Depending on what you read — commentary on the editorial pages, Sunday specials or the wide world of internet — you may reach very different conclusions on the affairs of the day. One view has it that India has failed to challenge the Chinese intrusions and is hiding the extent of PLA’s ingress. The other sees the Indian pushback as vigorous, upsetting the Communist giant’s plans to intimidate its smaller neighbour into submission.
Indeed, if the idea was to deliver a sharp, hard crack on the knuckles so as to remind India of its vulnerabilities on the Himalayan borders, China’s strategy unravelled in Galwan on the night of June 15 itself. Whatever the plan, it could not have included deaths of its own soldiers, whether a handful or dozens as various reports suggest.
Yet, the issue at hand is not about facts as such. The chances are that many will gravitate towards the opinion that matches and bolsters their view of events, a choice likely influenced by political affiliations. Analysts call it “confirmation bias” and social media’s digital echo chambers only encourage this tendency to absorb and propagate partisan views. So, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s critics have rarely detected a bright spot since 2014. Those on the other side see this as ideological bias and have their own set of facts.
This, too, is not surprising. Much of society, and the media is no exception, seems to suffer from a post-factual effect. What is astonishing is that in this scenario experts might still be seen as immune to polarising influences and escape closer scrutiny of stated and unstated alignments. That their claims to superior knowledge are unquestioningly accepted even if an expert’s own moorings cry out hoarsely for self-disclosure.
The China and Covid-19 situations expectedly provide former bureaucrats, ex-technocrats who worked in government and retired military brass an opportunity to lean in with views and opinions. Such a discussion does engage and even provoke as it should. But oddly, columnists who previously took an indulgent view of Chinese land grab are now holding the government to more demanding standards. Similarly, some former officials insistently demand government “acknowledge” community transmission of Covid-19, not so much on the basis of information or current expertise, but the halo of posts once held.
Many experts who offer prescriptions fail to mention decisions and policies adopted in their time in office. India’s neighbourhood has never presented a picture of calm and quiet. Every Prime Minister from Jawaharlal Nehru onwards has been tested by the aggressive actions of Pakistan and China. Sri Lanka was a headache for decades that drew Rajiv Gandhi into a bloody conflict. Apart from 26/11, a coup in the sun-kissed Maldives threw up a nasty surprise for Manmohan Singh. Bangladesh became a sanctuary for ISI-supported jihadis till the current regime came to office.
Truth be told, neutrality or objectivity may be fruitless, even unrewarding goals. Alignments or tilts should be accepted as only natural and opinion expressed read in relevant contexts. People like Brajesh Mishra and Ajit Doval would be NSAs only in BJP regimes. M K Narayanan and Shiv Shankar Menon were key members of Manmohan Singh’s team, shaping the then PM’s response on foreign police and security. There is no reason to doubt contributions of those who held high positions. But they have their sympathies.
Opinion and analysis offered by experts is increasingly politicised just as other aspects of public life. Some of the retired army officers who speak on the military situation have provided inputs to opposition manifestos. Others who find merit in the Modi government’s political initiatives in Jammu and Kashmir are often in sync with an assertive approach to national security. BJP’s “prakhar rashtrawad (strong nationalism)” is “majoritarianism” for the Left and liberal set and is a line that often divides experts too.
The progressive politicisation of expert opinion accelerated with the advent of the Modi government in 2014. No respecter of the “Lutyens’ consensus” and nurturing his own ideas of politics and policy, Modi quickly overturned several long-standing foreign policy, welfare and security shibboleths. He found little use for the prescriptions of Delhi’s gilded lot, and instead sought allies in the bureaucracy and brought in experts who shared his priorities and often enough his political vision too.
A key question then is whether experts, pronouncing on the issues of the day, are consistent, irrespective of circumstance and the colour of the political regime. Changing one’s opinion is not a crime but it’s not too difficult to detect an opportunistic switch as against a genuine change of heart. It might be time to acknowledge that “experts” have preferences and governments and parties draw on distinct ecosystems. There may be no such thing as a “neutral” expert and objectivity could lie in the eye of the beholder.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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