he could lay his hands on. Shooting from the hip was never his style. Any opinion was always corroborated with facts and figures. He spent hours looking at various models to try and understand the spread of the virus.
There was this running joke in the office on how he wanted to look at all the data from 1920 onwards. But few journalists understood the importance of numbers the way Sunil did; he realised how effectively a good graphic could tell a story and would sometimes work on it himself, explaining it to the designers.
This approach spilled over into the newsroom as well; he would push reporters to do balanced stories, to spend time poring over the numbers and to add value to copy rather than simply write a report. Although FE’s team of reporters is small, it was often able to beat the competition because Sunil came up with interesting angles to the stories. Amitava Sinha Roy who had worked with The Economic Times for decades and was the head of the Financial Express desk for a few years, used to say he had never seen an editor so involved in the making of the paper. Through the pressures, he never lost his sense of humour and the newsroom was always a fun place to be in when he was around. A hands-on boss, his language was at times somewhat colourful, but he earned everyone’s respect because he was so committed to the paper and to high standards of journalism.
As I look back over the 10 years that we worked together in FE — both in the ITO office and in the Noida one — I remember lots of good times. We all worked hard and while FE may not have been the highest circulated daily, Sunil took it to new heights. We will miss you Sunil, rest in peace.
This column first appeared in the print edition of The Indian Express on May 17, 2021 under the title ‘He wrote fearlessly’. Shobhana Subramanian is Deputy Managing Editor, The Financial Express