…No one asked you, sir, she said…

The 5 April 2014 issue of the Economist has stirred up a hornet’s nest with its recommendation that a government led by Rahul Gandhi is a less disturbing option. A lot of righteous indignation has been expressed far and wide about what is termed an uncalled for interference in voter choice. My old friend Sanjeev Ahluwalia (blog site: http://www.ahlu-india.com) has compared the Economist article to the legendary “dog that failed to bark” in the Sherlock Holmes story; the only difference, he observes, is that the Economist actually barked this time. He wonders whether the Economist is acting at someone else’s behest to help bring about a BJP win without the Gujarat strongman at the helm.
It would be instructive to know whether the Economist took a similar view at the time of the 1984 Lok Sabha elections, which were held in the immediate aftermath of a horrifying massacre of Sikhs across a number of Indian states, most of which were governed by the then ruling Indian National Congress party. In any case, after ten years of Congress party rule, with all its trials and tribulations, the Indian voter will, come 16 May 2014, deliver a verdict that reflects her considered assessment of who is best suited to occupy the Delhi gaddi for the next five years. The Indian voter has voted decisively in election after election since 1952 and at no point can she be faulted for error of judgment, given the choices open to her.
So we don’t need the Economist (or any other so-called intellectual journal or paper) giving gratuitous advice to the Indian voter. Having said this, it would be salutary to pause and reflect on the Western (specifically Anglo-Saxon) tendency to pontificate on the “White Man’s Burden” while ignoring serious blunders much nearer home. The history of today’s Western democracies is a case of “trial and error” – the errors of judgment of the then Great Powers have led to trials for the less privileged communities subjected to their ministrations for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this, they have often relied on the mass media in their societies (owned generally by powerful economic interests) to sell the message of their civilizing mission to the world at large. That the societies for whose benefit interventionist policies were devised failed to appreciate them has often baffled Western democracies.
The Vietnam War was one of the major events where the media (especially its American arms) were at pains to stress the efforts to contain the spread of Communist influence (and, presumably, aid the spread of democracy). Magazines like the Readers’ Digest highlighted offensives by “North Vietnamese forces”, when the issue in question was the legitimacy of the American intervention in a country far from its shores, never mind the treaties with dummy, often highly corrupt and autocratic regimes. Subsequent interventions in war theatres as diverse as Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya have also merited little dispassionate media analysis. Consequently, whether driven by revenge (Afghanistan) or removing old enemies (Iraq and Libya), military adventures in recent years have invariably ended in fiascos, with the “beneficiary” countries no nearer a resolution of their internal conflicts or a move towards democratic norms. Media discussion has always focused on how American interests are best served by such interventions and rarely (or never) on what the implications are for the native populations. Not surprisingly, recent events in Egypt and Syria have seen far more muted American responses, given the uncertainty of outcomes. Even today, media response to brutal, oppressive regimes in Asia and Africa is governed more by geopolitical interests rather than a genuine interest in human rights or democratic values.
Gratuitous advice is also more forthcoming from the Western media on other issues like environment, economic and energy policy. Homilies are delivered to emerging economies on the use of nuclear energy, ecological management and promoting economic growth. After the East Asian economic crisis of the late 1990s, the IMF administered the medicine of structural adjustment to economies of these countries regardless of their impact on the living standards of the poor, with the tacit approval of the media in developed countries. One would have thought that growing debt (both public and private) in the OECD countries would have worried the media in the first half of the first decade of the twenty first century. And yet, no admonitions were forthcoming as the housing bubble grew to worrisome proportions in this period. After it burst, leading to the global meltdown post-2008, there were any number of post-facto analyses of what went wrong, ignoring the basic facts of irresponsible lending and flagrant violations of the basic norms of fiscal prudence.
The sum and substance of what I am saying is that Western media advice should be directed first to those nearer home, since their actions have domino effects across the globe, especially on emerging and poorer economies. With the United Nations and multilateral institutions having little real influence on the big boys, it is only international public opinion, informed and shaped by print, electronic and social media, which can play a balancing role in curbing the unequal exercise of economic and military power.
So the Indian people’s final words of advice to the Economist in its concern for India’s well-being would be the same as those uttered by the fair maid who was initially courted and later rejected by the country squire “…No one asked you, sir, she said…” Come the Ides of May, the people of India will shape their destiny, which goes far deeper than a superficial preoccupation with particular personalities or political formations.

