A new India: Selected details

Book cover of A New India: Selected Writings 2014-19
Arun Jaitley does not need any introduction. The Supreme Court lawyer, Bharatiya Janata Party member and minister, had a dazzling public career that ended with his death in August 2019. Jaitley was also a writer of non-fiction. He could make his points land like falcons on unsuspecting prey. This book’s foreword by Prime Minister Narendra Modi paints Jaitley as “one of the most reliable voices to pierce through the fog and make important points on the outlook of the government.” The phrase “outlook of the government” means the government’s opinion on or interpretation of its  own actions, that may well be disputable. They frequently are, in this book.

The book is a collection of blog posts written by Jaitley between 2014, when the Modi government came to power, and 2019. The book explains the government’s steps and missteps to preserve and protect its image among citizens. The right way to do this would involve highlighting the positive work of the government while owning up to its lapses; by so doing, the writer would have served his readers, not his political masters. But what Jaitley does is to defend his government even at the cost of taking a detour to avoid unflattering facts. There’s a word for this: Spin.

It can be argued that because the book was written before the pandemic, its rosy outlook must be excused. Still, you need strong medicine to ingest claims such as, “The construction sector is growing at 11% because those with higher incomes in rural areas are improving their housing.” The juicy figure, which is unattributed, could not be verified online. Moreover, is the writer referring to the growth in the profits of construction companies? Is he talking about a growth in the number of houses being made? Floors being added? Something else?

The book has glaring gaps. For instance, the drumroll-like statement that “99% rural homes are connected with sanitation” lacks nuance. Independent research by the Research Institute for Compassionate Economics (RICE), in the period pertaining to which Jaitley made this claim, clearly says, “44% of the rural population in Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan still defecate in the open.” Both statements must be read together. But the writer doesn’t mention the second one.

A New India: Selected Writings 2014-19 
Author: Arun Jaitley
Publisher: Juggernaut
Pages: 384; Price: Rs 799

Or sample this. Jaitley says, “...cheap and subsidised food grain is being provided to the extent of Rs 1.84 lakh crore. No Indian will sleep hungry.” As of October 2019, however, India had slid to 102nd place (from 95th place in 2018) in the Global Hunger Report (GHR) compiled by Concern Worldwide and Welt Hunger Hilfe, a couple of non-profit organisations. India has fared worse at tackling hunger than Nepal, Bangladesh, and Pakistan.

The writer is shaky even when making political commentary. He writes, “... a combination of separatists, jihadis and Maoists ganged up to raise slogans like ‘Desh ke tukde tukde’ at New Delhi’s JNU...” But his slurs lack evidence. At least two of these high-profile student activists, Shehla Rashid and Kanhaiya Kumar, later joined electoral politics, Kumar in Bihar and Rashid in Kashmir (though Rashid has since taken a step back), thus expressing their faith in the Indian democratic process. Don’t separatists, jihadis and Maoists typically shun elections?

The writer also brings selective perception to matters of national security and the military. He calls the 2019 Balakot air strikes a success. He doesn’t mention that Pakistan launched a retaliatory air attack, downed an Indian Air Force jet, captured an IAF pilot, and released him a few days later, embarrassing the Modi government.

Advocating violence to handle the troubled areas of India, the writer pours scorn on the Congress party’s promise to weaken the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA). For decades, the people of Manipur, and other places where such acts prevail, have said the armed forces have carried out fake encounters under cover of AFSPA. These are not rumours. In 2018, the Supreme Court even gave permission to file FIRs against certain armed forces officers for having a hand in fake encounters.

By now it is easy to guess how Jaitley deals with the controversy over the purchase of Rafale jets. After inking the deal, the Modi government was accused of three things: One, that it had bought the jets for an eyebrow-raising price; two, that it had favoured an Indian businessman by choosing him to build the airplanes; and three, that it had bypassed procedures to make the deal. First, Jaitley attacks the allegations that were mainly levelled by the Congress party and pooh-poohs the damaging reports carried by The Hindu. Second, Jaitley points out how the Congress itself was embroiled in the Bofors howitzer scandal during Rajiv Gandhi’s premiership. What has that to do with the Rafale deal? Surely, the “all in the buff in the hamam” argument is feeble.

The book’s claims make it a dicey read for the concerned citizen and the student of public policy. It is hard to recommend this book to anyone, apart from students of journalism who want to practise fact-checking. The book will keep them occupied.

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