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Spin Doctors and the Myth
of the Great Indian Economic Growth
|by H.N. Bali|
Continued from “Window Dressers of Potemkin Village”
Even if it’s content with fooling only some people all the time − a possibility Abraham Lincoln didn’t discount − the Congress Party has, from time to time, to devise more ingenious tools and techniques to make falsehood sound as real social good. And fortunately for it, to accomplish the task are available these days, professional services of who go under the grandiloquent title, Spin Doctors. Understandably, they are in great demand in our grand Potemkin Village known as Lutyens’ Delhi which the Raj bequeathed to us.
Strictly, a Spin Doctor is a person or publicist whose services can be availed of to promote a favorable interpretation of events to the media − both print and electronic. (That the latter is becoming an increasingly more important vehicle of both information and propaganda is a matter of grave concern.)
Before proceeding further, a word or two about the term Spin Doctor that didn’t exist in political lexicon until a few decades back. Like every money spinner capable of tremendous long-term social harm, Spin Doctor is, as American in its origin and use, as Cola Cola.
Scholars have traced its origin to the 1980s.The need for what’s called sound bites − increasing by the minute − required a new, specialized class of publicists to deal with them. The earliest printed references to the term are from that period. Here, for example, is one of the very first explanations from The New York Times dating back to October 1984:
A dozen men in good suits and women in silk dresses will circulate smoothly among the reporters, spouting confident opinions. They won’t be just press agents trying to impart a favorable spin to a routine release. They’ll be the Spin Doctors, senior advisers to the candidates.
You may wonder about the relevance of the word spin. For that go back to yarn. Can you recall when did you first hear in your life − don’t trust the fellow: he always spins yarn?
So, spin became associated with telling a story. It began to be used in a political and promotional context in the 1980s. The first time I ran into it was in the Guardian Weekly, in January 1978: “The CIA can be an excellent source [of information], though, like every other, its offerings must be weighed for factuality and spin.”
And from there it is a small step for experts employed to weave reports of factual events into palatable stories to be called ‘spin doctors’.
Spin Doctors at Work
In the UK, the two best-known exponents of the spin doctors’ functions are Alistair Campbell – till 2003 Tony Blair’s Director of Communications and Strategy − and the publicist Max Clifford. (That the second one is awaiting a trial, is another − possibly logical − spin-off.)
The most well-known example of spin doctors at work is the all-too-sad story of weapons of mass destruction supposedly hidden by Saddam Husain to unearth which the United States and UK launched the notorious Iraq War in March 2003. Later in his life, Bush said that the biggest regret of his presidency was “the intelligence failure” in Iraq. But that was after eight years of wanton death and destruction inflicted on Iraqi people to search non-existent WMD. The Senate Intelligence Committee found in 2008 that his administration “misrepresented the intelligence and the threat from Iraq”.
Do you recall that wily fox Rafid Ahmed Alwan al-Janabi code-named Curveball by the US Defence Intelligence Agency? That great self-serving opportunist defected from Iraq in 1999, claiming that he had worked as a chemical engineer at a plant that manufactured mobile biological weapons to be used in an Iraqi program of manufacturing weapons of mass destruction. He was the one person that Bush was eagerly waiting for to provide him a fig leaf. Alwan’s allegations were subsequently shown to be utterly false by the Iraq Survey Group’s final report.
Redeeming the Pledge
Back home, to examine the goings-on in our society − the story in the last six and a half decades of promises made and broken and hopes and expectations aroused and falsified, of faiths reposed in Gods that failed. In his famous Tryst with Destiny harangue on the August 14-15 midnight, Nehru had told the nation:
How did we redeem the pledge? Or was it just a befitting ritual performed for the occasion and then completely forgotten about? Facts carry their own commentary.
