Under Fire From Modi, Intellectuals Need to Reach Out to People

Modi recently fired another un-prime ministerial salvo at all those economists who have dared to criticise demonetisation. In the process he made good use of the recent official estimate of 7 percent GDP growth for the third quarter of the current financial year and the projection of 7.1 percent for the entire year.

The jibe took the form of a repetition of his old barb of “hard work is more powerful than Harvard” and his annotation of the same:

On the one hand are those (criticising demonetisation) who talk of what people at Harvard say, and on the other is a poor man’s son, who through his hard work, is trying to improve the economy.

Also Read: Hard Work Better Than Harvard: Modi’s Dig at Amartya Sen Over GDP

Modi’s jibe is based on highly questionable official statistics and decency demands that he realise that it is demonetisation that has blunted the hard work of his billion plus country men.

Let me explain why: Almost all surveys of incomes generated in the informal sector post demonetisation by independent and credible sources show significant negative growth post demonetisation; given that the informal sector accounts for about half of the country’s GDP, only a fantastic growth of the formal sector at a rate far exceeding 20 percent is consistent with such growth statistics.

Captains of industry in the formal sector, including Indra Nooyi of Pepsi (no Modi baiter), have complained of a deceleration in growth. Thus, clearly such fantastic growth has not been achieved.

In terms of hard work, the Indian peasant or unskilled labourer certainly matches those associated with centres of excellence such as Harvard.

Modi, however, surpasses them in devotion though that is targeted towards the maximisation of electoral support: In the past few months he has unleashed an array of class wars (rich versus poor; Hindu versus Muslim; intellectuals versus the aam aadmi etc) whose evidence can be found even in a cursory examination of media reports.

The academic or the intellectual has much to learn from Modi whose diabolical but simple messaging continues to be a big hit with the masses. We (I have the temerity to include myself in the category) have by and large lost our power to communicate with them.

A large chunk of academics restrict their contributions to academic journals whose accessibility is limited to academics themselves. There is nothing wrong in aspiring to contribute to such journals; it is the shunning of popular or low brow outlets which is the problem.

Obviously, there are incentives built into the academic system which encourage the above tendencies. When an academic writes for a popular outlet his contribution should be considered as a service to the community and rewarded. Why are we then so reluctant within our own smaller community to reward such contributions?

Even a 100 articles in The New York Times or The Quint would not be counted as the equivalent of one paper in the American Economic Review or I daresay even the Indian Economic Review (a lowly cousin of the former) from the point of view of academic progress though the eyeballs grabbed in the former scenario would be infinitely higher. Whose eyeball you grab matters and the implied state of affairs is extremely sad.

This snobbery has proved to be our undoing. Yet when Modi manages to communicate with and mislead the masses, we wring our hands. Most (me included) blame Modi for his dishonesty and the masses for their stupidity; there is no effort, however, to undertake any kind of self-examination.

For example, how many of us have asked ourselves whether there are any improvements we can make in our efforts to serve the larger community of non-academic persons, in many cases tax payers who finance our salaries? You cannot take pride in confining yourself to an exclusive club and yet get hurt when a Pied Piper woos away those excluded from the club.

The basic message that I want to communicate to my fellow academics is the following:

Modi is lying when he implies that we are not hard working. All of us know that we slave away teaching classes, guiding research and writing journal articles; this often involves sacrificing our weekends, to the chagrin of our spouses or offspring. But what good is that if we cut ourselves off from the larger community that we were meant to serve and thus antagonise it by complementing the efforts of a diabolical, but people-friendly propaganda machine?

Therefore, let us get rid of our superiority complexes and break free of the narrow confines of the Ivory Tower. Otherwise, we should be prepared to lose out to Modi and Trump!

(The author is a Professor and Coordinator at the Department of Economics, Centre for Advanced Studies, Jadavpur University. This is a personal blog and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)