In the week that Narendra Modi is travelling to the US, The Economist has carried a negative cover story which will not please India’s prime minister. The weekly magazine’s view is important because it is a conservative, business-friendly publication seen by world leaders as being authoritative on the subject of the economy. It is also seen as not being quick to judgment and that makes its view on Modi particularly damaging.
I think the cover was a little unfair and too tough on Modi and on India, but perhaps mine is the view of someone who comes from a culture where symbolism is important. The cover features Modi riding a tiger made of paper and is headlined “Modi’s India: The illusion of reform”. The accusations in it are many.
The most devastating is that the magazine is convinced Modi does not have the capacity to be a reformer. The magazine feels the record shows that Modi is “not so good at working systematically to sort out the underlying problems holding the economy back.” Instead “his reputation as a friend to business rests on his vigorous efforts to help firms out of fixes — finding land for a particular factory, say, or expediting the construction of a power station.”
As evidence, it says that the ideas that he is currently working with in the fourth year of his administration, such as the Goods and Services Tax, are mostly the product of previous administrations and not his own. The magazine concedes that Modi is energetic, but occupied by “launching glitzy initiatives on everything from manufacturing to toilet construction.” He is bold but directionless.
Demonetisation was “brave” but not “sound policy” and “a lack of planning and unclear objectives mean the exercise has damaged the economy”. The magazine fears “more erratic decision-making as the government aims to prove it is ‘doing something’.”
The lack of concentrated focus and strategy has meant that India’s economy is currently growing at a slower pace than it was three years ago. The advantages India has of low oil prices and a young population are being lost as “Modi, in short, is squandering a golden opportunity.”
Going over the record, there are not many linings of silver in the dark cloud. The Economist has decided it has found an answer to the question of whether Modi was “a Hindu zealot disguised as an economic reformer, or the other way around”. It believes that he is “more a chauvinist than an economist”. As evidence it writes that the government has “created havoc in the booming beef-export business”.
The language used after this is particularly strong and will upset many in government and its supporters. “Under Modi,” The Economist writes “debate about public policy, and especially communal relations, has atrophied. Hindu nationalist thugs intimidate those who chide the government for straying from India’s secular tradition, or who advocate a less repressive approach to protests in Kashmir”.
This has happened in an atmosphere where Modi “himself has become the object of a sycophantic personality cult”. There are other judgments on intolerance that readers who have followed the recent controversies will not find surprising.
The magazine’s report will delight those who oppose Modi and this government, and they will see their views vindicated by a neutral and informed observer. However, The Economist’s judgment should concern all Indians, whether or not they support Modi. If it is true that we are in moment in time when the few economic advantages we hold are being lost, our focus must be on that rather than on finger-pointing.
And it would be helpful if the government were to acknowledge its shortcomings, if not its failures, on some of these issues.
Unfortunately, I do not see that happening as we enter the last two years of Modi’s first term in office.
Published in The Express Tribune, June 26th, 2017.