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Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Manmohan Singh and Time Magazine

A file photo of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Time magazine firestorm
To think that a cover story in Time can influence people’s minds, or build momentum towards a particular opinion reflects, reflects a very poor understanding of the mind of the Indian voter

Salil Tripathi 

It was the best of Time; it was the worst of Time. Within two years, the international newsmagazine has published two features about Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which can be characterized as the “best” or the “worst”, depending entirely on your politics. In 2010, when the magazine ranked 100 of the most important people in the world, Singh was among them, and Indra Nooyi, chairwoman and CEO of PepsiCo wrote: “Now, as Prime Minister, he is guiding India into the ranks of the great powers. India today is a critical engine of global growth, a vital partner in global security and a model for democratic development. Perhaps more important, Singh is ensuring this progress is not enjoyed by a chosen few; he realizes that economic development is the best antipoverty program a government can design. Albert Einstein said, “Try not to become a man of success but rather try to become a man of value.” In endeavoring to lift India’s people to prosperity and stability, Singh has achieved both.”

A file photo of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

That is high praise. Within two years, journalist Krista Mahr’s cover story has been titled “The Underachiever”, with the mocking sub-title: India needs a reboot: Is Prime Minister Manmohan Singh upto the job? The story itself goes on to list familiar failures and charges of corruption that have undermined his government, saying in his rule India has suffered and been made insecure. Predictably, the Bharatiya Janata Party, conveniently forgetting its own outrage over a story critical of its prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee in 2002 in the same magazine, has asked the Congress to introspect over such a poor assessment; the Congress has ridiculed the story altogether.

Time’s journalists of course have the right to hand out the kind of grades they like in report cards they hand out to leaders of India or any other country. The magazine itself has the right to change its mind about a particular leader. And the magazine can, if it wants to, speak in two voices in the same issue about a particular leader. Publications ought to be big tents, and people will view most politicians differently. (Time knows this: in March this year, it placed Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi on its Asian cover, asking if he is ready to lead India; in April, Modi was a candidate in its poll of 100 most influential people in the world. In the end, Modi failed to make the grade when the final list was announced, among the reasons being the highly polarizing vote).

Each time Time takes on an Indian politician, it seems, the Indian chatterati, or at least the twitterati, come to a standstill, praising or fulminating against their chosen politician, as though it required an American weekly magazine to help Indians articulate what they think. That is ridiculous. Indians know what they think of their politicians; they vote on the basis of what they know. The influence of any foreign publication – be it Time, Newsweek, or The Economist – is by definition limited, because of its price, reach, and the barriers posed by language and literacy.

Beyond that, assessment of any politician is a complicated matter – be it Modi or Manmohan Singh. India is shining and declining; it has much to be proud of and a whole lot to be embarrassed about. The leader at the top can influence direction upto a point, but the country follows its own trajectory, at its own pace. Indeed, people make up their own minds about what they think of the leaders. But to think that a cover story in Time can influence people’s minds, or build momentum towards a particular opinion reflects, reflects a very poor understanding of the mind of the Indian voter.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London

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