When militants slipped into the military base in Kashmir’s Uri town in September and killed 20 soldiers, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leader Ram Madhav urged the Indian state to pursue an anti-terror policy predicated on taking a “complete jaw for one tooth”. Though the violence of his language made many, particularly the Liberal-Left, cringe, few knew that Madhav was echoing a person who has been an inspiration for RSS footsoldiers because of his intellectual defence of their politics.

This person was none other than journalist, writer and politician Arun Shourie, who, following the depredations in Mumbai on November 26, 2008, had wanted the Indian state to not only “run after” the terrorist but also to “out-run him”, even “over-run him”. Shourie elaborated upon this in a piece he wrote for the Indian Express: “Not an eye for an eye. For an eye, both eyes. Not a tooth for a tooth. For a tooth, the whole jaw.”

Madhav, in 2016, was perhaps acknowledging his intellectual debt to Shourie, who, in the same year, seemed to have sloughed off his Hindutva skin. Perhaps he hasn’t. But many feel he has done so because of his relentless sallies against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These have won him kudos from those who inhabit the space between Centre and extreme Left on India’s ideological spectrum.

Now: Attacks on Modi

Among the remarks with which Shourie has amused his audience and grabbed headlines was his description in 2015 of the BJP under Modi as “Congress plus cow”. He did it again last year by saying that the demonetisation policy was as radical a measure as suicide is. Earlier this month, thewire.in portal published an interview with Shourie that journalist Swati Chaturvedi had conducted for her book, I Am a Troll.

The points Shourie made in the interview require to be highlighted. He accused Modi of pushing the Indian state into acquiring a “pyramidal decentralised mafia” structure. He said Modi’s term is an era of true fascism because, unlike Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, the law today is what, for instance, cow vigilantes say it is. This is a leap on Shourie’s part. Even Communist Party of India (Marxist) leaders Prakash Karat and Sitaram Yechury, both fierce critics of Hindutva, have still to agree whether Modi’s rule is authoritarian or fascist.

For Shourie, as is clear from his interview, the debate over Modi goes beyond the authoritarianism-fascism binary. It claims that Modi has a dark triad personality, which includes negative traits of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. Shourie confessed to Chaturvedi that his decision to participate in Modi’s campaign for the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 was the second-biggest mistake of his life. The first was when he supported Janata Dal leader VP Singh’s quest to become prime minister in the late 1980s.

A host of questions arise: Was Shourie aware in 2014 that Modi has what he calls a dark triad personality? Or did he have a completely different perception of Modi then? This is for readers to judge from the excerpts of interviews that Shourie gave during the 2014 election campaign.

Then: Praise for Modi

In a television interview to ET Now that same year, Shourie was asked whether he thought there were heightened expectations from Modi. Interviewer Supriya Shrinate added, “Is that euphoria, in that sense, misplaced?”

Guess Shourie’s reply? “There is euphoria,” he said. “Second, it is centred on him because, in large measure, for the very things his critics criticise him. That oh, he is autocratic; oh, that he will take firm decisions. People want that.” Shourie seemingly did not mind an autocrat as long as the people wanted him.

But Shourie gave a historical perspective to his observation made in the ET Now interview. He said hope had come to be centered on an individual because India was “transiting to a presidential system and the parliamentary skin is being shed. You are actually creating a situation where everything is gravitating to the prime minister as it is, say, with the US or the French president.”

This transition, Shourie said, would lead to a strong prime minister who would run the government not with ministers but through 30 secretaries chosen by him. But the emerging trend should not cause anxiety. As Shourie said, “If you restore the authority of the civil servant… from what I hear, he is regarded in Gujarat as civil servants’ chief minister. He cuts out all riff-raff.”

Who are the riff-raff, the disreputable people? Those who win elections that Shourie has never contested. These riff-raff become ministers and choose secretaries and ruin the system, or so he seems to suggest. Modi will cut them out, Shourie hoped, revealing the low regard in which he holds India’s democracy.

