By Swapan Dasgupta
For reasons that seem quite inexplicable, a section of the media has suddenly turned pious over the “weak” versus “strong” debate involving Manmohan Singh and L.K. Advani. It is being suggested that the exchanges are tantamount to “mudslinging”.
The assertion is quite incredible. As Outlook editor Vinod Mehta has repeatedly pointed out in his TV interventions, the exchanges are tame and are nowhere marked by the verbal viciousness which characterise, say, politics in Britain. The fact is that the Congress has wilfully chosen to over-react to the BJP slogan of “majboot neta” by painting the Prime Minister as a hapless victim of a personal attack. The party has cleverly chosen to tap the reservoir of goodwill for Manmohan as a decent man who has been caught up in the murkiness of politics. In making the Prime Minister’s anguish an important talking point, it has sought to divert attention away from some of the main issues of the campaign.
It is only after the results are known on May 16 that analysts will be in a position to judge the efficacy of the Congress strategy. People vote in elections on the strength of different impulses but there is always a retrospective rationale attached to their vote. If the Congress comes out well, Manmohan’s combative press conferences will be pronounced a “masterstroke”; if the BJP does better, it will be praised for luring the Congress into battling on its own agenda.
Last week, in one of her campaign speeches, Sonia Gandhi argued that the election was an “ideological battle” between the Congress and BJP. The point has been driven home in some of the Amar-Akbar-Antony type advertisements issued by the Congress. The implication of such messages and the surrogate advertisement involving the “hand” of film stars is that the BJP will destroy the syncretic soul of India.
Like the astonishing assertion that Manmohan is cast in the saintly mould and comparable to Mahatma Gandhi, the so-called ideological battle has a clear cut purpose. It is an out-and-out diversionary ploy aimed at ensuring that bread-and-butter issues don’t dominate the campaign. It is paradoxical that rather than painting him as a wizard economist who can turn India into a subcontinental paradise in a world of economic uncertainty, the Congress would rather project the Prime Minister as a quiet, but steely politician. In short, the Congress wants to repackage Manmohan as a politician rather than a mere technocrat. This is precisely why they have chosen to keep the UPA’s five year record in the background. It would rather debate a nine-year-old hijack (which, surprisingly, didn’t feature in the 2004 campaign) than the present state of the economy. The reasons are self-evident.
Last Friday, Oxford Economics, an international consultancy, projected that India’s GDP growth for 2009 would be around 3.4 per cent—a far from the “little less than 7 per cent” the Prime Minister claimed in Mumbai on April 13. The figure is lowered than the 4 per cent growth projected by the World Bank and the 4.3 per cent estimated by the OECD.
In a similar vein, while the likes of Manmohan and P. Chidambaram have been confidently asserting that the “fundamentals” of the Indian economy are strong and relatively insulated from global pressures, the chief economic adviser to the Finance Ministry Arvind Virmani confessed on April 11 in Bangalore that it was “absolutely essential to counter the worst recession in 60 years.”
The most immediate impact of this has been on the employment front. Each day brings horror stories of mass dismissals from companies which have hitherto been held up as India’s pride. Infosys shed 2,100 jobs in April in pursuance of what it somewhat heartlessly called a “zero tolerance” of inefficiency. Jet Airways, whose sacking of 1,000 staff last October prompted national indignation, will close down its ticketing offices. Some top companies have imposed a 15 to 20 per cent pay cut across the board. These pieces of high-profile bad news have been buried in the inside pages of newspapers and mentioned in passing by the electronic media. Together they have received less attention than Priyanka Gandhi’s observations of brother Rahul’s real post-poll alignments.
There is no point going on about the media’s lapses. The media isn’t fighting elections; it is battling for eyeballs. The fault lies with the political class. True, the BJP has issued print and radio advertisements on the growing loss of hope but this has not been accompanied by a relentless assault on the Congress for mismanaging the economy to the extent that some 1.5 crore jobs have been shed in the past eight months or so. Advani is not naturally at ease with economic issues but you don’t need to have dined at the High Table of Nuffield College, Oxford, to put a political spin on economic mismanagement.
The Prime Minister’s knowledge of economics is not a matter of any dispute. What is in doubt is his sense of compassion. Throughout the crisis—over which he remains in denial—he has not thought it fit to utter even lip sympathy for those whose Incredible India crashed amid high interest rates, deflation with soaring food prices, an unacceptably high fiscal deficit and wasteful expenditure. He has not thought it fit to even appoint a Finance Minister for five months.
The real charge against Manmohan and the owners of his party is not that they are weak but that they are callous and heartless. In this climate of fear, the Congress has issued a new advertisement which proclaims Josh. It is the nearest Indian equivalent to Marie Antoinette suggesting they have cake.
Wars, it is said, are too important to be left to generals. The economy is far too strategic to be left to an economist.