9 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Dilip on April 15, 2014 at 12:59 pm

    Touching view point sir. Indian voter have time and again voted decisively. .


  2. They will do so again this time!


  3. Posted by Satjit on April 16, 2014 at 12:03 am

    Dear Ramani


  4. Posted by Satjit on April 16, 2014 at 3:12 am

    Dear Ramani

    A most thoughtful and well-written article; but then, I would expect nothing less from you.

    At the outset I must say that I am one of those who is extremely concerned about the prospect of a Modi-led government. I could spend a lot of time explaining why but that can wait for another time.

    I just want to dwell briefly on the reaction to the Economist’s article. I read it and accepted as one point of view. Someone sent me Sanjeev Alluwalia’s reaction to it as well (the one you refer to) and I got the feeling that we are over reacting. If as Indians believe, the Economist is wrong, so be it it. Let us shrug our shoulders and get on with other things more important. I fail to understand why we are so exercised by it. After all, lots of things are written in the press that people do not agree with. (As it happens, I agree with the Economist, but that’s my view and like the Economist, I feel entitled to hold it; just as I accept that others have a right to ignore my view).

    In short, I am rather inelegantly, trying to say that it was not such a big deal.
    Very few Indian voters read the Economist; the ones that do are articulate enough not to be swayed by it, if they do not agree with it. We can sometimes be too sensitive.

    I would value your feedback.


    • Thanks, Satjit. I agree with what you say: what the media, especially the Western media, says is generally worth even acknowledging. I was only trying to point out the double standards of the mainstream Western media. Their definitions of freedom, democracy, etc. are twisted to suit the interests of these developed countries. Also, they are ever willing to lecture the LDCs while ignoring the major economic and disasters caused by the policies of the ruling elites in their countries as well as the multilateral institutions which are staffed and dominated by people with the same thinking processes. China is already showing how Western economies will be irrelevant to the international order in the coming decades; I expect (and hope) countries like India do the same.
      Most importantly, I hope the thinking classes in India treat gratuitous Western advice with huge dollops of salt.


  5. Resp. Sir,
    I wondered at the subtitle ‘THE GADFLY COLUMN’ in the blog-title. Therefore, I searched and found the following on the Internet, which is (in my opinion) the most agreeable description of the personality of your good-self.

    In “The Apology”, Socrates refers to himself as a gadfly, clinging to the city as an insect would to a horse. What is the significance of this?
    Ribbit answered 6 years ago – “He meant he was stinging people out of their complacency. Just as a gadfly, by constantly stinging a horse agitates it, preventing it from becoming sluggish and going to sleep, so did Socrates, by stirring things up, prevent the City from becoming sluggish and careless and intolerant.”

    It’s very unfortunate that, until now the our people is faced with many a turmoil (religious, social, relating to caste, etc.). Social reformers, like in pre-independence days, have become almost extinct, and with no apt role model to follow, throngs of aspiring members of society are aimlessly participating in the rat-race the life of a common Indian.

    Opportunities will definitely improve in these bleak conditions also, when rightful share of education, health & sanitation, and food is “produced” and “consumed”, by & for the stakeholders themselves.

    Post independence, we are one responsible polity, and hope for many developing nations of the world.

    The article “…No one asked you, sir, she said…” is thought provoking, and every reader must contribute his 110% to become one responsible citizen of India, so that, no one in future treats us as “the fair maid who was initially courted and later rejected by the country squire”.

    Thank you sir.


  6. Posted by Smita Bhide on June 1, 2014 at 11:20 pm

    Actually,you would be surprised at how many of us denizens of the chattering clases still hold the opinion of the Economist in high esteem.
    this time ,though, i think they have managed to irk even their most loyal followers(myself,for one).Could it be because this time…among other unacknowledged instances…we do know what they are talking about.?

    Glad to have found your blog,Sir

    Smita Bhide


    • Thanks, Smita. Glad to add you to my blog list. Yes, we are sensitive to foreign criticism; what riled me was their gratuitous advice on voting for a party that would have taken India down the abyss (if it has not already done so).


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