Do you care about what the world says about India? I know that I do. But the Ministry of External Affairs says it doesn’t give a damn. A few weeks ago, the Minister of External Affairs, S. Jaishankar, not only dismissed criticism of the state of India’s democracy from American organisations but also told us why they were criticising India. They were, he declared in an interview at the India Today Conclave, “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.
Documents accessed by the Indian Express have revealed that 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 Bharatiya Janata Party 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.
Open season on India
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, Lee Hsien Loong, while making the point that the fervour and integrity that fuel a democracy rarely lasts 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 was 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 United States 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 journalist Rana Ayyub.
Religious freedom includes the ability to choose one's religious attire. The Indian state of Karnataka should not determine permissibility of religious clothing. Hijab bans in schools violate religious freedom and stigmatize and marginalize women and girls.
— Amb. at Large for International Religious Freedom (@IRF_Ambassador) February 11, 2022
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,” Jaishankar had said in a 2019 interview. But the truth is the government does care. As international criticism mounted during the ‘Delta wave’ of the Covid-19 pandemic, the 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.
Foreign minister’s predicament
I have some sympathy for the foreign minister’s predicament. Jaishankar 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.
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 recognise 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 organisations 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 Indian Foreign Service cannot take its cues from the infamous ‘IT cell’.
We have been here in the past. Even before the Emergency was declared, Indira Gandhi had instructed her officials to routinely attack the foreign media. When BBC’s domestic TV service screened a series of documentaries about India made by the acclaimed director Louis Malle, Indira Gandhi who had been told that the films were ‘anti-Indian’, actually expelled 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 Narendra Modi government is now in danger of repeating Indira 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 ever 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 criticism 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 Canadian Prime Minister 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.
The America problem
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 Joe 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. Modi appears to believe that the divisive and polarising 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 during election campaigns. This seems to pay dividends domestically. (And if it doesn’t, we will know soon enough next month).
So 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 goodbye 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.
Vir Sanghvi is an Indian print and television journalist, author, and talk show host. He tweets at @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Srinjoy Dey)