Anti-India prejudice must be called out

ByBaijayant “Jay” Panda
Apr 18, 2023 08:12 PM IST

The western media’s abandonment of objectivity in the pursuit of a preset narrative and the cognitive dissonance in ignoring India’s progress is galling

Global media coverage of India is broadly negative, with barely any acknowledgement that some good might be happening here. Some of that — from countries such as China, Pakistan and Turkey — can be attributed to their geopolitical compulsions. But similar coverage from western, liberal platforms demands closer scrutiny. That media, academics and commentators ought to be able to call out what they see as flaws is not in question. But what is peculiar is the abandonment of objectivity in the single-minded pursuit of a predetermined narrative. Also worth examining is the glaring cognitive dissonance in ignoring India’s progress on some of their own cherished liberal goals.

If the stench of a colonial hangover is to be overcome, it is time for global liberals to take a more balanced view of India (Shutterstock) PREMIUM
If the stench of a colonial hangover is to be overcome, it is time for global liberals to take a more balanced view of India (Shutterstock)

A prominent New York-based publication, for instance, routinely indulges in India bashing and doesn’t even bother to cloak its bias. Its controversial 2021 advertisement for a new South Asian correspondent did not require the candidate to be objective and report what she observed. Instead, it described an opinionated, pejorative picture that allegedly represents today’s India and stipulated that the candidate “explain” that to its readers. Such prejudice — for that is the textbook definition of a pre-decided perspective that is to be adopted — has been criticised. An eminent New Yorker of Indian origin, the celebrated economist Jagdish Bhagwati, said that instead of asking experts such as him to write articles when the topic is India’s economic miracle, the media regularly invites Leftist authors of fiction to attack promising statistics with eloquent prose.

A similar bias exists in many western, ostensibly liberal platforms, think tanks and activist organisations. Particularly glaring instances abound in some multilateral agencies and self-appointed arbiters, which bring out annual lists ranking countries on various parameters. Some of these rankings are full of howlers, so bereft of common sense as to almost make one grudgingly admire their authors’ propagandist hubris. Take, for example, the Global Hunger Index (GHI), which showed that India slipped from 94th rank in 2020 to 101 in 2021 and 107 in 2022. This would indeed be alarming if it were not so patently comical and false. There are three reasons to dismiss the gobbledygook behind this travesty.

First, this period coincided with India rolling out the world’s largest food aid programme, the Pradhan Mantri Gareeb Kalyan Anna Yojana, to pre-empt and counter the pandemic risk. Hailed by the World Bank for its scale and efficacy, it has played a stellar role in nutrition security. This came on top of data showing an improvement in malnutrition over the preceding years. Thus, unlike the first decade of this century, there have been no reports of mass starvation in the country in the past decade.

Second, this was preceded by a period, 2014-19, in which, according to a 2022 World Bank Policy Research Working Paper, poverty in India fell from 22.5% to 10%. An International Monetary Fund Working Paper, also from 2022, said that India had conquered “extreme poverty,” which it put below 1%, a historic achievement after many centuries.

Third, GHI laughably ranks some countries, which are receiving food aid from New Delhi to stave off mass starvation, higher than India. These include several in the neighbourhood whose economies have been devastated by profligate policies, compounded by the pandemic. It is ironic that there have been food riots in some of these higher ranked nations, with one of them, Pakistan, suffering dozens of casualties.

Similar blatant biases can be seen in many other global rankings by self-appointed experts. One ranks India’s press freedom below Hong Kong, where China has officially muzzled free speech; another ranks India’s democracy behind some African nations notorious for rampant corruption, electoral fraud, and no change in government for decades; yet another ranks India’s gender gap behind a West Asian nation known for its religious orthodoxy, which still severely restricts women’s rights by official statute. To cap it all, the United Nations’ World Happiness Report ranks India behind nations without a democracy with hyperinflation, surging poverty and food riots.

The truth is that India has been making progress on many cherished liberal goals that such organisations — whatever their other grouses against India or its current leadership — ought to be celebrating. Take, for instance, gender equity. For a long time, one of our greatest scourges was a skewed sex ratio, made worse in recent decades by the misuse of technologies such as ultrasound scanning for sex selection.

But India has made improvements since 2015-16 on various gender norms, including the birth ratio of women and girls’ enrolment in schools. The overall sex ratio has made an astounding turnaround, according to data from the latest round of the National Family Health Survey, from 991 women for every 1,000 men to now 1,020. Initiatives such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao that have enabled this turnaround ought to have been celebrated the world over by individuals and organisations professing to be liberal. Instead, there is barely a mention by them, if not deathly silence. This is, simply, cognitive dissonance.

In an increasingly aware and confident India, the persistence of such bias and cognitive dissonance invariably fuels conspiracy theories about their purveyors. If the stench of a colonial hangover is to be overcome, it is time for global liberals to take a more balanced view of the soon to be most populous nation on earth

Baijayant “Jay” Panda is national vice-president, BJP

The views expressed are personal

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