THE NOISY outburst over a Time magazine cover tagging Prime Minister Manmohan Singh as an “underachiever” is embarrassing proof that a large section of India’s ruling elite and media is still handcuffed to a slavish deference to western labels. Earlier this year, Gujarat CM Narendra Modi had strafed his state with triumphant billboards tom-tomming another Time cover headlined “Modi means business”, with the codicil, “but can he rule India?”

Both the furore and the jubilation are equally mystifying. Time may be a prestigious publication but it is no divine crystal gazer. Nor is it the last word in character certificates. Public memory is famously short but it might do well to remember that in 2004, Time had hailed Patna DM Gautam Goswami as one of its under-40 Asian Heroes for his “exemplary” flood relief work. Barely a year later, this hero was jailed for his role in siphoning off over Rs 18 crore from the relief funds in his charge during that period.

But this is not to quarrel with the merits of Time’s arguments or the quality of its journalism. It is to question the disproportionate response. How can a class of people who lust after the glamorous nomenclature of being deemed a “superpower” show such pygmy-sized self-worth? Time’s covers were not exposés that pointed to any new facts about Indian public life, nor did they argue differently from dozens of domestic media outlets. So why did they trigger such seismic tremors of shame or triumph?

Time is a valuable thermometer of American opinion. Even so, it’s a reading of only one slice of that opinion. Its cover stories should have been discussed here in that proportionate context: as a signal of how big business is feeling about India and Gujarat. Why did they need to snowball into seemingly definitive career assessments of either Singh or Modi? The irony of this overblown response is intensified by the fact that many western economies are themselves gripped in grim crises or are faltering for pursuing some of the roadmaps they are urging India to follow. The American economy is in turmoil, wracked by low employment growth, corporate crime, greed and the loss of ethics. So Time may write that industry leaders are demanding a host of bold reforms, an end to expensive subsidies, and the resumption of a law to allow multi-brand retailers like Walmart into India; but given the complex and competing realities of this country, surely we have the right to argue amongst ourselves whether the entry of Walmart is good for India — even if that argument proves inconvenient for Washington planners? Or for Walmart?

On varied counts, both Singh and Modi do have a lot to answer for, but it would be much more productive to arrive at a complex report card on them through sober domestic discussions. In a global community of nations, the moral and economic pressure of foreign opinion inarguably plays a key role, but as countries like Iraq and Afghanistan can testify, it’s suicidal to accord that opinion too much preeminence. Indian devotees of western opinion should also remember that India is an onion of a million peels and back in the mid-2000s when the same western media was feting Singh for nurturing a booming investment climate, many sections of India were distraught by the large-scale dispossession of land, livelihood and natural resources that was underway. The India story, therefore, can never be a single-window insight.

Time may accurately have outlined many ills of Singh’s shaky stewardship but its prescriptions should have triggered a critical debate not a capitulation. Boosting big industry and the manufacturing sector is only one side of the Indian story; can that be the only route to poverty alleviation and job creation? Millions of Indians are involved in small and medium enterprises and self-sustaining livelihoods — should there be no economic policies to buttress them? If big industry can be gifted lakhs of crores of subsidies in the guise of cheap land and natural resources, why is government spending on health, education and food for the poor seen as too expensive a bill? Finally, are economic markers the only index of good governance?

If Time covers must be catalysts of such magnitude in Indian affairs, it would be great if they cataylse a different set of questions the next time round.