The one thing a reader can almost always expect from The Economist, an exemplar of journalism, is a sharp, unsentimental argument, whatever the issue. After all, the newspaper (it doesn’t call itself a magazine) was founded “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress.” Unfortunately, its article “Can anyone stop Narendra Modi?” fails to meet those high standards.
And that is not because the venerable publication has refused to endorse Narendra Modi for the country’s top job – it is perfectly reasonable to hold that view. It is because the arguments used to deem Modi unfit and at the same time deem Rahul Gandhi fit, are based on political correctness and sentimentality, sans the necessary rigour.
According to The Economist, Modi is fundamentally a man who fuels “sectarian hatred” and is therefore unsuited to govern a “fissile” country like India. The Gujarat riots of 2002 are presented as the main piece of evidence to support the sectarian argument. Of course, the riots that happened under Modi’s watch are a blot on his record, but did Modi abet them? The Economist doesn’t buy the clean chit of the Supreme Court’s Special Investigation Team (SIT) because it says the evidence was either “lost” or “wilfully destroyed.” Those are serious accusations and The Economist hasn’t presented evidence to back this claim. Its portrayal of the riots as an exercise in revenge for the massacre of 59 Hindu pilgrims (on a train in Godhra) is only half-accurate. Several hundred Hindus, along with several hundred Muslims, died in the rioting that followed. The law and order machinery failed both communities.
It is important to note that at the time of the riots in February 2002, Modi was in office for only six months, in his first stint in an executive office. He was hardly the experienced, decisive and ‘authoritarian’ Modi who had won three elections and who had measure of the extremist elements (like VHP and Bajrang Dal) associated with the BJP. Is it not possible that Modi failed to contain the riots because he simply lacked the administrative competence?
Of course, administrative incompetence would not be a reason to endorse Modi, but it would permit the possibility of the reinvention of the Gujarat Chief Minister. The Economist doesn’t believe he can reinvent himself because it insists he is sectarian. For evidence beyond 2002, it cites Modi’s role in organising marches to Ayodhya in 1990 and linking that with the demolition of the Babri Masjid two years later, and the rioting that followed. It’s a bit extreme to blame Modi for all of that. Perhaps The Economist should instead declare the BJP unfit for office given the role of its leaders in the 1992 demolition, and given its links with the RSS. Why only single out Modi for his alleged Hindu nationalism by arguing that the BJP should look for an alternative candidate for PM when a coalition is stitched up post 16 May?
The Economist’s corollary argument that India is a “fissile” country where Hindu-Muslim discord is just waiting to explode is also a caricature of reality. Gujarat has been peaceful for 12 years after 2002, the longest period of communal peace in that state’s turbulent history. No riots broke out after the despicable events of 26/11. And when riots did break out in Muzaffarnagar last year, they were incited by the “secular” Samajwadi Party, a partner of the Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre. There is little recognition that India has moved on from being the frequently riot-prone country of the four decades after independence (mostly under Congress rule). After liberalisation, people are looking at aspiration, not historical grievance.
Incredibly, the Congress’s own chequered record on communalism, plus corruption and misgovernance of the last decade, are still not reasons enough for The Economist to stop short of endorsing the Congress and its Vice-president Rahul Gandhi to lead India’s next Government. That, according to The Economist, is the less “disturbing” choice for India. As if the only “disturbance” India needs to worry about is what happened in Gujarat in 2002. What of the daily disturbance and misery of the lives of the illiterate and poor who The Economist proudly states will vote alongside millionaires in the world’s largest democratic exercise? For them, the failure of the Congress and UPA to deliver growth and public services and to “steal” money from the public exchequer is a matter of life and death. As is the government’s inability to control inflation. The effects of mis-governance on the poor and deprived are secular – they hit all communities equally.
It is quite shocking that The Economist which is a vanguard against the excesses of the State is endorsing a political party that typifies that excess. It hopes that Rahul Gandhi will reinvent himself and the party, but it denies Modi and the BJP equal opportunity to do so.
It would have saved The Economist a few blushes if it had stopped short of endorsing Rahul Gandhi. It would have made for a more sensible argument to support Naveen Patnaik, or Jayalalitha or even Arvind Kejriwal. A pity then that "timid ignorance" got the better of "intelligence" in the "severe contest." Fortunately, India's "progress"-oriented voters are unlikely to take heed.
Updated Date: Apr 04, 2014 14:10 PM