Some sense of what is happening in India can be gleaned from four news stories. On Wednesday, the Indian Supreme Court decides on whether it should be bound, like other public agencies, by the Right to Information Act; the Indian rupee last week fell by 0.5 per cent after ratings agency Moody’s lowered the country’s credit rating outlook, citing growth concerns; the poor quality of Delhi’s air continues to make headlines around the world; and a long-running dispute over the holy site of Ayodhya has finally been settled.
These developments tell an India story that is patchy, but it is fair to ask if they should even be taken together. Is it fair to link a court ruling on the right to information with an economic slowdown – not uncommon, and certainly not at a time of heightened global trade tensions and subdued growth – while throwing in air pollution and a judicial verdict on a contentious, decades-old land dispute? Does a common thread run through all of them?
The answer is that it offers a portrait of India in 2019. It is fitting that its highest court and chief justice consider the serious matter of whether they should be covered under the transparency law. Their verdict will settle a discussion that goes back to 2010, when a three-judge bench of the Delhi High Court ruled that the office of the chief justice of India is a “public authority” and comes under the RTI Act. The judgment was challenged in the supreme court and now, it will pronounce on it.
But what of the other matters? The noxious haze that shrouded Delhi earlier this month is an annual problem at this time of year, caused by construction dust and crop stubble-burning, and politicians have offered a rather inadequate response. Meanwhile, tourists are staying away and flights are disrupted.
Then there is the slowdown – India's finance minister recently acknowledged the "challenges" faced by the economy – and it is affecting everything from car sales to gold purchases, as well as the way investors view India. Not too long ago, India was the world's fastest-growing economy, chugging along at more than 8 per cent. Now it is at 5 per cent, the weakest rate in six years.
And finally, there is the Ayodhya verdict. The ruling by India’s highest court that Hindus should be allowed to build a temple on the disputed site and that Muslims be given another piece of land for a mosque throws up different opinions. Some see the verdict as a victory for Hindu hardliners. Others say it draws a line under the past and gives India the chance to move on from a deeply polarising period in its history.
Six months into prime minister Narendra Modi’s second term, after a massive election victory, some say that India is falling short in terms of its national brand. It has a strong leader, but a weakening economy, institutions that appear to be increasingly fusing political, legal and religious considerations, as well as an estimated 22 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities.
Others would argue that India is negotiating a changing world with some of the greatest possible advantages — domestic political stability, decisive leadership and a dominant narrative. Add to that India’s ability to build strong ties and manage delicate negotiations in the Middle East, maintaining relations with Palestinian territories, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Qatar, Turkey and Israel with careful diplomacy.
How then to read some of the nuanced commentary on the state of India today?
Kaushik Basu, a professor of international studies and economics at Cornell University and former chief economic adviser to the Indian government, recently suggested that the Indian economic slowdown “is mostly collateral damage, the result of an erosion of trust caused by the country’s drift toward illiberalism”. Indian academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta noted that the Ayodhya verdict was “a reflection on the state of India’s politics”. This is why no one expected that the country’s highest court would ask for the restoration of the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya, the 14th century structure that was razed to the ground by Hindu mobs on December 6, 1992, Mehta wrote. And researchers for the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago in India described the problems in handling what they call Delhi’s “public health emergency”. Not enough people are properly aware of the harmful effects of air pollution, the researchers said, even as “wealthier households are able to avoid the outdoors, commute in air-conditioned vehicles, work in offices and invest in air purifiers”.
The three opinions cover disparate fields – economics, the law and the environment – but the baseline is the same. Essentially, they say that India’s problem lies in changing both too little and too much. So while there is an attempt to settle old disputes and address the challenges of today, more attention needs to be paid to social and economic inequality, institutional strength and credibility, as well as what makes for business confidence among investors, both domestic and foreign.
Former ad man and international policy adviser Simon Anholt once offered the following take on how nations can brand themselves: “The only remaining superpower is international public opinion”. This prompts the following question: what is India internationally known for at this point of time?
Old-timers would still say it is the land of Gandhi but millennials will probably also associate India with the rise of nationalism, majoritarian politics and the weakening of the rule of law, all of which are apparent in Turkey, Hungary, Poland and the US as well.
The point about a nation’s brand is that it should be a faithful, current representation. For years, India has had an unbeatable and attractive brand. Despite its poverty, it was a land of non-violence, peace and love; a country that strived, despite its communal divides, to elevate and dignify all citizens with equal access to the law and to the national narrative.
I’m not sure that remains wholly true today. It remains to be seen how India builds brand value.