Lies, Damned Lies and Politics

BY dreze & khera| IN Media Practice | 21/02/2004
The recent blitz of pro-government propaganda in the print media has the BJP wizards taking clever manipulation of statistics to a new plane.


This article was published in the Hindustan Times, February 18, 2004 under the title, "Use Your Illusions." Reprinted here with the permission of the authors.


Jean Drèze and Reetika Khera


In a delightful book called How to Lie with Statistics, Darell Huff shows how clever manipulation of statistics provides ample opportunities for deceiving the innocent public. Judging from the recent blitz of pro-government propaganda in the print media, the BJP wizards have not only taken a leaf from Huff’s book but lifted his art to a new plane. 

To illustrate, consider the recent full-page advertisement issued by the National Commission on Population.  The aim is to project a picture of rapid demographic transition during the last three years.  This claim is not borne out by the facts, but no matter - creative presentation can take care of that.  The birth rate, for instance, barely declined during the reference period - from 26 to 25 per thousand.  But this information is presented in the form of a graph where the scale of the vertical axis starts at 24, so that visually, the change from 26 to 25 looks like a decline of 50 per cent.  For further enhancement of this optical illusion, the birth rate level in each year is represented by the height of a three-dimensional object.  With the height declining by 50 per cent in the graph, the volume of the object shrinks by much more than half, giving an impression of massive reduction.  The next graph, showing the change in population growth rate, is even more misleading: the reduction is only from 17.3 to 16.9, but the vertical axis starts at 16.7, giving the impression of a sudden crash in the birth rate within three years. 

Was this an isolated instance of deception?  To scrutinize this hypothesis, we examined all the government advertisements published in four English-medium dailies during the last few weeks.  When the advertisements are lined up without gap, a startling picture of systematic manipulation emerges. 

Deceptive infographics are among the favourite tricks.  The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC), for instance, boasts that its "performance graph is steep".  The accompanying graph, which shows "cumulative earnings", is indeed step.  But cumulative earnings are bound to go up, by definition, and the slope can be made arbitrarily steep by suitable stretching of the vertical axis or shrinking of the horizontal axis.  The claim that "the graph is steep" is therefore plain vacuous. The accompanying statement that KVIC is "India’s biggest and fastest growing marketer of consumer products" is no less perplexing. 

This is not the only way in which vacuous achievements are glorified.  The Ministry of Communications, for instance, boasts that 37.5 lakh internet connections were created during the last five years, compared with "only" 2.5 lakhs during the preceding fifty years.  It hardly matters that internet connections did not exist during the best of the latter period.  Perhaps it would have been more appropriate to ask, say, how many posts of primary teacher were created in each period.  As it turns out, the annual increase is virtually the same in both periods. 

Elsewhere, failures are turned into successes.  For instance, an advertisement due to the Food Ministry congratulates "our farmers who have created surplus stocks of foodgrains, ensuring no death from hunger".  There is no reference here to the trail of hunger deaths that took place in recent years in the shadow of gigantic food stocks - one of the worst blots on the record of the present government.  Similarly, the decimation of handloom weaving all over India in recent years does not prevent the Prime Minister from "weaving a bright future for handloom weavers" in an advertisement prepared by the Ministry of Textiles.  Reading the fine print, one finds that the "bright future" of millions of impoverished weavers hinges on a measly scheme for "reimbursement of rebate on sale of handloom cloth". 

One ostensible aim of this barrage of propaganda is to manufacture an entirely new image of the Prime Minister, Shri Atal Bihari Vajpayee.  His photograph looms large in more than two thirds of the advertisements.  Over and over again, he is projected as a dynamic leader and praised for his "visionary leadership".  This is quite a reincarnation for someone with a propensity for "interminable silences, indecipherable ramblings and, not infrequently, falling asleep in meetings", as Time magazine put it.  And if you think that Time magazine is biased, read India Today, which is very loyal to the Prime Minister.  In a glowing tribute to him, published a few weeks ago, Mr. Vajpayee was praised as an "inaction hero", champion of "Gandhian passive resistance".  Due credit was also given to his "political philosophy" of "duality": "He says one thing and it means two things." 

When factual evidence of achievements is stubbornly wanting, rhetoric steps in.  An advertisement by IFFCO, for instance, claims that the Prime Minister’s "foresightful [sic] initiatives" have ushered a "golden era for agriculture".  This is quite a metaphor, considering that the agricultural sector has been in the doldrums for years.  In fact, the growth of per-capita agricultural production virtually came to a halt in the nineties, and turned negative during the last five years. 

Another way around the lack of evidence is to focus on "targets" rather than achievements.  For instance, the Planning Commission highlights "the reduction in infant mortality rate to 45 per 1,000 live births".  Careful reading reveals that this is not an achievement, but a target for 2007.  Considering that India’s infant mortality rate today is still around 70, one is curious to learn what kind of revolutionary changes in public policy are expected to trigger this steep decline within three years.  But there is no mention of policy changes in the advertisement - only "targets".  Perhaps it is not surprising that the focus shifts from achievements to targets when it comes to social development issues, considering that India is hardly "shining" in this respect.  In fact, India’s rank in the international scale of "human development" indices fell last year from 124th to 127th. 

In a different genre, some advertisements credit Mr. Vajpayee with achievements that are actually due to other governments or parties.  For instance, the Ministry of Environment and Forest associates him with "successful tiger conservation", evident in a substantial increase in the tiger population in "the last three decades".  What is not mentioned is that the key to this success, Project Tiger, was initiated by Mrs. Indira Gandhi and ran into trouble soon after her death.  During the last ten years, there has been no increase in India’s tiger population.  In fact, according to P.K. Sen, former Director of Project Tiger, "the number of tigers in India has now crashed to below 3,000 and is still falling rapidly".  Not content with this subterfuge, the Ministry goes on to claim that "by protecting our national animal we have managed our forests, our ecological wealth, our food and water security" - nothing less. 

By now the reader may be tempted to conclude that these advertisements are worthless and best ignored.  Far from it.  They tell us a great deal, not about the country’s achievements but about the nature of the present government and political system.  For one thing, they lay bare the intimate nexus that has developed between the state, the ruling party and the business world.  The BJP’s brazen use of taxpayer money for party propaganda purposes is one symptom of this nexus.  All the major ministries are contributing their zakat and pliantly beating Mr. Vajpayee’s dhaulak.  The nexus with the business world is fairly transparent, too.  Most of the advertisements prepare the public for huge sops to the private sector, under the guise of "employment generation" and related goals.  Corporate managers are also piggy-backing on this wave of propaganda by borrowing its slogans, symbols and idiom.  For those who had failed to see the writing on the wall, the recent propaganda campaign is quite an eye-opener.











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