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BRP Bhaskar: There is a time to tell
July 17, 2012
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

More than six decades after the yoke of colonialism was lifted, many educated Indians yearn for Western approbation and are disturbed by foreign criticism.

Last week US newsmagazine Time upset many Indians by carrying in its Asian edition a cover story which described Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as an ‘underachiever’ and a ‘man in shadow’. It listed the many challenges the United Progressive Alliance government faces under his leadership such as economic slowdown, fiscal deficit and falling rupee, and asked whether he was up to the job.

The magazine said inflation and corruption had diminished voter confidence in Manmohan Singh. The crux of its criticism, however, lay elsewhere: Singh, it said, was unwilling to stick his neck out on economic reforms.

The report reflected the sentiments of the United States administration which is seeking new opportunities in India for American businessmen since conditions at home continue to be gloomy. It is unhappy over the Manmohan Singh government’s inability to deliver on the promise to let Wal-Mart in by throwing open the retail sector to foreign investors.

If there was any doubt in anyone’s mind on the source of the magazine’s concerns, President Barack Obama removed it soon afterwards by voicing his administration’s feelings directly in an interview given to an Indian news agency. He specifically mentioned the issue of foreign direct investment in retail business.

The UPA government had put the issue of FDI in retail business on hold because of stiff opposition from the Trinamool Congress, a coalition partner.

The Time report drew the ire of the Congress party, which heads the UPA. Its official spokesman said that in the last eight years, under Manmohan Singh’s leadership, the government had provided political stability, social harmony, internal cohesion and economic growth and assumed a greater role in global affairs. “This by no stretch of imagination is underachievement,” he added.

The Bharatiya Janata Party, which heads the opposition National Democratic Alliance, which is hoping to ride back to power on an anti-incumbency wave, was pleased with the Time story which berated Manmohan Singh. Doubly so, since it had earlier featured one of its leaders, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, a prime ministerial hopeful, on the cover, depicting him as a man who means business.

Endorsing the magazine’s criticism, the BJP spokesman said Manmohan Singh had only sent a message of disillusionment, corruption and leaderless economy. However, the party’s top leaders in Madhya Pradesh rejected the partisan approach and took a patriotic line. “The Prime Minister of India does not need a certificate from Time magazine,” said Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan. State BJP president Prabhat Jha added, “No foreign magazine has the right to look down upon the Prime Minister of India.”

Several Indian commentators agreed with the magazine that Manmohan Singh had failed to tackle issues like corruption. However, they generally threw the blame for his failures on Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who holds the political strings. Some of them envisaged the possibility of Manmohan Singh getting more elbow room with the exit of Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who was seen as holding back reform measures for political reasons.

Time, which pioneered a journalistic school whose strength lies not in unearthing new information but repackaging old ones, had started taking interest in Indian affairs long before the era of globalisation dawned. Freedom fighters Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose and Vallabhbhai Patel had figured on its cover in the pre-Independence days.

In the Cold War years, as a media partner of the US establishment, it was a strong critic of India’s non-alignment policy, and VK Krishna Menon, who was its chief exponent at the United Nations, was its bête noir. Angered by its writings, Menon’s ardent admirers once tricked it into publishing a letter under false names expressing appreciation of its stand. Only after the issue hit the stands did the magazine learn that the names it printed were obscenities in the Hindi language.

To Time, the good Indians are the ones who are dead or have migrated to the West. Its obituaries on Nehru and Indira Gandhi were among the best carried by any publication, Indian or foreign. They extolled the many virtues of the departed leaders which had not found a place in its coverage when they were alive. Manmohan Singh can seek comfort in the thought that Time has not found nice things to tell because the time has not come: after all he is still around in flesh and blood.
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 The author is a political analyst of reckoning

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