By Amulya Ganguli
There is no second opinion about the BJP’s remarkable organizational capability. Whenever a group of academics or retired bureaucrats come out with a statement criticizing the government, a rival group loses no time to put out a favourable assessment of the ruling party. The promptness of the rejoinder underlines an alert and widespread network which is loathe to allow any aspersion on the government go unchallenged.
Not surprisingly, there is a report about countering the anti-government pronouncements of foreign institutions by an Indian think tank which is expected to give a tit-for-tat response. Its main claim to fame will be its independence from official control as it compiles its own worldwide democracy and press freedom indexes. These will be based on comprehensive parameters unlike the “biased” and “ill-informed” reports of the foreign groups.
The report about an Indian panel preparing to take the Western critics head-on has followed several articles by pro-government bloggers who have questioned the right of unidentified “experts” to sit in judgment on India. Most of these writers have smelt not only an ingrained anti-Indian outlook among the alien experts, but also a specific agenda to show India in a poor light just when its stocks are believed by the ruling party to be rising.
There is little doubt that the nation, and the world, will eagerly await the first report of the new desi think tank which will be constituted for the express purpose of burnishing India’s image unlike the existing “watering holes” of analysts and theorists who have never taken the time out to respond to the foreign indictment of conditions relating to governance.
The only disadvantage of the new panel will be that it will take time to establish its reputation as an outfit which can be taken seriously. Unlike Sweden’s V-Dem Institute and America’s Freedom House, whose unflattering observations about the decline in India’s status as a democracy have apparently led to the government’s latest effort, the proposed Indian think tank cannot but be regarded as a neophyte.
Moreover, since the initiative for establishing it is expected to come from the external affairs ministry, the new centre of the intelligentsia will first have to demonstrate its autonomy if it is to avoid the jibe of being a barely disguised front for the government. As is obvious, the composition will be crucial. But, at a time when the Right-Centre-Left political divisions are discernible in the ranks of the intellectuals as well, it will not be easy for the government or any other agency to find individuals who will be universally acknowledged as being impartial.
Then, there is the question of ambience. It cannot be gainsaid that the country is passing through a phase when the Right-wing forces are not only trying to establish their political hegemony across the land, but have also succeeded in influencing large sections of the media to propagate their worldview. Not only that, the government’s critics are almost routinely accused of being anti-nationals.
It is not accidental that a reputed analyst who hasn’t been one of the government’s admirers has had to resign from his position as a professor in a university which is funded by the private sector. As the former Reserve Bank governor, Raghuram Rajan, has said, the university’s founders have sold their souls, presumably to the powers-that-be. It’s worth recalling that not only ago, the industrialist, Rahul Bajaj, had pointed out in front of high ranking ruling politicians that the private sector is scared of the government.
The relative ease with which the government was able to secure the signatures of icons of the cinema, sporting and musical world to lambaste in tandem with the official line the support extended by international celebrities like Greta Thunberg and Rihanna to the farmers’ agitation showed how the ruling party’s writ extends well beyond its normal political reach to encompass other supposedly autonomous segments of society.
To expect, therefore, a think tank, which will obviously be set up with the government’s blessings, to think on its own will be unrealistic. For all practical purposes, it will be an extension of the pro-government media and columnists.
But, irrespective of whether it succeeds in presenting India’s case to the world, or fails to do so, what is worth noting is that the government’s effort underlines a sense of unease about its image abroad notwithstanding the ruling party’s political successes at home. None of its predecessors had bothered to take such a step even if they were at the receiving end of a bad press. They usually left it to the bureaucrats to respond.
Although the external affairs ministry has been regularly reacting to criticism by foreign officials or media personnel, the government evidently believes that it is not enough and that there is a need to do more. But what if the think tank, too, fails to carry conviction?