Of umbrage and exception

April 26, 2016 12:51 am | Updated November 17, 2021 03:02 am IST

Counselling caution is not easy in public life. Be too subtle, and you risk falling below the radar. Sharpen your observations to get the point home, and you risk upsetting sensitivities, genuine as well as contrived. > Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan ’s remark seeking to put > India’s economic performance in perspective has drawn predictable criticism. Using a familiar Hindi metaphor, “ andhon mein kana raja ”, or “in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”, he had warned against exulting about India’s seven-odd per cent > GDP growth amid a global slowdown . In the course of an interview on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund’s spring meeting, he said our growth figures must not make us believe that all is on track, and went on to count the green shoots of recovery India needs to nurture. It has long been Dr. Rajan’s theme song that economic management needs leadership to be on top of every possible anxiety. In 2005, it led him to wade against the feel-good current of the heady pre-2008 era, and warn a gathering of leading economists in Wyoming, U.S., that crafty instruments such as credit default swaps were endangering the financial system. They didn’t listen. And post-2008, Dr. Rajan instantly acquired an oracular aura. And in his current job as Governor of the central bank, he has continued to heed every collective anxiety and recommend that India redouble its efforts to grow faster.

That was perhaps the background for the “one-eyed king” metaphor. But Dr. Rajan has had to wheel back, and apologise for any hurt he may have caused the blind or visually impaired. Clearly, in the post-Greenspan age, a central banker does not have the defences available to the brainy professor to blink his way out of misconstrued, if not misconstructed, sentences. In fact, no one within coughing distance of a political stage does. Ask Gloria Steinem, who worried that young American women were missing the feminist logic of supporting Hillary Clinton in her quest for the Democratic nomination, as the “boys” were with rival Bernie Sanders. Or ask Shashi Tharoor. He’s had to explain himself hoarse to retrieve context for his comparison of Kanhaiya Kumar to Bhagat Singh. In a media culture of too much information, often it is the juiciest and potentially most controversial that spins the news and social media cycle. Words are easily taken out of context and their repetition frays even reasonably thick skins, and in the end we are all a collection of raw nerves. Public figures have the option of waging their argument regardless, and pausing only for the politically correct, and humane, apology — as Dr. Rajan did. Or of heeding the advice that his predecessor as Chief Economic Adviser, Kaushik Basu, got when he moved out of academia into a Raisina Hill office: “I should make sure not only that no sentence of mine conveyed some unwarranted message but also that no consecutive set of words within the sentence conveyed a wrongful message since in reporting my comments the media, in their eagerness to make news, could drop words at the start and end of my sentences.”

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