Western commentary on India – be it on India’s cricket pitches, management of the Covid pandemic or the farm bills – exhibit important similarities that we Indians must learn from.
Start with the commentary on the spinning wickets. Recall India’s tour to New Zealand in 2002-03. The pitches that were dished out by New Zealand were such a seamers’ dream that India could last all of 58, 38, 38 and 43 overs in the four innings of the 2-Test match series. The second Test featured a dubious record, where for the first time then in 21 years neither of the 22 players scored a half-century.
These performances were by a batting lineup that comprised all-time legends of Indian batting – Sehwag, Dravid, Tendulkar, Ganguly and Laxman. A lineup that had registered Test victories across the world, including swinging conditions such as that at Headingley. Yet, the then New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming had alluded that if the Indian batsmen claim to be the best in the world, they should be able to play in such conditions.
Not one English, Australian or South African commentator found anything untoward about such bowler-friendly conditions. Yet, when a similar tale is being repeated now with the Englishmen – comprising a mediocre batting lineup except Joe Root – the famous English whining is back.
Ben Stokes is a “great all-rounder” despite a shambolic record in two visits to India. But, Virat Kohli would never have been regarded great if his second trip to England was as poor as that of Ben Stokes. Jacques Kallis has as good a record in India as his overall record while Ricky Ponting’s average of 26 in India is half that of his overall average. Similarly, unlike Shane Warne, Dale Steyn has as good a record in India as that elsewhere. Kallis and Steyn must be regarded as greater cricketers than Ponting and Warne respectively. Yet, they do not get that due as performances in India are not valued as much as those in the Western countries.
Now, consider “managing” of national statistics. In a 76-page report, the New York attorney general has highlighted that the New York governor – a “liberal” Democrat – fudged coronavirus deaths in nursing homes by as much as 50%. The governor’s top aide has admitted this. Would any American care about a tweet on this by our Bollywood stars? Imagine the reporting in the Western media if such fudging happened in a state government in India. All of India would be labelled as cheats and the narrative would be pushed – with generous help from sections of the Indian elite – that the much lower deaths in India are because the numbers are “fudged”.
Contrast this with the shrill campaign about the quality of India’s statistics, when the change in the GDP methodology was used to make sweeping generalisations. The 2019-20 Economic Survey used carefully constructed evidence to debunk the narrative that there was any “management” of India’s GDP growth. Thus, the particular example employed for the sweeping generalisation about the quality of India’s statistics was incorrect in the first place. Yet, the insinuation was that the GDP methodology was being tailored so that growth numbers can be “managed” to show higher growth than was being “felt on the ground”.
The same methodology has delivered the unprecedented GDP decline in Q1 of this year. Is it not common sense that the temptation to manage the GDP numbers would have been the highest amidst such decline? Some unscientific folks would claim that even the 23.9% decline was “managed”; never mind the fact that the analysis of the components of the GDP decline demonstrates how fake such a narrative is. Scientists change their inferences based on evidence. Yet, the “scientists” who made the insinuations never care to change their claims after seeing the evidence. If the evidence suits the narrative, use it; ignore it otherwise.
Finally, consider the narrative on the farmer protests. When French farmers protested in November 2019 by clogging national highways using their tractors, did Hollywood stars tweet supporting them? A farmer revolt in Germany has been happening against a controversial new “insect protection law” brought by the German government to curb the use of certain pesticides. German farmers insist that these laws will destroy their livelihood. German cities have been choked with long lines of tractors. How many US media outlets pushed the narrative that the French or German government is dictatorial because of the farmers’ protest? None!
We would be naive to just label these phenomena as duplicity. As Ravichandran Ashwin correctly analyses in his recent YouTube video, in the post-truth world of social media, narrative building is no different from product marketing. While the latter involves a product, the former involves ideas. Having lived in the US for a decade, I can vouch that the rose-tinted views gathered during business trips or vacations that “the West would like India to succeed” is plain naiveté.
The simple lesson is twofold. First, the Western view of the world is centred around themselves. So, as in any country, the media feeds what the readers want to read. Second, private interests drive narrative building in a manner identical to marketers selling their product or service for private profits. We all need to be aware about the narratives that are being sold to us. If we are not careful, our view of the world can easily become distorted, which may not be good for us as individuals or as a society.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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