Dhiraj Nayyar was one of the first Gates Cambridge Scholars and has risen up the journalism ladder rapidly due to his academic credentials and being in the right place at the right time.
Dhiraj Nayyar has just been named runner-up in the international journalism award, the Bastiat Prize.
The award, presented by the Reason Foundation in New York, honours journalism “that best demonstrates the importance of individual liberty and free markets with originality, wit, and eloquence”. Dhiraj was scooped by two journalists, Newsday’s Lane Filler and Ross Clark of The Times and The Spectator – not bad for someone who just a few years ago was doing his PhD at Cambridge.
Dhiraj  was one of the first year of Gates Cambridge Scholars in 2001. Born in Delhi, he studied economics at St Stephen’s College, Delhi University. In his third year he applied to Oxford and Cambridge and was offered a place by both. He went to Merton College, Oxford to do a degree in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, funded by a Chevening Scholarship. During the course, he applied to Trinity College, Cambridge to do his master’s, hoping for another scholarship. It was the first year of the Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme and he had not heard about it until after he had applied for his MPhil.
He says there were positives and negatives to being an early Gates Cambridge Scholar – the negatives were that no-one knew what the Scholarship stood for; on the plus side there was a lot of freedom to set the benchmark for what being a Scholar might mean. And he got to meet Bill Gates. His MPhil in Development Studies focused on economics and politics. In addition to his studies, he set up a small development studies society and was involved in a world music society. He earned a distinction in his MPhil and was given a studentship by Trinity College to do a PhD in Development Studies, investigating the role of the state in Indian industry.
He hasn’t quite finished it as, after several years of studying, he was itching to get involved in policy and do something practical. So he returned to India. While he was doing his PhD he began writing opinion articles on public policy issues for newspapers and magazines in India, England and Singapore. He says it was hard to start with shifting from an academic style to writing 600 words on a subject, but he soon got used to it. “I didn’t want to be a pure academic. I wanted to comment on policy and journalism fit well,” he says.
Being at Cambridge and having an academic background helped him secure a position as a senior assistant editor on the opinions section of India’s Financial Express rather than having to come in at the bottom rung and work his way up. He wrote a regular column and leaders, commissioned articles and edited them.
It was 2008 when he arrived back in India, just as the global financial crisis began. “It was not a good time for the world or for India, but it was a good time to be a journalist,” he says. “I had a bird’s eye view of a major world event.” He has edited a book for Penguin based on the newspaper’s coverage of the crisis. Coming out in 2010, it was the first to look at its impact on India and was read by policymakers, politicians, finance workers and academics among others.
“The impact was so immediate and I got good feedback. If I had stayed in academia I would have been behind by a few years and not be in such a position to influence policymakers,” he says. The book argues that in India, as opposed to the West, the crisis did not mark a failure of the private sector because the financial sector is much more controlled by the government there. Dhiraj suggested that the lessons India should draw from the crisis were not to use it as an excuse to withdraw from the world. “I argued that the crisis was bad and there were several reasons for it, but that India should use this to its advantage and not shut the world out,” he says.
By the time the book came out Dhiraj had been promoted to senior editor of the opinion pages of the Financial Express and it helped to establish his reputation on a broader stage. He figured that if he wanted to progress in journalism he needed to do some reporting rather than sticking to commentaries. India Today, the largest English-language magazine in the country, had a new editor who was looking for young talent and he offered Dhiraj the post of deputy editor. Once again, he came in at an interesting time news-wise. There were several corruption scandals circulating in government and Dhiraj’s expertise in economics and politics was an advantage since it meant he could understand the details of what was going on.
He learned the ropes of reporting, writing analytical news stories and managing the magazine’s coverage of economic and business issues. It was a high-pressure, high profile, long hours job. After two and a half years the editor left and a new editor took the magazine in a different direction. Dhiraj was concerned about the long-term future of magazines and could see that digital was the future. Although he was not looking for a new job, he was headhunted for a job at Network 18, a large tv and digital media group, who wanted him to set up a think tank. “They came to me because of my journalistic and academic background,” he says, “and because I had experience of working in the West where the think tank culture was very different to that in India. Think tanks in India do not tend to be independent of government and the quality of their output is not always high because they do not tend to attract the best talent.”
It was July 2013 and a leap in the dark for Dhiraj, but he was only 35 and still willing to take career risks. So that he didn’t lose contact with journalism he was also given the post of editor at large of Firstpost.com, the company’s online news portal, for which he writes opinion articles.
He has been building the think tank up over the last few months, once again at a momentous time for news given that India’s general elections are coming up next Spring. “It’s a great time to launch a think tank,” he says. “We are drawing up the agenda for the next government and have commissioned various experts to give their views on priority areas.”
He adds: “‘I’ve had three jobs in six years which have allowed me to develop myself in different aspects of media and policy. I’ve been very lucky.”