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How the world sees India

Do you care about what the world says about India?

I know that I do. But the Foreign Ministry says it doesn’t give a damn. Some weeks ago, the Foreign Minister not only dismissed criticism of the state of India’s democracy from American organizations but told us why they were criticizing India.

 

They were, he declared, “a set of self-appointed custodians of the world who find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval, is not willing to play the game… so they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass judgment…..”

 

    Stirring stuff, right? Except that it turns out he was only kidding. He didn’t really mean it.

 

   As documents accessed by the Indian Express have revealed, within days of the Foreign Minister’s public show of defiance, his ministry was scurrying around trying to do damage control. It prepared a detailed slideshow and a list of talking points to show the world how our democracy was, in fact, being celebrated ‘the Indian way.’

 

   These talking points were, at the very least, chuckle-worthy. They offered a novel version of the them-and-us defence so popular domestically with the BJP’s trolls. The problem, the Ministry suggested, was that India’s current leaders are 'less from the English-speaking world’ which leads them to be ‘judged harshly.’

 

   So, when in doubt, blame it all on some global version of the “Lutyens” lobby? It’s these damn English-speakers who are being so negative!

 

   Frankly, the Foreign Ministry is right to be worried about the criticism though the Minister probably has political compulsions that lead him to adopt those macho postures in public. Over the last couple of months, it has been open season on India. Last week, the Prime Minister of Singapore, while making the point that the fervour and integrity that fuel a democracy rarely last more than a couple of generations, gave the example of India. “Nehru’s India has become one where, according to media reports, almost half the MPs in the Lok Sabha have criminal charges pending against them, including charges of rape and murder”, he said.

 

   He was right of course about the deterioration in the quality of our politicians (across all parties) but the Foreign Ministry got very agitated. Singapore’s ambassador to India was called in for a talking to and a Ministry official told Reuters that the remarks were “uncalled for”.

 

   Then there has been the onslaught of statements and tweets from US officials and semi-official sources complaining about the erosion of religious freedom in India, about the hijab controversy in Karnataka and about the government’s attitude to the journalist Rana Ayyub.

 

   Add to this the problem of spectacularly bad press. Almost all of the foreign media has been extraordinarily critical of this government and its policies. Once again the Foreign Minister has made a public show of not caring. “My reputation is not decided by a newspaper in New York," he said. But the truth is the government does care. As international criticism mounted during the Delta wave of the pandemic, MEA officials were tasked with countering the media narrative in the countries where they were posted and with telling journalists what a fabulous job the government was doing.

 

   I have some sympathy with the Foreign Minister’s predicament. He is a patriot and a decent, honourable man who is well-respected in global diplomatic circles. He cannot be pleased to make excuses for gau rakshaks, people who deny education to young girls who wear the hijab, or the criminals who have entered politics. His job description requires him to do something to stem the criticism. Equally he cannot allow himself to seem unduly concerned.

 

"Nothing is gained by shows of defiance, public fulminations and the childish suggestion that a global ‘Lutyens lobby’ is at work against Hindi-speakers."

   What he and his colleagues in government need to do is to agree on a policy that makes them look less ridiculous. The Foreign Ministry is not responsible for the condition of minorities in India or the persecution/prosecution of journalists. It must also recognize that unless things change very dramatically in India, the criticism from the foreign press will not go away. It is all very well for trolls to take the line that the New York Times, the BBC, the Washington Post, Time magazine etc. are organizations of no consequence with no ethical standards.

 

   This position is clearly not based on facts (these are some of the world’s most respected media outfits) but it suits party loyalists and trolls to dismiss them. However, the Foreign Ministry cannot adopt the same standards. The IFS cannot take its cues from the IT cell.

 

   We have been here before. Even before the Emergency was declared Indira Gandhi had instructed her officials to routinely attack the foreign media. When the BBC’s domestic TV service screened a series of documentaries about India made by the acclaimed director Louis Malle, Mrs. Gandhi who had been told that the films were ‘anti-Indian’, actually expelled the BBC from India. Fat lot of good it did her. And it certainly made no difference to how India was covered.

 

   During the Emergency, as Natwar Singh has recalled, the Foreign Ministry was asked to get foreign newspapers to portray the Indian government in a ‘favourable light’. It was a doomed effort and only made our diplomats look silly. The Modi government is now in danger of repeating Mrs. Gandhi’s mistake.

 

   The only way ahead for the Foreign Ministry is to accept that no one can control the international press. If it does not agree with what The New York Times says, it should ignore the coverage and move on. Nothing is gained by shows of defiance, public fulminations and the childish suggestion that a global ‘Lutyens lobby’ is at work against Hindi-speakers.

 

   When it comes to criticism from think tanks, the same rules should apply. Under this government some kind of reset seems to have taken place. Think tanks and NGOs are being taken more seriously than before. In fact, they should be treated on par with the press, and left to do their own thing. Nobody gains from persecuting an NGO or threatening people who contribute to foreign think tanks. It makes no difference to what they say, it reminds the world that you have something to hide and it reinforces the image of a thin-skinned authoritarian government.

 

   That leaves criticisms from foreign governments. And here, diplomats have a right to respond. Some of the criticism is motivated and cynical. For instance, there is no doubt that Canada’s Justin Trudeau caters to an extremist Sikh domestic constituency. When he issues statements such as the one he did on the farmer’s agitation, we should tell him where to get off. Liberals who lauded him for his show of concern were being conned. The man doesn’t give a damn about India. He cares about winning votes at home.

 

   But it is not all that simple. America presents a special problem. The US government is not a monolith. And it is now increasingly clear that various sections of the government are deeply concerned about what is happening in India. It is not yet apparent what the White House thinks of these concerns and the public statements they lead to. But it is fair to say that the Biden Administration has not done much to shut India’s critics up.

 

   That, ultimately, is the real problem. And it is the Prime Minister’s problem, not the Foreign Minister's. Mr. Modi appears to believe that the divisive and polarizing policies followed by his party in the states and at the Centre are popular. So he will do nothing to stop hate from being whipped up at election campaigns. This seems to pay dividends domestically. (And if it doesn’t, we will know soon enough next month).

 

   So Mr. Modi has to make up his mind. Does he really care how he is regarded abroad? Is he reconciled to Washington losing respect for him once again, as it did two decades ago? He has spent many years rehabilitating his image. Is he now willing to bid good bye to all that?

 

   Ultimately those are the decisions that will determine how the world sees India. All the defiant bluster and the PR presentations count for nothing in the long run.

 

   If you don’t like what people are saying, then change what they are seeing.

 


 

Posted On: 24 Feb 2022 10:46 AM
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