Media should lead where politicians have failed
For nearly as long as I can remember, the prevailing consensus in mainstream media has been that liberalization is a good thing. Way back in the 1980s, when Dilip Thakore was the founding editor of Businessworld, he always made it clear that his policy was to back the corporate sector against government because there were too many restrictions on doing business in India. Few editors went quite as far as Malcolm Forbes who used to cheerfully describe his eponymous magazine as a capitalist tool, but there was no doubt that few socialists would ever make it to the top editorships.
Partly, this was because newspapers and magazines were owned by corporate houses who had no interest in promoting the Marxist cause. And partly this was because most journalists realized that India needed desperately to liberalise.
In 1991, when Manmohan Singh opened up the economy, he did not have to work very hard at finding supporters in the media. My old boss, Aveek Sarkar, loudly declared, “Forget Mohandas, Manmohan is the true Father of the Nation.” He was over-stating the case, of course, but all of us, myself included, recognized that what Manmohan Singh was doing was long overdue.
Since then, many of us have judged governments by how committed they are to the reforms process. Our old impatience with socialism has been transformed into a mass welcoming of all capitalist innovations and enterprises. More important, we have come to identify liberalization with globalization and have treated the big international financial institutions as forces for the public good.
Over the last year, two events have occurred that could have caused us to stop and change our minds. The first of these is the global economic crisis. Nobody seriously disputes that this crisis was caused by capitalism run amok, by Wall Street’s irresponsibility and by the lack of accountability that international financial institutions enjoyed.
The second event was the General Election. During the UPA’s first term, the Prime Minister had to be persuaded by the Congress Party to accept the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme. He also bitterly opposed the loan write-off for farmers and only fell in line when the Congress insisted.
His reluctance was matched by the press’ lack of enthusiasm for such measures. Most newspapers regarded the National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme as a joke and the write-off was violently opposed by nearly every editorial writer and economic commentator.
We know now – judging by poll surveys – that the primary reason why the UPA won a second term was because it pursued these measures and policies. Even while we in the media were arguing in favour of the market as a mechanism for allocating resources, the people of India seemed to prefer a more direct transfer of wealth.
In the West, the economic crisis has led to the publication of scores of books questioning the basic tenets of global capitalism. Such distinguished economists as Paul Krugman, Jeffrey Sachs and Joe Stiglitz have become media celebrities because of their trenchant criticisms of modern capitalism.
But while the old economic consensus has broken down within Western media, we in India seem entirely unmoved by the events of the last year. Few of us have questioned whether our opposition to the UPA’s social welfare measures was justified. And in all the economic journalism that I read, there is rarely a questioning of the old liberalization-is-terrific consensus. What’s more, we still support globalization with the same enthusiasm.
It is not my case that we are wrong to do this: the jury is still out on that one. My point is: why have we not had the same debate as the West?
At a political level, the absence of the debate can be attributed to the misplaced priorities of the two men who should have led it. Manmohan Singh is our most respected politician and leading liberal economic thinker. Prakash Karat is bright, articulate and entirely committed to Marxist economics.
You would imagine that these two titans would have done battle over the direction that Indian capitalism should now take. Instead, both men got embroiled in a sideshow: a tussle over the nuclear deal. Both invested their egos in this battle and allowed the major issue of the crisis of capitalism to go undebated.
But what about us in the media? Should we now not be questioning our faith in the market as the cure for all ills? Should we not wonder whether it is right for us to oppose loan write-offs at a time when the West is also talking of loan write-offs – for African debt, for example.
The old socialism-is-bad assumptions may have made sense when our economy was at a certain stage of development. But don’t these assumptions need to be re-examined in the light of recent events.
I would argue that they do. What we miss in the Indian media is the sort of debate that has gripped the West: about the nature and direction of capitalism in the future.
The politicians have clearly failed us when it comes to a battle of ideas. So journalists must now take over and debate these issues.