It is not so long ago since the prime minister exhibited an unusual and uncharacteristic burst of displeasure. His office even went to the length of issuing a long rebuttal. The target of his aggression was the comptroller and auditor general, who had put a figure on the loss to the exchequer that resulted from the decision of the since-jailed minister of telecommunications to give licences to his chosen favourites instead of auctioning them. The prime minister did have a point. There can be no single estimate of the loss; there is bound to be considerable uncertainty about the precise figure. But it is one thing to question an uncertain estimate, and quite another to attack a statutory office-holder who was simply doing his duty, however incompetently in the prime ministerís view.
He is welcome to stir debate on the CAGís number, but his implicit opinion that the CAG should come up with figures that suit the government is pernicious, to put it mildly. And where such an opinion can lead is being shown at the moment by Greece, the birthplace of Indiaís democracy. Its chief statistician is being accused of having manipulated figures and threatened with a prison sentence that could go up to 10 years. He did not do it willingly. Andreas Georgiou had a cushy job in the International Monetary Fund, and was most reluctant to relinquish it. But the prime minister of Greece begged him to head its statistical office; he told him he had served himself long enough and it was time for him to serve his country. Mr Georgiou finally acceded, asking only that his service with the Fund be extended by two months so that he could qualify for a pension.
That was one decision he got right, for a prison sentence in Greece carries no pension. And his crime? According to Zoe Georganta, the gargantuan member of the board of the statistical office, the budget deficit in 2009 was 13.4 per cent, and he inflated it to 15.8 per cent. That would have hardly made news in India, where the finance minister gives a so-called conservative figure of the fiscal deficit in the budget and then keeps raising it once a quarter or so. For such services, Indiaís finance minister advances from one cushy job to another, while a Greek bureaucrat faces the threat of incarceration. The difference is that the wise people of India elected the minister. The chief, Indiaís central statistical officer, emulates him, and publishes revised figures of GDP once a quarter. But he faces the ire of optimists because he has recently been revising them downwards: how can India, the superpower of tomorrow, do so badly? Statisticians can be a difficult lot; but turning them into ministersí minions is a bad idea. Their freedom is more important to a democracy than the discomfort they cause.