Foreign publications often learn the hard way not to position themselves in international political struggles, especially when they are short of facts and figures, and when the publication itself is exemplary in the sphere of sharp, unsentimental and impartial journalism. We are referring to The Economist, which stands, in its own words, “to take part in a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”. Its recent article on Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi has come under severe criticism, most importantly in the matter of meeting the standards it has set itself.
The article titled ‘Can anyone stop Narendra Modi?’ declares the publication’s stand on him; they refuse to “endorse Modi for the top job”. However, it is not for its opinion that the venerable publication has received flak. A close reading reveals that Modi has been deemed unfit in the same vein that Congress’ vice-president Rahul Gandhi has been deemed fit; without correct facts or figures.
According to The Economist, about Modi “there is much to admire. Despite that, this newspaper cannot bring itself to back Mr Modi for India’s highest office”. It goes on to speak of the 2002 Gujarat riots, and goes back to history and Modi’s role in “organiz(ing) a march on the holy site at Ayodhya in 1990 which, two years later, led to the deaths of 2,000 in Hindu-Muslim clashes. A lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu nationalist group in whose cause he has vowed lifelong celibacy, he made speeches early in his career that shamelessly whipped up Hindus against Muslims. In 2002, Mr Modi was Chief Minister and he was accused of allowing or even abetting the pogrom”.
It negates the Supreme Court order which gave Modi a clean chit, claiming the evidence was either “lost” or “willfully destroyed”. Those are serious accusations without evidence to back this claim. Among other reasons, it cited that “unlike other BJP leaders, Mr Modi has refused to wear a Muslim skullcap and failed to condemn riots in Uttar Pradesh in 2013, when most of the victims were Muslim”.
It describes Modi as “sectarian”, claiming further that India is a “fissile” country, where Hindu-Muslim discord is just waiting to explode. It then recommends “to the Indians” the prospect of a “government led by Congress under Mr Gandhi as a less disturbing option”. It ignores the fact that communal violence in independent India raged under the Congress rule. It also shuts eyes to the Congress’s own chequered record on corruption and misgovernance of the last decade, and they do not become reasons enough for The Economist to stop short of endorsing the Congress and Rahul Gandhi to lead India’s next government.
What stands out starkly is the declaration that “Modi is most likely to be India’s next prime minister”. One wonders on what basis the publication anointed Modi or anyone moments before the country sets out to vote. Ironically, in a 2012 article The Economist slammed the Congress-led UPA government for plunging the country into various woes. In an article titled “Farewell to Incredible India”, it described Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as being “in office but not in power”, and blamed the government for the state machinery not being “modernized”.
It accused Congress of failing to take risks, leading to India’s growth rate coming down to 5.3%. It then said the obvious, but with facts and figures – “Mr Singh has plainly run out of steam, but there are no appealing candidates to replace him. Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi’s son, Rahul, has been a disappointment.” It endorsed vote for change, stating, “as Indians discover that slower growth means fewer jobs and more poverty, they will become angry. Perhaps that might be no bad thing, if it makes them vote for change”.
No wonder the article kicked up a war of words and kept the social media abuzz. “What a letdown. The Economist lacks objectivity and is patronizing,” tweeted BJP leader Nirmala Sitharaman. Other BJP leaders called it “unaware of ground realities”.
Ironically, the BJP had hailed The Economist’s earlier article on the dwindling Indian economy and the Congress’ misgovernance. Whatever the stance of political parties, it is evident that the article has given rise to conspiracy theories and allegations of paid media. The Economist’s own readers have torn the article to shreds, accusing it of promoting Congress in pursuit of the West’s neo-liberal interests.
It has been called “disgusting”, “an insult of the Indian electorates”, “indignating” and “illogical”; and some called it the West’s contempt for Hinduism, while others termed Modi-bashing as Modi propaganda. Few even decided to cancel their subscription. One reader termed the article “an attempt of a fifth grader – lots of opinions, no facts”.
This does not mean the country forgets the riots. It still owes justice to the victims and survivors of the pogrom. This holds true even for the victims and survivors of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, who are fighting endlessly for 30 years.
The Economist surely could not hope to have made an impact on the Indian elections with such an editorial. One can imagine what impact an Indian publication would have made, for example, on Russia’s stance on Crimea or Obama’s election in the United States or the United Kingdom’s standpoint on the monarchy. The foreign media frenzy over the upcoming polls is understandable. What needs to be questioned is whether a publication can “recommend” to the electorate “the lesser evil”? The Economist has embarrassed itself. And it has only its own self to blame.