Are we being unfair to Dhume? Or Dhume to me?

July 26, 2017

Let’s talk about who said what when, and priority dates, then

Rajeev Srinivasan

As a columnist in the Indian media for over twenty years, I have had several of my ideas copied without attribution by others, and I have always looked at this with mild amusement. If you put things out there in the public domain, there is always the chance that this will happen, and it may not even be such a bad thing. This is how ideas propagate, and all of us stand on the shoulders of others whose works we have read and unconsciously internalized.

Thus I was not particularly surprised by a column on by Sadanand Dhume, titled “India’s Incredibly Shrunken Presidency” . Several points made by Dhume I agreed with, and the structure of the piece appealed. It bemoaned the fact that non-politicians had very few chances to become President of India, and named a few professionals who would be, in a fairer world, serious candidates for the post. It then expressed regret that few Presidents nowadays were of the calibre of some of the stalwarts of the past, naming some of the worst examples. I read this piece and left it at that.

However, someone who was struck by some similarities with a piece I had written a month earlier, “E Sreedharan for President” on put together a brief comparison chart that showed several similarities between my piece and Dhume’s piece. The BJP’s Amit Malviya tweeted about the similiarities, and here is his tweet: The screenshot doesn’t capture the entire image.


That got me curious about these similarities, so I read both pieces carefully. There were differences: I wrote in general terms in June, requesting that the BJP nominate a non-politician. Dhume wrote in July, after the election, suggesting that a specific individual, Shri Ram Nath Kovind, the new President, was unworthy.

But overall, I was struck by the fact that the structures of the two pieces were almost identical: general concern about the role of the presidency, desire for non-politicians, etc. There were five or six clear similarities between the two. And I found a couple of others: both had mentioned the bathtub cartoon lampooning Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed, and while I dreaded some ‘dreary political apparatchik’ being chosen, Dhume called Kovind a ‘humdrum politician’. All this was interesting, but nothing of great substance.

However, this morning, I was directed to a piece by Dhume, “How the BJP’s Smear Machine Works: A Personal Story” . Apparently, Dhume feels there’s a conspiracy against him, and in passing, that I am guilty by association. I think he’s wrong on both counts. He wrote a point-by-point response which I feel compelled to respond to.

In addition to some general comments, Dhume suggests that there is a “a clear difference in our prose styles”. I am not quite sure about this, because looking at it casually, we both write passable prose, that’s about all.

Dhume makes a point of going through each of the six suggested similarities in the chart, and asserts that he could have arrived at them on his own, and he quotes his own earlier writings in July 2015 and in 2012.

But where my mild amusement turns to mild annoyance is when Dhume, choosing his words carefully, says the following:

“I’m not using these examples to claim that Srinivasan, or anyone else, lifted the idea of writing about the merits of India elevating a non-politician from my 2015 column”….

“Once again, I’m not accusing Srinivasan of plagiarism because he happened to make a similar observation to the one that I made in a column two years ago, or in a widely shared tweet six months ago…”

“Ironically, if I used exactly the same examples as in the graphic I could accuse Srinivasan of plagiarizing my earlier work”…

Graciously, he continues, “Of course, this is preposterous. I have no reason to believe that Srinivasan did not come to his views about the decline of the Indian presidency independently”.

Nice wording, reminds me of (in a small way) “I came to bury Ceasar, not to praise him”. Damning with faint praise, I believe they call it.

So it appears to be a claim about primogeniture, so to speak. Unfortunately for Dhume, I can point to another of my columns from ten years ago, which I had referred to at the start of “E Sreedharan for President”: from July 2007, “A Whiff of a Manchurian Candidate”. Almost every one of the points Dhume elaborates on was elucidated there. So Dhume stands little chance of accusing me of plagiarizing from him because this was written ten years ago, much before his own work that he quotes.

Here are the points Dhume made in response to the chart:

  1. Mostly mediocre politicians. I said in 2007: “The ceremonial leader of the country, which the President is, should really not be a politician… What India needs are leaders, intellectuals and others who can inspire the citizenry to dream and to aspire to greatness.”
  2. Jagdish Bhagwati and other potential candidates. Here are my suggestions from 2007, apart from O V Vijayan and E Sreedharan: “N R Narayana Murthy or Ratan Tata or Lakshmi Mittal or Azim Premji… K P S Gill,… Jagdish Bhagwati,… C K Prahalad,… Arundhati Ghose,… Fathima Beevi,… Vandana Shiva”. Yes, there are/were many deserving candidates. Ratan Tata is also one of Dhume’s suggestions, along with Rahul Dravid (I would never suggest a cricket player). By the way, I think Jagdish Bhagwati may be a US citizen, in which case he’s not eligible for the post and both of us would be wrong.
  3. The presidential palace. No, I didn’t say anything about this in 2007, and yes, 300 acres or 340 rooms just suggests the place is huge, a place of unimaginable privilege
  4. Excellence of past Presidents. I said in 2007: “So far as I can tell, none of the politicians who held the position particularly distinguished himself.” The point is obvious, and whatever phrases we used, both Dhume and I basically said that.
  5. Kalam and Radhakrishnan as good Presidents. I said in 2007: “Kalam, on the other hand, certainly stood out. This is quite possibly because he was a working engineer, not a politician… Perhaps the scholar Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan was a good President, for he was a towering intellect”.
  6. Dynasty loyalists. I said in 2007: “The problem is that ….the Congress – which cannot think beyond the interests of the Nehru Dynasty… are not particularly thrilled at the prospect of an activist President. They would much rather have someone who will do what they are told. This may well be a reason for choosing Prathibha Patil…”

It’s rather clear that the prior art argument doesn’t work very well, because almost all the points made were covered by me either in 2007 or 2017 before Dhume’s 2017 piece. And the laws about copyright and ‘fair use’ are such that it is acceptable for someone to use another’s ideas for limited research and educational purposes.

Therefore let me grant that I have no reason to believe that Dhume is not capable of arriving at all these ideas by himself, which seems to be crux of his argument. Hey, I can do “damning with faint praise” with the best of ‘em.

But there is also the dictum that “plagiarism is stealing from one person; research is stealing from many people”. In these days of efficient Google searches, and crowdsourcing on Twitter, it is astonishing how much one can dig up through due diligence, and one may unconsciously internalize what one read somewhere.

As a non-professional journalist, I have had the luxury of having consistent opinions over time, and I have suffered for it. For the longest time, I was a complete outlier. Then I was kicked off one newspaper not for what I wrote, but because the opinion editor didn’t like my political perspective. I stopped writing for another because the sub editor, who disagreed with my perspective, made it clear through unreasonable demands that he didn’t want me there. So I’m not about to change now. But there has long been a Leftie stranglehold on opinion, which basically prevents any dissent; and that extends to their online acolytes on Twitter and Facebook. They have been masters of ‘manufacturing consent’.

Therefore if Dhume feels that there is a Hindutva Troll Army [sic] after him, I sympathize. Personally, I don’t know anything about this, and they are all big boys and can take care of themselves.Screenshot 2017-07-26 at 1.12.27 PM


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