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Just name-calling

Author: Surjit S Bhalla
Publication: The Indian Express
Date: April 26, 2014
URL: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/just-name-calling/99/

Introduction: Next time intellectuals complain about Gujarat, can they provide some evidence?

The intellectual letter season is in full bloom. It must be because along with spring, fascism is around the corner. No matter which left turn you take — JNU, The Hindu, Oxbridge, The Guardian, and even the nominally not left-wing The Economist —  you have intellectuals dreading the future — Narendra Modi as authoritarian, as dictator, as the great divider, as apocalypse personified. And just two days ago, we had no less an authority on learning and intellectuals than Father Frazer Mascarenhas, principal of one of the most prestigious colleges in India, St Xavier’s in Mumbai, pontificating to his students. In a letter leaked to the nation, Mascarenhas pleaded and cajoled his students to “choose well”, to make a choice which “will see India prosper or flounder on the precipice”.

Each and every missive recently sent out by the intellectuals (at least six in the public domain and countless others in equally misleading conversations) contains mandatory and aggressive references to the 2002 Godhra riots. Such condemnation is very desirable in a democracy like ours because such events should never happen in a civilised country, and never again. The prestigious Salman Rushdie, Anish Kapoor et al letter to The Guardian reminds us that “it is crucial to remember the role played by the Modi government in the horrifying events that took place in Gujarat in 2002”. However, not one intellectual letter contains any reference to the larger-scale riot, actually worse, pogrom, that took place in 1984 in Delhi, when members of only one community, the Sikhs, were the “victims of pillage, murder and terror”. For those keeping count, over 8,000 Sikhs were killed nationwide in 1984 and over 3,000 in the capital alone.

Two wrongs do not make a right, but isn’t it a terrible wrong for the intellectual to not even mention, let alone acknowledge, that a major wrong took place in their (the Congress’s) secular India in 1984? They know full well that the Gujarat rioters took many cues and directions from the Delhi pogrom murderers —  they got their strategy of pinpointing victims (from the addresses on electoral rolls) and their belief that they would not be punished for their crimes because nobody had been punished for the 1984 riots. Indeed, the accused political leaders involved in the 1984 riots had been given cabinet posts in subsequent Congress administrations. If these intellectuals had acted post the 1984 riots with even a quarter of the dedication they are mustering now, maybe, just maybe, Godhra 2002 would not have happened. And yes, how many of the oh-so-secular-intellectuals have noted that before the blood of 8,000 Sikhs had even dried, the oh-so-secular Congress party called for national elections, within two weeks of the pogrom? And capitalised on the Sikh killing fields by winning 415 of the 543 seats in the Lok Sabha.

Not mentioning the 1984 riots is a grotesque error of omission. But there are many errors of commission in the letters from the intellectuals. The major errors of commission involve communicating (whether to impressionable students at Xavier’s or to fellow travellers) that there is something not just wrong, but spectacularly wrong, with the so-called Gujarat model of development.

This intellectual opposition to Gujarat’s Modi is garbed in terms of negatives. For example, the model is not secular, favours the rich (Adani and Ambani) at the expense of the poor (tribals and Muslims). It is not an inclusive model of development —  inequality has increased, the environment has deteriorated, water is not there, electricity connections are there but electrons are not available, etc.

No intellectual points for the miraculous agricultural growth in Gujarat under Modi, a growth that primarily benefits the poor (and so is inclusive, equality inducing etc). The intellectual is on safer ground when it comes to aspects of life other than income, because no one can counter their bluff, counter their ideology or prove them wrong. For example, sociologist Shiv Visvanathan (again in a letter) eloquently cites Amartya Sen and the worthiness of the Human Development Index and openly challenges Modi to “read the report and tell us where Gujarat really stands”. No evidence is provided because once one mentions Nobel laureate Sen, no evidence is needed (for the intellectual). And in echoes of Arundhati Roy and Father Mascarenhas (do left intellectuals move in packs?), Visvanathan says, “Gujarat is home to some of the great tribal, nomadic populations and some of [the] great craft societies. What will happen to them when development occurs?”

A sine qua non feature of self-proclaimed anti-Modi intellectuals (is there any other kind?) is never to cite any empirical evidence in their accusations. Since both Mascarenhas and Visvanathan go out of their way to cite the sorry, and worsening, state of tribals in Gujarat, it should be at least intellectually worthwhile to examine some interrelated questions about Modi and the welfare of Scheduled Tribes (STs) in Gujarat. In the pursuit of intellectual excellence, let me assert that it is nobody’s case, not even the intellectuals’, that Modi should have made the tribals the richest citizens of Gujarat. The yardstick is simple and straightforward — improvement in the standard of living of tribals in Gujarat should at least be equal to tribals elsewhere in India. If there has been less improvement than the average then one can begin to question the worthiness of the Gujarat model; if greater than average improvement, then perhaps there is something to be said about the Gujarat model.

Data on poverty levels, and reduction in poverty levels, for all states with an ST population above 10 per cent, and all India, are reported for the years 1983, 1993-94, 1999-00 and 2011-12. Woman does not exist by bread alone, and it is not my contention that only income levels matter. However, especially for the poor, decline in absolute poverty should be the number one policy concern. In this regard, Modi’s Gujarat is a stellar performer, or in plain English, has done the most (along with Assam) for the tribal population. Madhya Pradesh and Orissa are some distance behind, and Rajasthan, of Sonia Gandhi’s Congress-dole-economics fame, and the darling of the intellectuals, performs the worst. The rate of poverty decline in Rajasthan, in the Modi years, 1999-00 (NSS) to 2012, is less than half of the average pace of decline in India, minus 0.7 per cent per annum.

The ST population in Gujarat has witnessed a 29 percentage point (ppt) decline in poverty since 1999-00 compared to an all-India decline of 22 ppt. And this is the largest decline in the country, that is, the tribals, notwithstanding Mascarenhas or Visvanathan, have done the “best” under Modi. My plea to all, laypersons and intellectuals, is to look at both qualitative and quantitative conclusions before pontificating or lecturing, or just plain evaluating policies and outcomes. Of course, if we look at only qualitative evidence, then the intellectuals have an unfair advantage, an advantage derived from insider trading. And that is grossly unfair, no?

- The writer is chairman of Oxus Investments, an emerging market advisory firm, and a senior advisor to Zyfin, a leading financial information company
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