Decoded: Why 'experts' are not happy with the Modi government

PM Narendra Modi does not like being held hostage by experts.

 |  4-minute read |   20-03-2019
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On March 14, 108 economics and social studies experts “from across the world,” many of whom are recognisably Left-leaning or critical of the Modi government, published “an appeal.” Its title, Economic Statistics in a Shambles, seemed slanted if not openly inflammatory.

Acting virtuous

‘Shambles’, originally meant slaughterhouse, where pieces and parts of dead animals, including bones, guts, and gore might be strewn about in a messy manner.

That’s how it came to signify a state of total disorder, disarray, confusion, or chaos. The title thus hints that the government is ‘butchering’ data and statistics.

The “appeal” begins with a self-righteous and high-sounding platitude: “Economic statistics are a public good.”

Sure.

But who, in this day and age, would trust them blindly?

Don’t we know how statistics, from their very inception, have been distorted and manipulated to suit the needs of those in power?

If so, what has changed? The next sentence pretends to, but doesn’t quite, provide an answer: statistics “are a vital necessity for policymaking and informed public discourse in democracies where citizens seek accountability from its government.”

Of course, accurate data is absolutely essential to make proper decisions, not just to make governments accountable.

By stressing on governments’ accountability, it is fairly obvious what the “appeal” will go on to criticise.

As if the opening pomposity wasn’t enough, the “appeal” next tom-toms “the use of scientific methods” for their “collection,” “estimation,” and “timely dissemination.”

Isn’t that rather obvious?

The words that follow, “imperative,” “total credibility,” “professional autonomy,” “high level of reputation,” “integrity,” “economic and social parameters,” and so on, all indicate the “appeals” virtue-signalling.

We recognise how emotionally charged terminology is being used to and decry the government. Morally elevating terms are used to hide the motives of the appealers.

The next sentences are loaded with a litany of negative-sounding broadsides: “political interference,” “influencing decisions,” “under a cloud,” “did not square,” “more problems,” “shot up,” “highest in a decade,” “at variance,” “quite opposite growth rates,” “caused great damage,” “revised or suppressed,” “questionable methodology,” etc., directed against the government. After accusing the latter of fudging data comes the clinching part of the “appeal.”

“This is the time for all professional economists, statisticians, independent researchers in policy — regardless of their political and ideological leanings — to come together to raise their voice against the tendency to suppress uncomfortable data, and impress upon the government authorities.”

modi-inside_032019120000.jpgExperts belonging to two camps will fight over data. Perhaps, there is some truth on both sides. But Modi does not need experts to reach the masses. (Photo: AP)

Doubtful rhetoric

Shouldn’t I also want to join my voice to those listed in the “appeal,” some of whom are my colleagues and others; known to me?

But why am I neither roused nor convinced?

Not only because of the epistemological and philosophical issues involved that cast doubts on the sanctity of statistics, data, and information.

Nor the attempt to assume, rather facilely and speciously, the high moral ground as also suggested earlier. I am neither impressed nor persuaded because the “appeal” sounds suspiciously similar to earlier well-orchestrated defeat-Modi campaigns.

Indeed, I am reminded of the ‘award wapsi’ crusade against the government’s failure to protect writers and intellectuals.

Does this mean that the integrity of data or institutional autonomy of statistics gathering organisations isn’t important?

Not at all.

I believe that these organisations and individuals must resist government interference, control, and manipulation just as the judiciary, Election Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General of India, the media and press, and other autonomous watchdogs of our cherished democracy ought to.

Presumptive wogs

But to imagine that politicians and governments will do nothing to hide damaging data or highlight good news is rather naïve.

To accuse this government of being especially wicked or anti-democratic compared to its predecessors is also disingenuous if not blatantly untrue.

The problem is that this government has thumbed its nose more purposefully and persistently at the exaggerated self-importance of ‘experts’.

Instead, the PM’s pragmatism has been directed at reaching goods and services, including electricity, cooking gas, toilets, food, medicines, and money directly to the people.

The PM does not like being held hostage by experts.

It is not as if policy-making, statistical integrity, or institutional independence have suffered especially under his rule.

If these academics and intellectuals had been slightly more self-critical, they would have admitted that rather than India’s global reputation and integrity, their insecurity and disquiet arise from their own marginalisation and irrelevance.

Not surprisingly, soon after the ‘appeal,’ 131 well-known chartered accountants issued a rebuttal.

They argued, quite contrarily that revision of data is healthy rather than questionable and follows global practices.

Who is right? 

Perhaps, there is some truth on both sides.

But as concerned citizens what we can be sure is that we are witnessing not just a rebasing of data or statistics, but also our notions of facts and truth itself.

This is what living in a post-truth age actually implies. And we had better get used to it.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

Also Read: Why BJP must 'beg' for votes now

Writer

Makarand R Paranjape Makarand R Paranjape @makrandparanspe

The writer is director, Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. The views are personal.

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