Saturday, 9 July 2005

How utterly Congressi

(Bibek Debroy took back his resignation a week after I posted this after an assurance of his academic independence being protected. All's well that ends well.)

Eminent liberal economist Bibek Debroy has resigned as director of the think tank Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies (RGICS). Forced to resign would be a better term. Debroy was told that he wouild have to get all research papers cleared by the executive panel of RGICS before they are published. Why? Because a project he led - an Economic Freedom Index for Indian states - rated Gujarat as the most economically free state. So what's wrong, you may ask? Nothing really. It's just that the present Gujarat chief minister is a man who goes by the name of Narendra Modi.

How utterly Congressi! The party has proved that it hasn’t shed its inherent dictatorial tendencies, even though it sports a liberal mask. Scratch the surface and all the old Congress failings are there for everyone to see.

And all this happened because an irresponsible journalist gave a ridiculous spin to an apolitical academic exercise based on objective and economic criteria. This was not a perceptions-based survey. The EFI ranks states for economic freedom on 26 indicators put under three groups:

* Size of government (government revenue expenditure, power subsidy, state-level taxes and government employment).

* Legal structure and security of property rights (quality of legal infrastructure, completion of cases, violent crimes and economic offences).

* Regulation of credit, labour and business (wage levels, man days lost, licence and market fees, implementation of industrial entrepreneur memorandums (IEMs) and so on).

Are Debroy and the team he led - which included think tank Indicus Analytics - to be blamed if Gujarat comes up tops on these counts? Debroy has explained that much of the data used for the research were sourced till 2001, just about the time that Modi became chief minister. And that this really speaks of achievements of successive Gujarat governments.

But that’s neither here nor there. Assuming the data – data doesn’t have any political colour – were for Modi’s tenure, should facts be suppressed because of his political record? Is this the intellectual freedom that the Congress and the liberals supporting it claim to uphold? How different are they from the sangh parivar whom they accused of intellectual tyranny?

The needless controversy erupted because, I am ashamed to say, of my tribe. The Economic Times, to be more specific. It gave a needless political hue to the report. `Rajiv Gandhi think tank gives thumbs up for Modi' (or something to that effect), the headline screamed. It was an absolutely mischievous thing to do and I apologise to Debroy on behalf of my profession. It was that article which probably led to Modi deciding to use the report to his advantage. I had written about the index in the Business Standard in March 2004. A few months later Sunil Jain also wrote about it, also in Business Standard. Neither of us gave any `spin’ to it and the report went unnoticed. Till The Economic Times needlessly sensationalised it.

When I read the ET report, I was dismayed and since then I have been expecting something like what eventually happened to happen.

But there are some basic issues involved here.

One, should one deny credit to Gujarat as its economic performance and record or just because its chief minister has a rather sorry record of human rights? Going by that logic, one should deny China credit as an economic superpower because of the human rights record of its government. Successive governments and not just one government as in the case of Gujarat. All those people who are critical of Debroy sing paeans to China's economic performance. Sounds very much like double standards doesn't it?

Secondly, are we all going to say that as long as Modi is chief minister of Gujarat, we will never give it credit for anything? Sounds like intellectual tyranny to me.

Ironically, by forcing Debroy to quit over this index, the Congress has only helped Modi claim entire credit for something that is really an achievement of successive Gujarat governments. It was ridiculous when Modi went to town with the report, touting it as some kind of certificate for his performance. Somebody needed to counter that by saying, `buddy, this isn't an endorsement of your government. This is something for which all Gujarati politicians - across parties – and bureaucrats must take credit.' But those who forced Debroy to quit - and my fellow journalists who feel Debroy was wrong - have done just the opposite.

Who’s come out the winner in all this? Sadly, Narendra Modi.