In case it seems that Shourie conveyed an erroneous impression because of poor articulation, think again. In an interview in 2014 to Sagrika Ghosh, who was then with CNN-IBN, he was again asked whether the expectations from Modi were unrealistic.

He said the expectations were because Modi’s predecessor, Manmohan Singh, had abdicated his authority. Quite confidently, he argued, “Suppose Mr Modi does come, then those things get automatically set right… He doesn’t have to deal with Jairam Ramesh and Jayanthi Natarajan [both of whom raised objections to some of Singh’s policies]. No minister will sort of come in his way if he is like what his reputation is.”

Indeed, no minister has come in the way of Modi ever since he became prime minister. But then, it is well known that Modi brooked no opposition to his policies when he was the chief minister of Gujarat. Shourie certainly knew too, because when Ghosh pushed him to explain his certitude about Modi, his answer was unequivocal: “I am sure he will with his reputation and will find mechanism to do so.”

What Shourie found praiseworthy in Modi in 2014, he was sharply critical of in his interview to Swati Chaturvedi in 2016. He called Modi’s style of governance a replica of the “Gujarat model” and sneeringly described it as “one man, nobody else”. Why wasn’t Shourie appalled by the Gujarat model earlier?

It was because Modi’s advent to power would bring strength to India, Shourie said in the Nani A Palkhivala memorial lecture he delivered in 2013. “When strength is there, shackles break and whatever you do is a step forward,” he explained. The trope of strength remains a vital element in the BJP’s discourse on Modi’s rule.

To Chaturvedi, Shourie came out strongly against cow vigilantes, suggesting their actions were scripted. “The Central people will look the other way,” he said. “The Central people will provide a rationale for the goonda at the local level. Like ‘gau rakshaks’, like ‘love jihad’ – this becomes the rationale for me to beat up everybody. It’s not love for the cow but just an instrument for domination.”

Later, in the same interview, to underscore the importance of protecting religious minorities, Shourie listed the riots between Hindus and Muslims in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh in 2013 and the blinding of the young by pellets fired by security forces in Kashmir during last summer’s unrest. He said, “When a pattern emerges, then we are creating a situation when the Muslims are being reminded of the 1940s, ‘Yahan hamarey liye koi jagah nah hai’.” There is no place for us here.

But this feeling was experienced by Muslims most during the 2002 riots in Gujarat. Yet, the man who berates cow vigilantes was shockingly indifferent to the plight of Muslims in Gujarat.

Cow vigilantes and riot victims

That is underscored in the transcript of Shekhar Gupta’s Walk the Talk with Shourie in 2009. Gupta conducted the interview against the backdrop of Jaswant Singh being expelled from the BJP for writing a book that claimed Jinnah wished to establish a secular state. The book had raised a storm.

In the interview with Gupta, Shourie spoke of Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee wanting Modi to resign as chief minister because of his failure to control the Gujarat riots. But the move, he said, was stymied by LK Advani, who was then the home minister. Shourie was on Vajpayee’s side, not because he thought Modi needed to pay the price for the communal rioting. Why did Shourie then side with Vajpayee?

Explained Shourie: “And frankly, I must say, I was more affected by Atalji’s pain than what had happened in Gujarat. Maybe this is my inhumanity or something. I can’t claim that I was that great liberal.” A little later in the interview, Shourie reiterated the same point, “I must say that I was not all the time for this, that Modi has to go because of the killings, because in my view such things happen as a reaction, as happened in Delhi as a reaction to [Indira] Gandhi’s brutal killing [in 1984]. You can’t then prevent those things. Nobody can prevent those things.”

How could Shourie not have been moved by the mayhem in Gujarat? This is the question Shoma Chaudhury asked Shourie in her exquisite piece, Acid Dreams for Dharma Nights, published in Tehelka magazine soon after Gupta’s Walk the Talk was telecast.

“I am moved by what happens to individuals, what happens to my son,” Shourie replied. “I don’t care if hundreds of people die somewhere. They die in earthquakes as well.” His remark reduces a grisly communal rioting to the category of natural calamity.

