Two news items in the recent past caught the attention of many. They deserve closer scrutiny since it provides good insights into a thriving business in India. It is indeed representative of a deep and well-entrenched industry that has prospered by profligate peddling of false narratives in India.
The first was observations made by none other than the former Union Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. He led the economic fortunes of the country during his days in the Union Cabinet and arguably presided over an economy that tanked the fastest despite strong fundamentals. That he is in the news for investigations by concerned agencies and related court cases for alleged corruption is beyond the scope of this piece.
The erudite former Minister – Harvard alumni – has opined that the country’s current economic conditions were akin to a vehicle with three punctured tires. He went on to paint a very dismal picture where almost everything about the economy was wrong. If one were to believe him, it would appear that most Indians are rotting in poverty and even unable to sell pakodas to make a living. As a politician in the opposition camp, this was not unexpected.
As expected, this statement was lapped up by the media and reported 24/7. Many pseudo-experts and self-acclaimed economists joined the fray, pontificating on why all these imaginary ills can be attributed to none other than Prime Minister Modi himself. Mercifully, the false narratives did not carry on for more than a few days of print and airtime.
The second item was a glibly written piece that subtly casts doubt on the sustainability of the high growth rate that India is currently witnessing. It again questions PM Modi’s statements where he called for double-digit growth rates in GDP. Eminent economist Dr Subramanian Swamy has also talked about India’s inherent capacity to grow at double digits. With a touch of finesse, the article cites other pundits who are not sanguine about double-digit growth for India. It is certainly reminiscent of the days when socialists lectured us on why India can only grow at a “Hindu rate” of growth of 3.5% or less. The article pompously advises that it would do India better to aim for growth rates of less than 8%.
India has seen too many of these armchair pundits and ministers of bygone eras attempting to water down the unprecedented growth we are witnessing. The fact is that this is not well-intentioned advice or political strategy, but churlish rant emanating from those quarters where the sun has begun to set. It is indeed incumbent on Mr Chidambaram, in particular, to tell the nation the initiatives that he had undertaken to stimulate the economy that provided better results if any. That would garner better Television Rating Points (TRP) than the story of a vehicle with three flat tires.
The point is to not to question anybody’s freedom of expression or the right to have an opinion that is different or even counter-intuitive. On the contrary, such cross winds fertilize the idea pool and the ultimate winner is the country. But this virus strain is different. At a minimum, balanced punditry is a moral duty bound to signal and call out the existence of a thriving industry that peddles false narratives.
Many politicians, together with some sections of the media, have excelled in consummating this art of creating false narratives via obfuscations, distorted and skewed opinions that is ably supported by presenting selective data.
Now let’s look at another set of data that provides a counter or shall we say a neutral narrative. In a recent article published by World Economic Forum (published well before Mr Chidambaram’s statement), a researcher using World Bank data has shown the performance of the Indian economy over the last fifty years. Please refer to the chart.
The author argues that India’s growth rate has been consistent and has accelerated over the long run. The author further projects
“….. GDP growth to be 6.7 percent in 2017-18 and accelerate to 7.3 percent and 7.5 percent respectively in 2018-19 and 2019-20”.
The observation of the author – derived from data presented in the chart – seems tenable. Since the readers themselves can visually verify the data, it irons out any potential for mischievous interpretation that may ensue when data over a shorter window is observed.
This chart belies both the news items referred to above. The Indian economic vehicle does not have three flat tires, as alleged by Chidambaram. On the contrary, it seems to be kicking and doing very well, despite pessimistic projections. Secondly, if we look at the performance over the last fifty years, a high trajectory i.e. double digit GDP growth may well be within India’s reach.
That leads us to the well-known truism that most Indians are aware of. In the worst days of socialism that beggared India, many exasperated but wise Indians would remark that no government rules India, for India governs itself. For them, India was on auto pilot on “Ram Bharosa”, meaning India was governing itself on the will of Lord Ram. The chart referred to earlier just seems to reinforce this dictum on India’s potential, well known only to ordinary Indians, and apparently not to some Harvard educated elites. In short, India’s growth is unstoppable, albeit it can be slowed down by the likes of Chidambaram in the short to medium term.
But that should make reasonable Indians stop on their tracks and ponder. Fashionable opinionistas in India and their allies elsewhere, as is their wont, have repeatedly lamented that India has missed the bus. But has it really? Today, when data is democratized and can be accessed by anyone in a matter of few clicks, it is indeed easy to review and draw their own conclusions.
But India has always been a paradise for peddling false narratives – be it economic growth, religious freedom, Aryan invasion theory or even the latest fad – intolerance. Some wisecrack puts out a skewed misinterpretation or blatant falsehood and this gets lapped up by the media like hungry wolves and then repeated ad nauseam. Finally, this becomes the established narrative – completely obliterating the underlying facts.
That has been the established and well tested strategy of the narrative peddlers who sell their views for a price, for a motive, in full disregard for India. And many of them happen to be politicians and opinion makers who presume they preside over the economic future of India.
The necessary and sufficient condition for the false narrative industry to thrive is a grossly ill-informed society. They had a free run for so many decades, but not anymore. Digital India has bought internet to every home and now information is free and the biased are being called out. This is the new ground reality politicians in India have to contend with. False narratives, be it from the government, the opposition political parties or for that matter from any quarter, will now be easily spotted and called out.