The global tarnishing

Topics Narendra Modi

'Tarnishing the image of the country’ has become the new buzz-phrase applied to citizens who may express their concerns about India’s current social and political trajectory. A subsidiary offence associated with this exercise is to “undermine the impressive performance of the prime minister”. Or so a recently withdrawn sedition petition would have us believe. The problem gallant defenders of the prime ministerial faith may face is that, right now, it is the international institutions that are doing the so-called undermining and tarnishing. 

Immediately before and after the Xi-Modi Mamallapuram spectacular, three institutions have come up with economic growth projections for India that are far from impressive. Last week, Moody’s Investor Service cut its 2019-20 GDP growth forecast from an already modest 6.2 per cent to 5.8 per cent. Its report suggests that India’s government has scored own goals. “The drivers of the deceleration are multiple, mainly domestic and in part long-lasting,” Moody’s report stated. 

A day later, the International Monetary Fund’s new managing director, Kristalina Georgieva, mentioned India and Brazil, both BRICs champions once upon a time, as the two countries in which the “synchronised slowdown” in the global economy is most pronounced. On Tuesday, the IMF duly trimmed its 2019-20 forecast from 7 per cent to 6.1 per cent. That was preceded by an even more drastic slashing of projections by the World Bank to 6 per cent from an unwarrantedly optimistic 7.5 per cent. ADB and Fitch had also announced downward revisions in FY20 forecasts (7.2 to 6.5 per cent and 6.8 to 6.6 per cent respectively).

That little of this has been greeted with hand-wringing on editorial pages or fulminations on TV shout shows is principally because these institutions are, in a sense, behind the curve. Those who follow these things already know this bad news, since the central bank had cut its forecast from 6.9 per cent to 6.1 per cent and high-frequency indicators had flashed the warnings long before. Belying the untenably optimistic Budget projections, first quarter growth hit a multi-quarter low of 5 per cent and the second quarter is expected to be worse. And Indians who face the impact of slowing growth in their daily lives have already started feeling the impact.

These institutions, which are concerned with arcane numbers, aren’t the only ones “tarnishing the image of the country”. Over the year, global country rankings that various institutions publish also suggest that Narendra Modi’s “impressive performance” may be hard to spot. 

Let’s consider the recently released Global Hunger Index. India didn’t have an impressive ranking on this index to begin with despite an elaborate and expensive Right to Food legislation. But in 2019, India’s rank stood at 102, down from 95 in 2010.

This marks a steady deterioration from the 83rd position in 2000. In the spirit of whataboutery that typifies the public discourse these days, it is fair to say that the avowedly pro-poor United Progressive Alliance’s performance wasn’t impressive either. But it may be recalled that the successor forged to power on the promise of delivering development like never before. When the share of wasting — or low-weight-for-height — rises from 16.5 per cent in 2008-12 to 20.8 per cent in 2014-18 and outstrips Yemen and Djibouti, it is possible to question the veracity of that electoral promise.

Higher education, another sub-set of human development, has been a particular focus of Mr Modi’s HRD ministry in a variety of ways. This year, however, saw Indian universities drop out of the top 300 in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings for the first time since 2012. 

In overall human development, in fact, the needle has scarcely moved. The country weighed in at 135 out of 188 countries in the UNDP’s 2014 Human Development Report. In 2018, it stood at 130 out of 189 countries.

With Make in India, Digital India, and scores of other branded government programmes apparently designed to turn India into an industrial racehorse, the country should have zoomed up the rankings in terms of global perception. But the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index — which relies heavily on the perceptions of global business executives — showed that India had slipped 10 ranks to 68 among 141 countries. This drop was not because it had scored all that poorly but because other peer countries did better.  

India did record improvements on three indices that reflect issues high on Mr Modi’s radar. The Ease of Doing Business Index (up 53 notches between 2016 and 2018 to 77 among 190 economies), the Global Corruption Index (up three ranks to 78 out of 180 countries in 2018) and the Global Innovation Index (up 29 spots between 2014 and 2019 from 81 to 52 in 129 economies). In the EODB index, some of the sub-indices have made genuinely notable improvements, with three of them figuring in the top 25. But to describe these improvements, which place India in the Mediocre Middle, as an impressive performance would amount to overstatement. And it’s the world that’s telling us this, not “anti-national” Indians. 

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