Centuries ago Dante, the 13th century Italian philosopher envisioned : “The human face we see, its features revealing consternation and grief, is often forsaken in political endeavors, for stability of a given political establishment.” In today’s context, phrases like planned development, parliamentary democracy, maintenance of law and order, and related political gimmickry are excuses to camouflage the grim, obscene reality i.e., to preserve the given political establishment, and its stakes and privileges.
In the 1990’s and thereafter a new class of Indian dollar-billionaires – headed of course by that greatest of all captains of industry, Dhirubhai Ambani − steadfastly widened the gap between overwhelmingly rich urban segments and the highly vulnerable rural poor of the land. Are you surprised that the Maoists gained foothold in over nine states and are waiting for the day to usher in a Chinese-style order in India as our democratic decision-making processes in the parlors of Parliament have repeatedly failed to assess or rectify the situation.
The issue of impoverished, debt-ridden farmers relentlessly committing suicides in Maharashtra and other states underlines our appalling governance deficit. It seems that none of the much-touted debt or welfare schemes doled out by our elected representatives have reached them − banish the thought of impacting their lives even tangentially. Meanwhile, politically conscientious Indians – and there are still some left of this species − are increasingly getting skeptical about the manner in which sections among MPs and MLAs have been exploiting the ongoing ‘era of coalitions’ to their own explicit advantage. Rather than being agents of change to restructure the order and ensure a sense of parity in the welfare of both the elected and the electors, they are hankering for more privileges and amenities for themselves.
We have the right to demand that the official estimates of projected growth rates should not be allowed to camouflage the key question: Who has benefited from this growth? Is economic growth meant only for the politicians who have mastered the technique of getting elected and the crony capitalists who keep them in good humor in between elections?
Exposé of Growth Story
India’s much-advertised economic growth story has just been exposed. It would shock you to hear the most unlikely source − the World Bank (WB), which Mantek Singh Ahluwalia and the Planning Commission so assiduously cultivate. This institution is one of those most responsible for advocating economic growth as the pillar of development.
In a report released in mid-July, 2013, the WB states that the cost of environmental damage in India adds up to 5.7% of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). This effectively means − understandably, the report doesn’t say so − that most of India’s annual economic growth is being wiped out by environmental damage deliberately caused, or summarily ignored by this growth.
A year after ushering in the globalization of Indian economy in 1991, Manmohan Singh himself said that such reforms were necessary to generate money to put into environmental conservation. This environmental funding, however, has never kept pace with the kind of damage being caused. The reason is simple. The ministry of environment and forests has never got more than 1% of the budget outlay. Almost 21 years later, the WB report’s lead author says: “grow now and clean up later will not be environmentally sustainable for India in the long run”.
The WB report assesses the damage caused by urban air pollution, inadequate water supply, sanitation and hygiene, indoor air pollution, agricultural damage by soil salinity, water-logging and soil erosion, wasteland degradation, and deforestation. And don’t forget many other aspects such as coastal erosion and pollution, un-disposed municipal and hospital wastes and loss of fisheries.
The report estimates that as much as “23% of child mortality in the country could be attributed to environmental degradation”. Nearly half of India’s population is affected by water-related diseases and deaths and illnesses caused by them and over 110,000 people die prematurely due to urban air pollution, which, if you live in a metropolis like Delhi, is increasing alarmingly by the minute.
The WB report does not − how could it? − estimate separately the impact of environmental damage on the poor, but admits that it’s very likely to be considerably higher than on the rich.
It does mention the “GDP of the poor” (those employed in the agriculture, forestry, and fishery sectors), and how environmental damage is an even greater drag (11%) on this than on GDP in general.
Now let’s face the all-too-unavoidable question: Who is being benefited by this economic growth? There is indeed rapidly increasing wealth in India, but much of it is being cornered by the already rich. The estimates are that 90 % of national wealth is in the hand of 10% Indians. A very recent National Sample Survey data shows, there is hardly any net growth in employment in the formal sector, into which most of the investment is poured. And don’t forget about 93% of the workforce is in the informal sector where the state of affairs is indescribably grim.
