A forty-five point fall in India’s ranking in the Global Hunger Index, roughly since Narendra Modi came to power, has been the talking point over the weekend, the laughing point actually, given how Rahul Gandhi used this to pour scorn over the government’s performance. One newspaper, gleefully (?) pointed out that, at the 100th rank in 2017, India was worse than even North Korea and Bangladesh. Other rankings, such as the latest World Press Freedom Index, put India’s rank at 136th out of 180 countries, just three ranks ahead of Pakistan, another sign of the damage done by Modi. Indeed, the write up accompanying the new rank by Reporters Without Borders, was titled, “Threat from Modi’s nationalism” and read “with Hindu nationalists trying to purge all manifestations of ‘anti-national’ thought from the national debate, self-censorship is growing in the mainstream media. Journalists are increasingly the targets of online smear campaigns by the most radical nationalists, who vilify them and even threaten physical reprisals … Journalists working for local media outlets are often the targets of violence by soldiers acting with the central government’s tacit consent”.
How worried should we be about India’s deteriorating growth/social environment? It is true the government doesn’t take criticism lightly, and resorts to what are alt-facts when, while responding to poor jobs-creation, it talks of converting “job-seekers into job-givers”. Modi has condemned vigilantism by gaurakshaks, but given this continues in many BJP-ruled states, you would expect more action from a concerned government. And given how the animal trading rules that put an implicit ban on slaughter of even buffaloes—by not allowing such animals to be sold in animal markets—were the fallout of the gaurakshak agitation, surely Modi should have ensured they were changed by now? With senior appointees talking of swadeshi economists being better than videshi ones, and celebrating the exit of Raghuram Rajan, it is natural to think government policy is one of hounding out critics. The discussion on demonetisation, similarly, continues to be one of denial and about black money—of which, so far, precious little has been caught—instead of the havoc it wrought and the informal sector’s ability to survive it. There has been no real discussion on what caused the slowdown, just talk of how growth fell to 5.7% many more times under the UPA. And those who criticise the government face a barrage of abuse on social media—Modi didn’t condemn Gauri Lankesh’s murder and following some on twitter who celebrated the murder of a “bitch” encourages such behaviour, but it is a stretch to say this had the “central government’s tacit consent”.
Criticising Modi is valid for these reasons, but there has to be some perspective. The economy is in trouble, but with investment falling and both banks and corporates reeling under a twin balance-sheet problem, only the naïve can think it would have done much better even under Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram—and we are not even talking of the various reforms Modi has undertaken. The Global Hunger Index, it turns out, changes its methodology and, from time to time, doesn’t include many countries that have done well on the index—adjust for this (see graphic) and India’s rank has improved a bit under Modi. The index (goo.gl/xt786p), in any case, is flawed since the poor rank is not due to lack of food, but due to sanitation-led diseases that cause poor nutrition.
The Press Freedom Index, apart from the problems mentioned earlier, is better than during the UPA years—since it fell from 106 out of 167 countries in 2005 to 140/180 in 2014, does this mean journalists were also being bumped off during the UPA period with the “central government’s tacit consent”? While the Press Freedom Index talks of using 124A and other sections of the law “to gag journalists” under Modi, keep in mind the UPA didn’t strike off the sedition law (124A) either and many people were arrested under Section 66A of the IT Act for posting tweets or cartoons or jokes that various state governments considered offensive during the UPA tenure.
What of criticising the government’s policies for which, many complain, Yashwant Sinha was ripped into by senior ministers; would this have happened under the UPA? Certainly the UPA under Manmohan Singh looked a lot more open to criticism, but if MPs/MLAs/ministers genuinely had a voice, it is surely odd few publicly railed against the massive corruption of that period? If so, the A Raja telecom loot would have been stopped, there would have been statements condemning senior ministers who prodded banks to give loans to the likes of Vijay Mallya, and coal mines wouldn’t have been given free to the chosen few… The loot was so brazen, even in the face of a detailed CAG report on it, Kapil Sibal expounded a zero-loss theory. Certainly, it is true Sibal was mocked, but that’s because there was a detailed CAG report that gave all the facts. So, if a charge is made that journalists don’t go after Modi the way they did with Singh, a major reason is that no such scam has come to light. If the party faithful/ministers seek to shield Modi each time he is accused of something—from demonetisation to encouraging anti-Muslim activity—surely the same applies to the way UPA ministers shielded Sonia and Rahul Gandhi? Criticising Modi for not being open to criticism or for not taking enough action against communal activity is valid, but while doing so, it is important not to paint a Golden-Age-of-UPA picture.