Is Prime Minister Narendra Modi not a reformer but simply a good administrator? The Economist wrote last week: “India’s prime minister is not the radical reformer he is cracked up to be. He is more energetic than his predecessor, the stately Manmohan Singh, launching glitzy initiatives on everything from manufacturing to toilet construction. But he has not come up with many big new ideas of his own.”
While there’s much that’s wrongheaded in its analysis, The Economist is capable of occasionally getting some things right. The GST framework, as it says in its editorial, is unnecessarily complex.
The multitude of tax slabs smacks of classical babudom: complicate the simple rather than simplify the complicated. By doing so, bureaucrats in the ministry of finance can keep the rest of the country captive to their caprice.
The imposition of GST slabs between 5 per cent and 18 per cent on devices for the differently abled (wheelchairs, Braille paper and hearing aids) which were previously exempt from excise and customs duty is a particularly distasteful example of government insensitivity.
A 12 per cent GST on individual artists is another avoidable blunder. It will stifle India’s art fraternity already struggling with poor sales.
China, in contrast, encourages its artists with a 10-year tax holiday. The result: over 3,000 new auction houses and hundreds of art galleries have sprouted in China over the last few years. Chinese art is booming. Top Chinese artists now command prices that are 500 per cent higher than those received by India’s best selling artists like Souza, Gaitonde, Raza and Husain.
Perversely, lawyers are exempt from GST. Finance minister Arun Jaitlety, a lawyer, should have been less kind to his fraternity whose members earn more in a day in court than most artists do in a year.
By boycotting the special parliamentary session to mark the introduction of GST at midnight on Friday the Congress has meanwhile shown itself to be small-minded. It participated fully in GST discussions over the past year. Its state finance ministers were part of the GST Council. The boycott reveals the petty level Opposition politics in India has sunk to.
There are a number of issues on which the Modi government can be and should be criticised. The prime minister has often said he welcomes criticism. But the sort of invective he receives is frequently based on ideology not facts.
The RSS, for example, should be fair game for criticism: it is socially and economically ultra-conservative. India needs to be, on the one hand, socially and culturally liberal and, on the other, economically market-oriented. The RSS is neither.
But to demonise the RSS as being the fount of “Hindu extremism” shows how little Western media, in particular, understands the complexity of Indian society. And if the lack of understanding is not the cause, the conclusion is worse: deliberate disinformation.
US media and Modi
It was entirely expected that Modi’s visit to the United States would, therefore, unleash the demons that reside within America’s left-leaning media. The New York Times has long used vitriol rather than editorial common sense when writing about Modi. The one leader it dislikes even more than Modi is, of course, US President Donald Trump.
When the opportunity arises to pour invective over both at the same time as it did this week, the Times draws upon its full arsenal of acid. Here’s what it wrote:
“Mr Modi and Mr Trump have much in common, including a history of anti-Muslim rhetoric, a nationalist focus on homegrown manufacturing, a fraught relationship with the news media, and electoral campaigns that benefited from the proliferation of fake news.
In Mr Modi’s case, supporters of his party circulated fake videos in 2013 of two Hindus being lynched by a Muslim mob. The videos led to rioting that killed 44 people, displaced 42,000 others and split a historical voting alliance between lower-caste Hindus and Muslims. That helped give Mr Modi a substantial majority in the lower house of Parliament.”
Like The New York Times, much of the US media has become disoriented since Trump’s unexpected victory in the US presidential election last November. It has discarded professionalism in favour of bias. It frequently quotes “anonymous” sources to concoct false stories and has lost the trust of large sections of the American people.
Last week, CNN fired three senior journalists for fabricating a story on alleged Trump-Russia collusion. CNN was forced to issue this official statement:
“The story did not meet CNN's editorial standards and has been retracted. Links to the story have been disabled. CNN apologizes. CNN has accepted the resignations of the employees involved in the story’s publication.”
The overall lack of judgement by Western media is underscored by this editorial in The Economist just before the 2014 Lok Sabha election:
“If Mr Modi were to explain his role in the violence (in Gujarat) and show genuine remorse, we would consider backing him, but he never has; it would be wrong for a man who has thrived on division to become prime minister of a country as fissile as India. We do not find the prospect of a government led by Congress under Mr (Rahul) Gandhi an inspiring one. But we have to recommend it to Indians as the less disturbing option.”
It would be interesting to know if The Economist today stands by its endorsement of Rahul Gandhi as India’s prime minister having witnessed his parliamentary and electoral performance over the past three years.