Monday, 23 May, 2022
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Vishwaguru to burning front pages – Modi’s festival of democracy is taking a beating

At the turn of the 21st century, India told the world that it no longer needed foreign aid. That India has been eclipsed by pictures of pyres on front pages.

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Vishwaguru or teacher to the world – this was meant to be India’s latest avatar in the international order. Cultivated and crafted by Prime Minister Narendra Modi since 2015, India was to instruct the world as a guru. By weaponising India’s civilisational values and channelling the original global guru Swami Vivekananda, Modi sought to reposition and recast India’s image as one anchored in self-reliance, strength, and sovereignty.

Little wonder then that the week India occupied global headlines with mass funeral pyres as the image, India’s external affairs minister S. Jaishankar morphed into the ace spin-doctor urging the country’s diplomatic corps to counter the headlines. As mass death and devastation engulfed India, this carefully cultivated image as guru to the world also blew into smithereens. From the vaunted role as an instructor and giver, India had overnight become a receiver of global generosity.

Also read: Is India back to being ‘Third World’? Irony of an aspiring superpower exposed by Covid crisis

Back to old ways

It was only at the start of the 21st century that the long-held image of India’s poverty, dependence on aid and as the destination of choice for first-world do-gooders had finally been thwarted. The imperial ideas of ‘civilising mission’ had already been exposed as dubious ploys of control and junked into the dustbin of history by anti-colonial nationalisms. Yet in the late 20th century, ‘development’ as aid and global humanitarianism had recast India as dependent on the largesse and goodwill of others.

Thanks mainly to peak globalisation and a deliberate rebranding of India, but above all due to a thriving economy, India in the new millennium, became a creditor not debtor to the World Bank. India also stopped taking foreign aid from the erstwhile imperial ruler Britain in 2004. This was over a decade before the United Kingdom cut aid and finally took note that India was, in fact, swarming with billionaires.

The world too has been happy to give once more and not only because the pandemic in India is a desperate and unprecedented human catastrophe, which it is. But also because the pandemic has repurposed older habits and attitudes. The catastrophe perversely confirms older imperial suspicions that self-reliance or ‘Atmanirbharta‘ cannot endure. In the empire-fuelled culture wars currently raging in the West, a supplicant India is a very useful and even comforting image that can be easily pressed into service to steer the West into its default position of superiority.

Also read: India’s hope is ebbing. It needs a leader who focuses on health, not victory

India’s greatest asset

For rich or poor, India’s international reputation had, however, stabilised on one key attribute alone – as the ‘world’s largest democracy’. For 70-plus years, India’s soft power punched way higher than any bucks that India may or may not have had. India internationally relied on its prominence as a working democracy and a place of peace in the face of staggering diversity and inequality.

In the bygone decades of the Cold War and as India faced a trio of traumas – food shortage, currency crisis and a devastating earthquake in the mid-60s and right on the back of a humiliating defeat to China – the world had been swift in dismissing India. Cold War intellectuals and global editorials wondered aloud whether India would survive, let alone as a democracy.

The 1967 Lok Sabha election and only the fourth in the country ensured India remained democratic and put the intellectual naysayers out of business. India’s democracy had trumped its international dependence. We can safely say since then India’s democracy has been the greatest asset for its international image.

And no one has benefitted more from this increasingly outdated image than Prime Minister Modi. Prior to the pandemic, and in a short six years, India’s democracy had effectively diminished, and despite its election cycle that has worked like clockwork. It is no coincidence that the Modi government that degraded democracy has fixated on campaigns and elections. Modi prioritised electoral timetables over mounting Covid cases and death tolls precisely because he knows all too well that India as a democracy is its strongest currency in the world. Obsessed with the idea of vishwaguru, Modi chose this image over and above Indian lives.

Also read: Mayday, Mayday — How Modi govt led India into a perfect storm

Festival of democracy over pandemic

On cue and on the very day India crossed quarter of a million daily infections and over 3,000 due to Covid and mass funeral pyres became the picture of India in the global press, Prime Minister Modi celebrated the ‘festival of democracy’ in a tweet to his nearly 70 million Twitter followers. It was the same week that as the world’s largest vaccine producer, India became a vaccine supplicant. More than 60 million India-made vaccines had been sent to the wider world even as its own citizens had barely been injected for safety. Indeed, it was the same week that India became desperately reliant on foreign oxygen from the world that came as a bad blast from the last century.

India’s diplomats were once again busy thanking the world’s generosity even as the external affairs minister exhorted his diplomats to offer another picture from India. Perhaps heeding Jaishankar’s call, social media armies pirated the global anti-imperial Left’s idioms of culture and identity to inveigh against domestic and global imagery of death and public pyres in a bid to police the picture.

As a teacher, India still had lessons to offer. Or so it seems. Social media armies are now piteously reminding Indian citizens of their duties, responsibilities and obligations and are now teaching us the power to stay positive in the face of collective calamity. Above all and under no circumstance, can the leader, the guru, be blamed or held responsible.  

No longer guru to the world, India must now recover the true power of its democracy. At the very moment, however, that democracy is most visible in the indiscriminate deaths that have visited its diverse and unequal people.

Shruti Kapila teaches modern Indian history and global political thought at the University of Cambridge. Twitter: @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

Edited by Neera Majumdar

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