Home / Opinion / Views /  Opinion | The futility of lashing out without listening

If you thought the “gotcha" instinct on social media could not get any worse, think again. Union ministers barely have to make a remark that’s at odds with conventional wisdom for them to find themselves trolled by tweets and WhatsApp forwards. Anxiety over the economy may have much to do with it. Times are tough, and what ministers say naturally gets extra scrutiny. But should their words be plucked out of context and blown out of proportion? At a Board of Trade meeting last week, while arguing against the use of mathematical projections for reality checks on India’s goal of a $5 trillion economy by 2024-25, commerce and industry minister Piyush Goyal remarked that it wasn’t math that helped Einstein discover gravity. This got jeers and laughs. Earlier, speaking of various factors behind falling vehicle sales, finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman referred to studies showing a shift in millennial mindsets away from car ownership toward the routine use of ride-hailing apps to get around. Apart from consternation, it set off a merry-go-round of memes that made fun of India’s youth being blamed for the country’s economic woes. A bit of harmless humour should bother nobody, but to reduce a minister’s message to an easily pilloried sound bite is not just unfair, it could stultify the national discourse on serious matters if taken to extremes.

The burden of Goyal’s argument was that growth graphs do show inflexion points, and it’s self-belief that would help the economy achieve its goal, no matter how out of reach it looked at the moment. In other words, it was meant to be a pep talk. As for the minister’s alleged gaffe on gravity, Einstein’s purported discovery of it did strike a strange note. Even school kids know the story of an apple falling on Newton’s head. But this tale is probably apocryphal. Also, while Newton was the first formal theorist of this natural force, much of Einstein’s work was indeed aimed at understanding gravity in extra-terrestrial contexts of the universe at large. Goyal later clarified that he didn’t mean no math went into Einstein’s theory at all, but that credit for it was due to a leap of the mind—a discontinuity. Likewise, Sitharaman’s principal point was to highlight various trends that held car sales back, and it is true that a significant number of millennials prefer the convenience of cab services such as Ola and Uber, rather than having to service car loans and maintain their own vehicles.

Not everything spoken, even by someone in a position of authority, needs to meet academic standards of exactitude. Unfortunately, the urge to score political brownie points has reduced the leeway that simple courtesy would have us grant public speakers; and a controversy, once it starts trending, tends to assume a life of its own. Hardening attitudes have begun to close avenues for real debates on critical issues. Some of the barbs aimed at ministers seem to stem from exasperation with their efforts—as construed—to duck hard questions over our faltering economy. This could be why even stray comments are taken as waffle—or, worse, as insensitive. Recall how Congress leader Shashi Tharoor had to apologize as minister in 2009 for his “cattle class" jest. Like then, the economy has hit a rough patch. Like then, we’re all in it together—which is good reason to refrain from lashing out without listening.

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