Goebbels and fake news — spot the difference

The Opposition is trying to create an alternate narrative about the political and economic reality under the Modi government.

Written by Surjit S Bhalla | Updated: March 31, 2018 6:01:40 am
The Opposition is trying to create an alternate narrative about the political and economic reality under the Modi government. With the explosion of social media, the instrument, and practice, has changed over the years. (Illustration by: C R Sasikumar)

National elections are scheduled for May 2019, and may happen sooner. I have often said, to anyone willing to listen, that fake news was “invented” in India long before making its way to the shores of that other great democracy. In India, we can date the event to the surprisingly large win by the Narendra Modi-led BJP in May 2014.

The rationale behind fake news (and in my view, its more important first cousin, fake analysis) is to create a political atmosphere helpful to the (weak) challenger. Conventional wisdom says that the challenger is in trouble — so, change the basis of this wisdom — provide facts “alternate” to the prevailing reality. Indeed, the father of fake news/analysis was Joseph Goebbels, who reasoned that if you incessantly repeat a lie, the lie will become “reality”.

With the explosion of social media, the instrument, and practice, has changed over the years. But the reality is the same — change people’s perceptions is the mantra. This is what has been happening over the last few years in India; and is now reaching a crescendo because national elections are approaching.

There is a not-so-subtle attempt by Modi’s political opponents to create a chorus around both the political and economic reality. The emphasis around the word chorus is important; just one person saying the alternate reality is inconsequential; several emphasising the alternate reality (op-eds, Facebook, WhatsApp) can create a flood, and possibly change reality. I provide some evidence below — the reader can make her own judgements about whether more proof is needed!

In politics, the evidence is considered overwhelming. BJP lost in two bypolls in Rajasthan, and did so by a large margin. This was followed up by an important by-poll victory, for the Samajwadi Party candidate, supported by Mayawati, in the Gorakhpur seat vacated by Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath. Add to this the fact that a no-confidence motion is being introduced and we have confirmation that Modi’s BJP is in danger of obtaining less than 200 seats in the next general election. Remember also that the day before counting in May 2014, the conventional wisdom, often championed by the same commentators as today, was that the election would result in a hung parliament.

The story cannot have any ambiguity. The opinionatti fail to mention that over the course of the last four years, the BJP (and/or its allies) has continued to win all elections they have contested barring Delhi and Bihar. The BJP and its allies now rule in 22 of the 29 states in India, a record for any ruling coalition in India’s 68-year democratic history. (India became a Republic with the adoption of a Constitution on January 26, 1950). The previous record was 18 states held by the Congress, under Indira Gandhi.

Our “liberal elite” would have us believe that because of Mayawati and Akhilesh Yadav getting together for one bypoll in UP, electorally the BJP is in danger of losing control. Yet, a few days later, the same electoral combine fails to win a Rajya Sabha seat — because a BSP legislator walked over to the BJP side. This is not considered important.

Not considered relevant to the chorus byline is the BJP victory in Tripura and the rule (with allies) in Meghalaya and Nagaland. Would any member of the elite have considered this even possible just a year ago? No. Also, Congress experts point out that the BJP went to horrific defeat in the Rajasthan by-polls. True. But in neighbouring Madhya Pradesh, in party leader Jyotiraditya Scindia’s own backyard, the Congress won by just 2,000 votes in Mungaoli versus a victory margin of 58,000 votes in the 2013 state election.

Politics is uncertain, and so reasonable women can disagree. Economics is more certain, but this isn’t stopping the chorus from claiming that the reason Modi is in trouble is because economic conditions are no better, and possibly worse, than 2014.

Some claim that he had promised large-scale privatisation of the economy; since that hasn’t happened, Modi has failed. But Air-India is being privatised, again not thought conceivable, let alone possible. Some difference surely from the inglorious past?

Corruption same as before? Just look at the PNB scam; but that started in the scam-scam years of the UPA. That doesn’t negate the fact that it continued under Modi. True. But what if the BJP takes the bold (and sensible) decision to get at the root cause of banking scams — begin to unravel Indira Gandhi’s decision to nationalise the banks — and large scale corruption? No matter what criteria (fiction) is cooked up, the fact remains that corruption at the highest levels has been radically reduced — and that there seems to be an urgency to solve the problem.

The chorus claims that Modi had promised jobs, and none have been forthcoming. Really? First, some job facts. The reality is uncertain because there has not been a national survey on jobs since 2011/12, the last time the NSSO conducted a nationally representative survey on employment. What we do know is that precious few jobs were created between 2004 and 2011 (and even less between 2004 and 2009). So why did the Congress party seats jump between 2004 and 2009 (from less than 150 to more than 200) — because they had created so few jobs? The average rate of job growth was 2.8 per cent in the BJP years 1999-2004. This is what the UPA inherited; average annual job growth between 2004 and 2011 was only 0.8 per cent per annum.

There is conflicting, and spotty, evidence about job growth in India since 2011. When the reality is known (NSSO Employment survey for 2017/18), it is unlikely to show a rate of growth below the 0.8 per cent UPA rate. In the meantime, we can analyse other parameters in the economy to understand if the Modi-era is the same as the UPA era.

The overwhelming, and emphatic, answer is there is no doubt that whether one considers the magnitude of economic reforms, or the direction, the Modi government has delivered, and delivered in spades. And the outcome is in the highly improved nature of the economy. The beginning of reforms in agriculture, major steps towards the delivery of benefits to the poor via the banking system, identification made possible via Aadhaar. Many more economic changes for the better, which we will have occasion to discuss over the next few months.

To understand the motivations of the chorus (and/or their sloppy analysis), note the following. The chorus emphasises leakages in delivery to the poor; about some poor families not getting their food rations because they did not have an Aadhaar card. The next time your friendly anti-reform chorus reminds you of this tragedy — yes, it is tragic — ask them what the leakage was in the food delivery system in the non-Aadhaar Jan Dhan era. That leakage was 50 per cent — yes, 50 per cent — of the food meant to be delivered to ration shops, and therefore the poor, disappeared into thin air. Actually, an air thick with corruption. That leakage is likely to be below 10 per cent today; if not, let the chorus provide us with facts on the magnitude of leakage today.

GDP growth is on an accelerating path to the 7-8 per cent range; and inflation is some 500 basis points — yes 5 percentage points — below the 9 per cent level bequeathed by UPA II. Yet the claim is that the economy is no different.

So, you figure out what is fake news and what is not; while at it, you will also be able to figure out the reason why respected opinionatti are coming out with the same, and possibly inaccurate, “analysis” days apart from each other. Cambridge Analytica, anyone?

The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express, and part-time member of the PM’s Economic Advisory Council. Views are personal

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