Tweaking data as in an Orwellian world

The British magazine, The Economist, once wrote about the Chinese growth figures being stir-fried. Is India emulating China in keeping with the "Wuhan spirit"?

To those wary of the "dismal science", as economics was called by the Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, the downgrading of the growth rates when the Congress-led government was in office and the upgrading of such figures in the time of the present regime may look like yet another example of the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) penchant for trashing whatever happened earlier and extolling its own achievements.

The ruling dispensation's latest endeavour can be seen, therefore, as an extension of its practice of rewriting history, which started in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's time, to a field where rigour is the hallmark of the academic exercise.

At the same time, the exceptionally large amount of data which constitutes the basis of the study of figures and charts has occasionally evoked speculation about manipulation by motivated researchers, thereby giving rise to the celebrated phrase about "lies, damned lies and statistics", popularised by Mark Twain.

It is not yet clear to which of these three categories the government's latest claims belong. But it has been suggested that the upping of the growth estimates for the present regime does not reflect the ground reality of joblessness and farmers' distress.

Because of this gap between what is claimed and what is perceived, the suspicion persists that politics may have had more to do with the tweaking of the growth estimates than a meticulous analysis of the economic data.

Unfortunately, however, there is more to this mistrust of the feel-good official assertions at a time when the ruling party's political fortunes are seemingly at a low ebb.

And, in trying to spread good cheer about the party, the government may have encroached on the turf of yet another institution -- the Central Statistical Organisation (CSO) -- which is expected to be free of political "contamination". As a result, it was the government's think-tank, the Niti Aayog, which released the new data, a step which the acting chairman of the National Statistical Commission described as "unusual".

Arguably, the figures may be recalibrated in course of time to make them more credible, but the misgivings about the CSO's competence and impartiality may not be so easy to dispel.

To the government's critics, the latest incidents will seem to be in line with the government's propensity to undermine autonomous and highly regarded institutions. The implosion in the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Finance Ministry's tussles with the Reserve Bank of India are two examples of how institutions can suffer the consequences of the government's interference.

The BJP cannot be unaware that these two episodes have strengthened the perception that it can go to any length to score political points without bothering about the damaging fallout on the institutions which are caught in the cross-fire.

But, while the erosion of, say, the CBI's reputation may only stop the usual clamour of litigants to refer their cases to the organisation which used to be trusted far more than the local police, doubts about the country's statistical data can have repercussions beyond our shores, for foreign investors will become more wary than before.

Up until now, the figures released by the statisticians were implicitly trusted by the people inside and outside India. If the row over the latest numbers continues -- as it is bound to because of the political implications for both the ruling party and the opposition -- then the confidence of the ordinary people as well as the corporate czars will be shaken.

The government's claim that the Indian passport carries greater prestige than before will not be easy to sustain if more and more people tend to believe in what the Wall Street Journal has mockingly said about India recalculating "its already recalculated" economic figures to make the government's "numbers look better".

Prior to these "recalculations", the agriculture ministry undertook some drastic revisions of its own figures to overturn its earlier assessment of the hurtful effects of demonetisation on the agriculture sector to say the exact opposite. There is an unmistakable Orwellian element in these somersaults, which are redolent of George Orwell's classic futuristic novel, "1984".

It appears that in the absence of the promised "achhey din", the government is focusing increasingly on window-dressing or looking better in the eyes of its various audiences. Hence, the Ram temple for the Hindu Right and the claims of a higher growth rate than in Manmohan Singh's time to impress the middle-class.

However, there is an element of the apre moi le deluge (after me, the deluge) mindset in its endeavours, for the government seems unconcerned about either the communally divisive impact of the temple agitation or the downgrading of India's reputation to the levels of Argentina and Venezuela, which had a habit playing around with growth and inflation figures.

(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at amulyaganguli@gmail.com)

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