The BBC documentary ‘The Modi Question’ has raised old questions, incited the latest calls for the dismissal of the broadcaster by Indian digital warriors, and has now even occasioned its blocking on social media platforms. Yet for all the domestic sound and fury, the main consequence of the documentary’s airing is for India’s status games on the global stage.
The ongoing controversy over the documentary highlights the highly risky nature of India’s new image wars. If Prime Minister Narendra Modi has preferred to be the strongman of our age, then that image now is against India’s greatest asset in soft power, namely its multicultural liberal democracy.
But first, what is it about this documentary that sets it apart from other reportage that has been around for some time now?
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The BBC documentary on the 2002 violence in Gujarat is striking for three reasons. None that have to do with competitive demonology.
One, the documentary is based on an official government report of the UK Foreign Office. Two, the interview with former British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw is candid, and he is unequivocal in his judgement. Finally, as a piece of investigative journalism, it has appeared on a public service broadcaster as opposed to a private provider. Precisely because it is a product of the British establishment, is what makes this documentary uniquely authoritative.
The documentary is not the outcome of a bleeding-heart liberal normally associated with and routinely abused in our times for being sympathetic to ‘human rights’. To be sure, human rights activists are as beleaguered in Britain as they arguably are in India. Ditto for the BBC, which has been having a rough old time with the ruling Conservative party led government. Despite the current climate, the series is quintessential BBC – raw and chilling footage matched by clipped and neutral commentary.
Above all, the documentary has given full and equal space to Modi’s supporters, as former BJP Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta cuts into several major claims throughout the episode alongside others. In fact, Dasgupta has the final word in the first episode as he demands ‘closure’ on this major event in India’s recent history.
Ironically, it is the ruling BJP and its supporters who will be the key agents in giving the documentary a greater and longer life than any of Modi’s critics and detractors.
History, both recent and otherwise, testifies that the best way to secure the life of a text, image, or word is to have it blocked or banned by a powerful government. Look no further than Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, which is easily the most recalled novel written by him. And he has written many, and, in my view, it is not even his best novel! Or indeed, M.K. Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj or even V.D. Savarkar’s works would have met with less excitement that was borne entirely out of intrigue had those not been banned. This is an obvious point, but one clearly missed by the zealously censor-minded mandarins of our times. So, if the BBC documentary continues to circulate and capture attention, then the British broadcaster will only have the Indian government to thank for it.
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Soft power or strongman
In blocking any circulation or mention of the BBC documentary on social media platforms, Modi has reinforced his image and actions as those of a strongman. Since the most famous slogan of Indian democracy, ‘Indira is India,’ only Modi has come close to personifying the nation itself.
Modi’s latest avatar as ‘global guru’ or ‘Viswhaguru’ has raised the stakes of image games all too high.
The blocking of the documentary will no doubt affirm Modi’s ardent and even insatiable base of supporters, who have decried it as ‘colonial’ and ‘white’ propaganda. So far, so very predictable. After all, for some years now, social media warriors and the more articulate supporters of Modi and the BJP have been pirating the global left’s lexicon for their own passionately parochial culture wars.
Their call for ‘decolonising’ India’s cultural and other symbols is a full 180-degree flip of the global left’s demands to do the same with imperial legacies in the West. A case of serious irony and poverty of ideas since India’s cultural warriors have not even managed to produce their own vocabulary!
All this bluster and blocks may embolden Modi’s electoral base. But this will potentially extract the price that Modi prizes most. His international image.
India’s rising status in the world today is directly tied to its status as a multicultural democracy. Crassly put, it is precisely because India is not China that makes India a more sought-after partner in the shape shifting world order today. But not being China isn’t sufficient, despite India’s massive scale of 1.4 billion people and counting.
Undoubtedly, it is India’s much-vaunted diversity, freedom, and liberal and constitutional democracy that have remained its strongest trump cards on the global stage.
You only have to recall Indira Gandhi’s putdown of Richard Nixon at the height of the Cold War and the formation of Bangladesh. At the same time, her government didn’t flinch from taking technical or financial support from America. That was soft power in hard action. Indira Gandhi’s reputation suffered badly during the Emergency, and many speculate that she ended it, among other reasons, to end her and India’s global isolation. All this when she was playing no guru to the world!
In 2023, as world leaders make their way to Delhi as part of its G20 presidency, India will be keenly watched. Relatedly, as the BJP’s recently concluded national executive proceedings make clear, Modi’s latest campaign for the 2024 elections will be banked on his outsized persona on the global stage. Moreover, Modi has repeatedly projected himself as an ideal mediator in the ongoing conflict between Ukraine and Russia (The other leader to do so is Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan). So far, to little avail.
The Ukraine war, if anything, has doubled down the so-called West’s commitment to pluralism and liberal democracy. Individual democracies too, from Brazil to America and Britain, seem to tire of nativist populism, as they have gone on to reject the swashbuckling style of strongman leaders.
Being iron-fisted and micromanaging what Indian audiences watch or do not watch displays authority, not moral strength. Modi’s supporters may feel sated by shouting down the BBC with all manner of names. It damages the persona of a democratic India, as it equally erodes India’s soft power. The blocks and the name-calling may make the nativists feel strong and the populists feel, well, popular. But Modi of the ‘56-inch chest’ fame is now in conflict with Modi, a Vishwaguru. His domestic followers may not care about this conflict or see this contradiction as something to celebrate, a ‘masterstroke’ even.
Only that you cannot be a world leader without the world, just as you cannot be world famous in India.
Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.
(Edited by Tarannum Khan)