In the summer of 2014, the influential British weekly The Economist — also read by a section of India’s decision-makers — created a minor flutter by endorsing the Congress. Actually, more than being enthusiastic about the UPA-II that had completed an uninspiring five years, the magazine was outrightly disapproving of the challenger, Narendra Modi. Its argument was less focused on the future of Indian capitalism under Modi but principally centred on the BJP’s alleged programme of social divisiveness.
In any case, The Economist’s advice to Indian voters was greeted with indulgent smirks and attributed to the ignorance of distance. At the same time, there was some unease in India at the sheer presumption of a British publication advising Indians on voting preferences.
Last week, The Economist did it again. Once again it called for a vote for Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. It approved the idea of India undergoing a spell of coalition uncertainty because it was preferable to the supposed anti-democratic tendencies of the Modi Government. Of course, this time the charge of trying to influence voting behaviour was less marked because more than half of India had already voted. More to the point, the publication’s main target audience in Bengaluru and Mumbai had already voted — or, given the abysmal turnout, not voted.
This week, however, the outrage over The Economist editorial has been more marked. Part of this is because the publication is a repeat offender. The convention in India is that the media, while entirely free to parade their political and ideological bias, stop short of actually telling people how to vote. Maybe this is hypocritical and it would be more honest if, like publications in the United States and, increasingly, the UK, openly endorse parties or leaders. However, for good or bad this is the convention. It would also be helpful if global publications — The Economist no longer thinks of itself as merely a British publication but a magazine that is published from London —stop extending the spirit of globalisation to other countries. In some quarters, national sovereignty is an outdated concept — which is why Brexit is so utterly despised by them — but here in India, cutting across the political divide, it is cherished. The Congress may have been flattered that its leader has secured an influential international endorsement. At the same time, the more sober in that party must have recognised the ominous implications of the gratuitous advice from editorial writers in London.
In the days to come, The Economist editorial will become what we in India call ‘timepass’. It is unlikely to influence the verdict in even a single constituency. At best it will encourage a few political upstarts in the Congress to claim credit for this searing indictment of Modi.
However, there is a larger issue at stake here. A few weeks ago, the head of the Overseas Congress questioned the veracity of the air strikes in Balakot. When quizzed, Sam Pitroda said that his doubts arose from reading about the issue in the New York Times, a publication he had faithfully read for the past 50 years. In Kolkata, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee raised similar doubts and even questioned the wisdom the anti-satellite systems India has developed. She too said she had based her opinion on foreign publications.
Neither Pitroda nor Mamata were being disingenuous. Those accustomed to reading the mainstream publications in the English-speaking countries of the West will have noticed the strong disapproval of the Modi Government. This does not stop at their outrage over beef lynchings and the supposed marginalisation of India’s Muslims. The hatred of Modi has gone so far that it stretches to a denial of the economic progress made in the past five years. The Western pundits have traditionally carped against corruption but when the Government has acted to curb cronyism and corruption, it has chosen to focus on the collateral tremors. There is a single message: Modi can do nothing right.
This unending negativity may, on the surface, have not had the desired results. Over the past five years, Foreign Direct Investment has increased substantially and the progressing of the Ease of Doing Business has been recognised. Likewise, India’s sovereign ratings have not witnessed any slide. Corporations interested in finding non-Western locations for capital investment don’t seem to have been influenced by this negativity, not least because they have alternative sources of information. These assessments are based on realism, not liberal ideology. Yet, for every $10 invested in India there is probably another $2 that failed to find its way because smaller companies may have felt that India lacks a wholesome social environment.
Most of the assessments by Western publications are based on their pre-existing familiarity with India’s liberal ecosystem. The same people who sign the petitions against Modi and wail over the supposed erosion of Indian democracy are the ones who influence the foreign journalists and their editorial masters. Compared to their overriding influence in Western intellectual circles, the Modi Government hasn’t been able as yet to create a nationalist counter-establishment that has influence in such circles. The Government has been tremendously successful in influencing Governments and even the strategic establishments all over the globe, but it has met with unbudging hostility in media and academia. This is a lacunae that has to be attended by Modi if he secures a renewed mandate on May 23.
What is needed by the next Government is a focused outreach aimed at sensitising civil society — beyond the diaspora — to the excitement of crafting a New India. The strategic worth of such a project should not be underestimated.