Narendra Modi, with his consecutive majorities, has been promising India a never-seen resurgence. What we are seeing, at the same time, is a return to that old, familiar ‘door hato ai duniya waalo, Hindustan hamara hai (stay away, world, hands off my India)’ neurosis.
In just over two weeks, we have seen the British High Commissioner summoned for admonition because his Parliament discussed India’s farmers’ protests. The government and its more vocal supporters, at many levels, took self-righteous umbrage at a Western and foreign (US)-funded foundation like Freedom House downgrading Indian democracy from free to partly free.
This happened for the first time in nearly 25 years, the last being in the 1990s, when India was fighting simultaneous insurgencies in Kashmir and Punjab and other crises. Since then, India’s ratings had been improving. But, in the past nine years, they’ve fallen by a good nine points. Which is the difference between bringing up the rear of the free category and wallowing at the top of the partly free.
This wound on our national pride was still bleeding when Sweden’s V-DEM foundation took the salt-shaker to it and declared India to be an electoral autocracy. Again, it is a fully foreign and foreign-funded foundation.
This came in the wake of the earlier scrap with Canada over Justin Trudeau’s sympathetic statements on the farmers’ protests. Then, as with the British Parliament now, India saw vote bank (read immigrant Sikh voters) politics driving the politicians.
Then, there were more ungainly protests over tweets from activist Greta Thunberg, Kamala Harris’s niece Meena Harris, singer Rihanna, and actor Susan Sarandon supporting the farmers’ protests. The toolkit circulated by Thunberg was seen as some new agenda by foreign forces to break up India.
The way things are going, however, Sweden had better brace for some trouble. Here is a conspiracy theory I suggest: Thunberg is Swedish, as is V-DEM and bus-maker Scania, which just released a report saying its executives paid bribes to officials in India. Three is a straight line. So, it is a Swedish conspiracy against Modi. Ok it’s a joke. We need to specify in these humourless times. But then, remember, it was a Swedish inquiry that caught out Bofors for paying cuts in India and destroyed the Congress.
The central objection to these bursts of international scrutiny and criticism is, who are these foreigners to judge us? What do they know? Why should they interfere in our internal affairs? Their methodology must be wrong and biased.
This is quaint for a nation that, at least for three decades now, has reached out to globalise with open arms and gained from it. It was in the same spirit in 2007 that India had worked closely with the World Economic Forum (WEF) to declare ‘India Everywhere’ as the theme at Davos 2007.
You might say that was in the silly UPA era. That a new no-nonsense new India is rising now, one that couldn’t care about what the world thinks of it. We know what we are doing, and you mind your own business.
Then you tune into trouble. Because, we celebrate every upgrade in global rankings. The prime minister himself makes such a big deal of India’s rising position in the ‘Ease of Doing Business’ rankings. See, the world is acknowledging our success.
Or the rise into the top-50 (to 48 from 52) in the Global Innovation Index (GII). There are also happy noises when India’s global rankings go up anywhere, from the number of start-ups growing into unicorns to Global Employability Rankings (to 15 from 23).
When you enjoy this global praise, you’ve also got to deal with setbacks. The decline on the hunger index, although I believe it would be apt to rename it the Global Nutrition Index. The slide on the Press Freedom Index, struggling Human Development Indicators. These are a reality as much as the rising ranking on Ease of Doing Business. Can we pick and choose?
That takes us right back to the ‘foreign hand’, ‘the world is ganging up on us’ mindset of Indira Gandhi’s 1970s. Or, even backwards by several decades to an old, siege mentality. Poet Iqbal, in his ‘Sare jahan se achcha…’ rues that the world has been our enemy for centuries (sadiyon raha hai dushman, daur-e-zaman hamara).
There’s much celebration when the prime minister gets a foreign award. These can be from governments: Donald Trump, President of the US, which also funds ‘evil’ Freedom House, honoured Modi with his Legion of Merit for enhancing our strategic partnership. Saudi Arabia, Order of Abdul Aziz Al Saud; Grand Collar of the State of Palestine; Afghanistan, State Order of Ghazi Amir Amanullah Khan; UAE, Order of Zayed; Maldives, Order of Distinguished Rule of Nishan Izzuddeen; Russia, Order of St. Andrew, and so on.
If these are sovereign nations, there are the UN agencies. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) with Champion of the Earth Award, foundations, Bill and Melinda Gates’s ‘Global Goalkeeper Award’ for Swachh Bharat Mission, and in our view, very well deserved.
We don’t like criticism from foreign media because it is so biased? We didn’t complain in 2014 and 2016, when Time magazine named Modi as their Person of the Year. The same Time, now in the doghouse, contributed to the rising Modi legend in 2012 by featuring him on the cover with the headline ‘Modi Means Business’. Then he was promoting his ‘Gujarat Model’.
Leading global business magazine Fortune, meanwhile, listed him at 5 in 2015 in its list of the World’s Greatest Leaders. Forbes, viciously critical of Modinomics since demonetisation, routinely lists him high in its Most Powerful People in the World rankings. It was 15th in 2014 and then 9th in 2015, 2016, 2018.
Foreign corporates, you can list the Kotler Award and now the CERAWeek award. CERAWeek, by the way, is the name of an annual, week-long conference of a large oil, gas and energy consultancy founded by author and domain expert Daniel Yergin. The name of the consultancy is Cambridge Energy Research Associates or CERA. It is based in Massachusetts.
The short point is, if praise and adulation from this full range of foreign bodies is acceptable, why such resentment over criticism? The world acknowledges India and its current leadership for its popularity and energy. For heaven’s sake, even Madame Tussauds has put up Modi’s wax statue. But the same world then also has expectations from a democratic India. And when it sees these not being met, it complains. It deserves a hearing, not to be kicked in the shins.
And please don’t tell me if things were so bad how could you get away with writing this article? That I can write this and probably get away surely means not everything is lost. We are still a democracy. But our flaws are deepening. Or, you wouldn’t have Disha Ravi in jail and this breathtaking new set of injunctions on digital news media.
The truth, regrettably, is that we have been in this place before. The ‘foreign hand’ of the 1970s returned in the late 1980s as Rajiv Gandhi’s troubles increased and he threatened to teach these foreign malcontents a lesson they won’t forget: “Nani yaad dila denge.”
In the 1990s, it got worse, with persistent attacks from global human rights activists, foundations, and governments. Remember, this was when US Assistant Secretary of State Robin Raphel was demonised for daring to suggest that the Instrument of Accession in Kashmir wasn’t final.
From there, we have reached a place where America is a ‘natural strategic ally’. The alliance is growing into the Quad. India is also eyeing entry, at some point, into the elite Five Eyes grouping. The promise is of building a $5 trillion economy sooner than you imagine. The aspiration is to be a global power, economically, strategically and morally, the Vishwaguru.
And then we become so prickly at the mildest suggestion of disagreement or criticism. This is the very definition of how you let yourselves down.