Why did the Economist bark?


The Economist is an impeccably written newspaper with a distinct right of center slant and a preference for global solutions for reforming economic fundamentals in trade, climate change, democracy, private investment and markets. It advocates efficiency before equity. It believes correctly that in a resource constrained world, a concern for equity, as bleeding hearts socialists wear on their sleeves, without the fundamentals of economic efficiency in place, is nothing but lip sympathy and is not sustainable. In short a government without resources cannot alleviate poverty. This is also Modi speak.

Usually, it does not peddle political agendas, beyond those related to the global fundamentals mentioned above. This week it departed from that sensible policy by recommending to Indians that they should not vote for Modi and that a government headed by Rahul would be better for India. (www.economist.com. Can anyone stop Narendra Modi? April 5, 2014)

The Economist prefers Rahul to Modi purely because of the single incidence of Godhra in 2002, and because Modi is a product of the Rashtriya Swyamsevak Sangh-RSS, which supports Hindutva, a concept perceived, rightly or wrongly, by Muslims to be proactively anti-Islam.

For a paper, celebrated for rational analysis, it is puzzling that the article does not explore why there were no further riots against Muslims in Gujarat after Godhra (2003 to 2014) whilst Modi was the Chief Minister and the consequences thereof. Two obvious conjectures which present themselves to explain why there were no repeat riots are explored here.

First, once Modi became the Chief Minister, it was no longer in his interest to ferment communal trouble or support it in Gujarat. If this indeed is the case, and if Modi has the controls which can conjure up and extinguish communal violence at will, then surely he would become even more empowered as Prime Minister. Gujarat has only around 4% of the national population of Indian Muslims. If protecting Muslims was important for Modi in Gujarat, it becomes even more important pan-India. Why then would be change once he becomes PM? Modi as PM would be good for Muslims and in fact bad for virulently anti-Muslim, Hindu fundamentalists. Surely this is the best reason why all Muslims and all secular Indians must vote for Modi, not reject him.

Second, an alternative conjecture could be that once Modi became the Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 he unleashed a wave of terror which either forced Muslims to migrate or frightened the Muslims into submission so completely, that they became second class citizens in their own homes. Being reduced to slaves, they were no longer a social or economic threat to Hindus.

This conjecture is not supported by data, which suggests that high, consistent growth in Gujarat has made the Muslims prosper more in Gujarat than in any other state in India during this period. This conjecture also does not gel with the safeguards against genocide in India’s institutional framework. Multi-party political architecture; the fact that there are a number of Muslim political parties; the option for any citizen to seek direct redress from the Supreme Court through a Public Interest Litigation; the fact that the Congress has remained in power in the Central Government since 2004 with all the premier national criminal investigation agencies available to it and finally, India’s free and vibrant press and media all militate against a possible secret, ruthless suppression of Muslims, by Modi in Gujarat, over twelve long years since 2003.

More importantly, the 2001 census recorded 4.6 million Muslims in Gujarat. Their population grew to 5.4 million by 2011. Migration across states is a common phenomenon for work; to flee a threat to life or property or to escape from rigid social norms dictated by caste or religion. The conjecture of an anti- Muslim wave of suppression is not supported by the steady increase in Muslim population in Gujarat.

If neither explanation leads us logically to support the recommendation to reject Modi, one is forced to conclude that the Economist has relied solely on its “gut” feel against Modi.

Interestingly it does not voice similar “gut” preferences in the UK Parliamentary elections (its home) about PM candidates. Nor does it do so in the case of the US or Germany. It tends to recommend political agendas only in the case of the poorer, post-colonial countries or those, like China, which march to a different drum beat than liberal democracy. Its veto against a particular PM candidate is unprecedented.

One does not know what drove the Economist to favour Indians with its recommendation on who they should vote for. But if their intention was to help Rahul to form a government, they just shot the Congress in the foot.

The Congress chief Sonia, who is more truly Indian than the staff of the Economist, knows that Indians (as I believe would any other nation) do not like to be preached at by those who do not share their context. The Economist does not function out of India. If it did and if its owners were Indians, with stakes in India, it would possibly have a more nuanced view on the merits and demerits of various political parties and candidates in the forthcoming electoral contest.

The purpose of this blog is not to argue for or against the recommendation of the Economist. After all, India may not have the best roads or 24X7 electricity (except in Gujarat) or clean water supply but we do have the freedom to express our views publicly, including in Gujarat.

The purpose of this blog is to mourn the fall from grace of the Economist for three reasons.

First, the blatant disregard for facts and logical thinking is not in keeping with its own traditions of rigorous analysis based on facts. If one wants to be prescriptive, even greater care needs to be taken to lead the reader through the analysis which informs the conclusion. In this edition, the Economist has failed miserably against this single measure of responsible journalism.

Second, by completely ignoring the possibility that any other political coalition, other than the BJP or the Congress, could form a government, the Economist has failed to read the tea leaves correctly. BJP and its allies may not get the absolute majority to form a government. Congress may end up getting no more than 50 to 60 seats, or just 13% of the seats in the Lok Sabha. In this event it may not want to form the government. It may prefer to support a regional party, like that headed by Amma or Didi or another consensual leader. It would prefer this to avoid the additional opprobrium of continued poor governance, which is the most likely outcome of a coalition government. It would keep its powder dry for a re-election, within two years, once it has regrouped and Rahul is more firmly in charge of the party.

Third, the Economist has fallen into the trap of equating the Indian electoral system with the Presidential form of government in the US. By hectoring readers to reject Modi, it wrongly projects the election as a Presidential fight between Modi and Rahul. However, it does retrieve its high reputation subsequently by arguing that should the BJP win (despite its recommendation), it must not choose Modi as the PM. This indeed is unprecedented. It is either, imperious, journalistic, vigilantism at its most inefficient and immoral worst or is the result of disagreement, within the Economist staff, leading to a committee writing the article.

Economists, like Sherlock Holmes, look closely every time a dog fails to bark. They should give similar attention when a dog barks, seemingly without reason. Is the Economist both helping the BJP to win by predicting its victory whilst making Modi lose by raising the bogey of Hindutva? If so why and at whose behest?

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