Yet the governments of the day − NDA, UPA et al − continue to manage the veneer of economic progress.
Strategies of Manipulation
Years ago, appeared, based on Prof. Noam Chomsky extensive work a blog listing “10 Strategies of Manipulation” by the Media. The renowned MIT Professor, one of the few classic voices of intellectual dissent in our conformist environment, spelled out in his numerous writings a list of the ten most common and effective strategies resorted to by the “hidden” agendas to establish a manipulation of the population through the media. Here, briefly are the ten techniques:
Promise & Performance
As a case study of how our Spin Doctors have woven the web of economic growth and poverty eradication, let’s take the promises and performance of UPA Government’s first and second terms, which hopefully are nearing their deserved end. When this coalition of common interests − cobbled together to safeguard secularism − came to power, it committed itself to three-point growth agenda. They were:
The above measures were, among others, formally incorporated in the policy objectives statement of the 11th Five Year Plan under the banner of (what’s these days the popular flavor of economic development called inclusive growth.) World Bank patronizingly endorsed the blue print given the symbiosis between Indian economic advisors − Mantek Singh Ahluwalia & Co − and IMF/World Bank mandarins in Washington.
Now in 2013, nine years is a sufficiently long period to assess our government’s true commitment to the above-mentioned goals. Let’s look at facts − grim, unvarnished facts.
First the health. Our spending on health is still about 1.2 per cent of the GDP. The 12th Plan projects a mere 1.9 per cent spending on health at the end of the Plan period! In fact, our neo-liberal economists – in the good books of the powers-that-be − want the government to distance itself from public health so that private players led by Apollo and Religare − can put up an ever-increasing chain of five-star hotels with medical facilities thrown in − that’s what our private hospitals are − to exploit the vulnerability of the sick to make enormous profit in the bargain.
Second, the situation with education is no different. In fact, it’s worse. The public expenditure on education as percentage of the GDP has actually come down from 4.2 per cent of the GDP in 2000 to 3.1 per cent today. At the level of higher education, the frauds that “deemed universities” are, is all too well known. This is going to be exacerbated with the arrival of foreign capital in the near future. More and more government resources will be handed over to the private players in the name of the new-fangled Public Private Partnerships (PPP). The only consolation is that that those lured into this racket are people belonging to the upper end of the middle class parents.
A far worse problem affecting the poor and vulnerable is the mushrooming of private schools all across our land in the name of providing English medium instruction. Birlas and Goenka took the lead to start these money spinners. Everyone rushing to enroll their kids in those schools helps our government to shirk from its responsibility of providing equal educational opportunity at the school level to all of our children. Even through-bred capitalist USA provides that. The chaos will be complete once the Right to Education (RTE) Act becomes fully operational. India’s Human Development Index and the performance of our school children in international tests both place us near the bottom of world rankings
Finally, let’s have a look at the much-advertised National Employment Guarantee scheme.
Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act has been − all leakages condoned − a modest success. In fact, it was instrumental in UPA’s victory in the 2009 general election. In a country which is woefully short on organizational skills, the economic goal of the scheme of asset formation has virtually remained on paper. It has become the proverbial Keynesian scheme of digging up trenches and filling them up. It is, bluntly put, an effective dole, a large part of which has also been siphoned off by lumpen collaborators of local politicians.
A genuine form of pro-poor growth is practiced elsewhere. And that is in the backyard of the United States, in the far away Latin America. There, the emphasis between “growth” and “development” has been reversed. While in India the primary purpose is on growth at all costs, with its fruits finally trickling down to the poor − if at all! In Brazil, and particularly in Venezuela, government is formulating concrete goals of pro-poor growth and devising measures to achieve these goals without sacrificing macroeconomic stability that goes with economic growth. Recent boom in commodity prices, fortunately, helped in this process.
We have been very successfully fooled by our Spin Doctors in accepting as reality the mirage of economic growth. Long live the profession of spin and our gullibility!
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