Open Diary

Swapan Dasgupta is an MP and India’s foremost conservative columnist
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The bad journalism of NYT and the good news from Zimbabwe

THE AMOUNT OF time some Indians spend rubbishing puerile articles just because they appear in some mainstream foreign publications is astonishing. The venom-filled outbursts may be warranted, but they also constitute a colossal waste of time.

There was much huffing and puffing last week over an incredibly silly feature in the New York Times arguing that India’s Hindutva drift could also be discerned in the growing penchant for desi clothes, not least among women. The article was a classic example of undergraduate bravado that, ideally, belonged to a campus magazine and should not have graced a publication that claims to set standards in journalism. Apart from being plain wrong and based on the naïve assumption that there is one standard of sartorial cosmopolitanism, the article pointed to the lax editorial standards of India reporting in the NYT.

The curious India agenda of NYT has been apparent for some time. Those of us who happen to glance at its online edition have often been struck by the politically tendentious nature of the coverage. It almost seems that the NYT is determined to demonstrate that after May 2014 India has been taken over by a rogue regime, hell bent on taking the subcontinent back to the dark ages. Most of the raw data on which the coverage and editorial fulminations are based happen to be culled from Indian publications that make a virtue of parading their ‘dissent’. Obviously, if dissent had indeed been snuffed out, the so-called dissenting articles wouldn’t be there. But professional dissenters are very much in evidence on the social and political landscape and more are not only thriving but even acquiring frequent flier miles by attending seminars on India overseas.

While there is a case for suggesting that NYT has gone a little extra shrill because of the editorial influence of two individuals whose world views are totally at variance with what an average Indian thinks, it is also fair to say that their disproportionate influence stems from the importance we attach to them in India. The uniformly negative portrayal of today’s India in the NYT and The Economist did not, for example, succeed in preventing Moody’s upgrade of its credit rating for Indian Government bonds. That’s because intelligent people quickly realise that certain publications have their pet hates.

There is an old Arab saying: ‘Dogs bark but the caravan moves on.’ Before we get our chaddis in an almighty twist, it is best to remember the virtues of disdainful aloofness.

APART FROM A brief trip to Durban with Prime Minister Vajpayee, I have not really visited Southern Africa. Yet, both South Africa and Zimbabwe, and, to a lesser extent, Namibia, loomed large in my consciousness as a student. If Vietnam dominated the imagination of the young until Saigon fell in 1974, for the subsequent generation it was the struggle for majority rule in Southern Africa that seemed all important.

Living in London in the late-1970s, I got a wonderful opportunity of meeting large numbers of South African exiles. A particularly good friend was Ghaleb Cachalia—who some of us used to refer to as ‘Bertie’ after a Wodehouse character—who is now an MP for the Democratic National Alliance which is opposing the African National Congress. Ghaleb had deep family links with Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo, Bishop Tutu and all the stalwarts of the ANC. He kindled my interest in South African politics and through him and my flat mate Peter Alexander, now an academic in Johannesburg, I got to understand the vagaries of White minority rule. I recall the great excitement during the Lancaster House talks and the subsequent elections that facilitated the peaceful transfer of power to Robert Mugabe in Rhodesia, 1979.

Although the radical fraternity remained unflinchingly committed to the democratic transition in both South Africa and Rhodesia, there was always a nagging, unspoken fear: would these two countries also go the way of other post-colonial African states? The fear was pronounced for two other reasons. First, South Africa was by far the most developed in the continent and Zimbabwe’s achievements, particularly in agriculture, were also enviable. Secondly, would democracy be able to secure a place for the White minority whose political record was despicable but whose contribution to the economic development of both countries was laudable?

Mandela managed to ensure that South Africa kept its composure, but Mugabe was a real disappointment. Under him, Zimbabwe was ruined. I am so relieved to know he is finally being shown the door.