This apart, the key to fathoming the implications of Shourie’s remark lies in knowing that his son suffers from cerebral palsy. His malady has been a source of immense suffering for Shourie, prompting him to turn to Buddhism to overcome or better handle his anguish. This fact reveals to us the meaning of his statement – that is, if he, Shourie, can suffer, there can be nothing extraordinary about the pain of riots victims.

Shourie’s statement had Chaudhury reeling. As she wrote, “Shocked, I ask, ‘Why react so strongly to terror attacks then?’ ‘Because that is an assault on the state’ [Shourie’s reply].”

However, the assaults by cow vigilantes are not an attack on the state either. In fact, cow protectionists invoke the theory of action-reaction (that the eating of beef hurts religious sentiments) to justify their beatings and killings of cattle traders or people they accuse of transporting beef. It is precisely the argument Shourie cited why neither the 1984 riots nor the 2002 riots could be controlled.

Such contradictions in Shourie’s arguments arise because his beliefs seem to be constantly changing. In 2014, he did not think Modi needed to apologise for 2002. First, even if he were to, as he told ET Now’s Shrinate, “immediately you will say, hasn’t he said it for the election purposes, does he really believe it in his heart? There will be two persons who will say yes, there will be two persons who will say no, and you will have an evening discussion on it. That is not the way.”

What is the way? “What is Gandhiji’s view about repentance?” Shourie answered. “Repentance is not a verbal apology. Repentance is the determination to ensure that the situation will not arise again. I think, in a sense, the Indian system has repented for 1984. It has repented for 2002. It has repented for Bhagalpur. The system says that we will not allow these things to happen all the time.”

It is bewildering that a man who was callously indifferent to the plight of Gujarat riot victims should now appear so horrified with the bullying tactics of cow vigilantes. How can Shourie’s metamorphosis be explained? The only plausible explanation is that he is now opposed to the RSS, for which cow protection and anti-minority baiting are the principal drivers of its politics.

On the RSS

This was not the case in 2009 when he spoke to Gupta for his Walk the Talk. To him, Shourie described the RSS thus: “Everybody keeps saying ‘Fascist, Fascist’. I think they are too democratic… Forget Advaniji, but in the case of the RSS, I feel they are too patient and too considerate.”

In 2016, Chaturvedi asked him: Do you think the RSS, in its zeal to be in power, has compromised with both Modi and BJP president Amit Shah? Shourie replied, “No, but why do you believe they are separate? Modi and Shah are every day espousing RSS values, these are their values. This is the RSS in power. It is foolish to put it on a pedestal.”

In the 2009 interview to Gupta, Shourie wanted the RSS to purge the BJP, remove its squabbling leaders and nominate state leaders to the Centre. “Bring them [state leaders] to the Centre, but not one at a time,” he said. “The whole group and then clean it up and then say we are beginning again… No voluntary thing. ‘Get out. We are bringing in other people’.” Gupta asked: Should there be immediacy to it? Shourie replied, “Absolutely. And not halaal [slow death] but jhatka [sudden death].”

What are we then to make of Shourie’s sallies against Modi and the RSS today? Is it, as is said, the fury of a man denied the finance ministry berth, that too, after having batted so solidly for Modi in 2014? We cannot know the answer.

But perhaps we should take into consideration the analysis by the venerable Hindi editor Prabhash Joshi of Shourie’s controversial interview to Gupta. “His suggestion to the RSS betrays the quintessential Shourie,” Joshi wrote. “He wants a democratic political party like the BJP to be chained lock, stock and barrel by an organisation that calls itself ‘cultural’ and does not believe in a parliamentary democracy or the Indian Constitution. And he wants this democratic party to be taken over by jhatka [sudden death]. Who would want such a thing?”

Joshi went on to provide the answer himself: “Only an autocratic, dictatorial mind. Arun Shourie is a timeserver and climber who wants to dictate whatever he considers intellectually superior into the democratic polity of this country. Any man who does not believe in democracy and is in politics is a very dangerous animal. Be very afraid of him.”

This is why we must all be wary, even afraid, of Shourie when he attacks Modi next.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid