Who needs facts when you have a snazzy graph? The Bharatiya Janata Party under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has frequently been accused of attempting to change the message over an issue regardless of facts on the ground. Senior BJP leader LK Advani once called Modi a “brilliant events manager”. A graph tweeted out by the BJP on Monday, as protestors across the country took to the streets to protest the spike in petrol and diesel prices over the last few months, encapsulated this sentiment perfectly:
At first sight that chart seems nonsensical. It appears to be a bar graph of fuel prices, yet somehow the figure for September 10, 2018, Rs 72, is much lower than the Rs 56 it was on 16 May 2014, when the Congress-run United Progressive Alliance lost the Lok Sabha elections to Modi’s BJP. In fact, the bar even shows Rs 72 to be lower than the Rs 30 the price was more than nine years ago, in 2009.
Nothing better conveys the impression of the Modi government’s approach of saying, “If the data doesn’t look good, we’ll just get other data instead.” The government has used a similar tack when defending its record on jobs, when attempting to explain the massive economic blunder that was demonetisation and in the roundabout manner the government has attempted to defend its actions on the Rafale deal.
But none of those has been as blatant as this chart, which anyone who spends more than a second looking at would be able to identify as being flawed. Maybe the only comparable incident was when the government released a picture of Modi carrying out an “aerial survey” of the Chennai floods that was blatantly photoshopped, leading to the tag of “photoshop sarkar”.
Naturally, the chart provoked plenty of humour online.
Even the Congress took a shot at ‘fixing’ the graph, by adding the context of the international price of oil, which plummeted after 2014.
A more charitable view on the chart might lead you to believe that the visualisation depicts percentage increase in the price of fuel, rather than the absolute value. If that were the case, then it would make sense that the 14% growth between 2014 and 2018 would be less than the 75% growth between 2009 and 2014. Yet even this assumption breaks down because the chart depicts 75% as being barely higher than 14% and 20%. Moreover, if it were visualising percentage increase, what exactly is the point of that first bar, referring to the price of fuel in 2004?
What the BJP would like the viewer to believe is that prices were terribly low in 2004, when they were in charge, and shot up massively under the Congress-run UPA government, while the BJP managed to slow down the price rise. Somehow, using visual cues it wants to convey the idea that Rs 72 today is not as bad as Rs 56 four years ago. As the Congress’s joke response depicts, this entirely misses the context of international crude prices and inflation being far lower than under Modi than they were during the previous regime, and yet the price within India remaining stubbornly high.
There might be good reasons for that. The BJP-run government has refused to cut duties on imported fuel, which is the bulk of India’s energy supply, in the hopes of using the taxes to earn additional revenue – although how efficiently the government has subsequently used that revenue has been hotly debated. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has in the past also ruled out reducing duties on fuel prices, saying that India’s low direct tax revenue makes fuel tax cuts fiscally unfeasible.
Even more confusingly, the BJP also insisted on Monday that the Indian government cannot do much to control fuel prices. “Diesel, petrol price rise is out of our hands because oil producing countries have limited production,” said Union Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad. “We’re not saying we can’t do anything. The BJP strongly believes that despite some momentary difficulties, the people of India do not support this protest.”
If the BJP claims that the cause of high fuel prices is because of foreign oil-producing companies, how can it blame the Congress for high growth of fuel prices during its tenure? If the BJP, which criticised the UPA for inflation and fuel prices before it was in power, does believe the government can do something about it, why isn’t it attempting to solve the problem? And, maybe most importantly, whose bright idea was it to draw up that chart?