Narendra Modi’s rejoinder to critics of ‘slow economy’ is high on rhetoric, low on facts

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s comparison of critics of his government with Shalya is self-defeating for three reasons.

One, even though Shalya was Karna’s charioteer — a choice forced upon him by Duryodhana’s treachery — in the battle of Mahabharata, he was rooting for the triumph of the good in the battle against evil. Two, he ignored Shalya’s advice during the battle, missing, thus, an opportunity to kill Arjuna. And, finally, Shalya was ultimately proven right; his warning to Karna that Arjuna would ultimately vanquish him turned out to be prophetic.

For those who do not know their Mahabharata, Modi’s foray into mythology to explain the current downturn in Indian economy warrants a brief lesson, and not just for the benefit of the government.

Shalya, a powerful king and acclaimed charioteer, was the brother of Madri, Pandu’s second wife and mother of Nakula and Sahadeva, the Pandava twins. Before the start of the battle of Mahabharata, Duryodhana tricked him into joining the Kauravas by posing as the eldest Pandava. Though he agreed to honour his promise extracted though deceit, when the Pandavas met him in Kurukshetra, he readily blessed Yudhisthir with victory.

As his charioteer, Shalya continuously cited Karna’s shortcomings, reminding him that he did not have the capability to beat Arjuna. This led to an interesting denouement on the 16th day of the epic battle. When Karna aimed his arrow at Arjuna, Shalya advised him to hit his enemy in the chest. But, convinced that Shalya wanted him to fail, Karna aimed for the head and missed the mark when Krishna pushed Arjuna’s chariot to the ground.

So, by comparing his critics like Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie, with Shalya, the prime minister is actually giving them a compliment, telling them that they are rooting for the triumph of the good, are correct in their assessment of the situation, and rightly predicting the future — in this case the demise of the economy.
For, there is very little to contradict what the critics are saying. India’s GDP is down to 5.7 percent (around 3.7 percent according to the UPA-era method of calculating it) in spite of the global economy seeing one of its best years and low prices of crude that have not been passed on to consumers. Factory output has fallen, jobs are scarce and almost every sector has been hit with lay-offs.

The prime minister’s argument that the economy has seen far worse days just doesn’t wash. In 2014, he was voted to power because of his promise of ‘achche din.’ Now, with key parameters pointing at slowdown, he has gone back to the tired cliche of Indians having seen worst. But, hiding behind the past to justify the present just won’t help the government that was voted with a lot of hope and optimism.

When you can’t explain, obfuscate. This has always been the mantra of spin doctors of governments that struggle to perform. So, in his speech, the prime minister claimed the quarterly growth rate had fallen below 5.7 percent many times during the UPA government. But, this, like the Ashwatthama-moment in the Mahabharata, was at best a half-truth. For in January 2015, the Central Statistics Office (CSO) had adopted a new base year for calculating the GDP, thus making such comparisons a bit biased in Modi’s favour.

Also, Modi did not give a convincing explanation for the fall in other key indices like the IIP, lack of jobs and the overall gloom in the market. His rejoinder to the critics was high on the index of rhetoric and low on facts. It was classical Modispeak, where the messenger becomes more important than the message, the style acquires prominence over content.
As the flawed comparison with Shalya suggests, the government should expand its reading list, adding, of course, a detailed narration of the Mahabharata. A good starting point could be Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, where the author argues the value of an idea has nothing to do with the sincerity of the man who expresses it. “If one puts forwards an idea to a true Englishman — always a rash thing to do — he never dreams of considering whether the idea is right or wrong. The only thing he considers of any importance is whether one believes it oneself.”

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