Ironies abound in the India of today. Union Defence Minister Rajnath Singh said at a recent poll rally that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has changed the world's perspective towards India; they now look at India as a powerful country.
The world’s perspective has indeed changed, but the Narendra Modi-led BJP government appears unable to deal with that changed perspective. There is one standard response: hit back at anyone remotely critical, whether a Prime Minister or a pop star or a human rights organisation, or even a Parliament of another sovereign country, as “ill-informed” and their commentary “misplaced” or “malicious,” or “unnecessary interference,” in the manner of the neighbourhood grouch.
Constantly Fending Off Attack
The Ministry of External Affairs appears to have transformed into the verbal equivalent of a missile defence system, constantly fending off attack. This is apparently a well-planned strategy to show off India’s muscular heft. It is important to adopt a “muscular” approach to tackling criticism as the best way, if not to win friends and influence people, at least to project Indian power.
The MEA has actually prepared a presentation to impress upon the rest of the world the uniqueness of India’s democratic model, distinct from western, anglicised perceptions of parliamentary democracy, or democracy with Indian characteristics, as it were.
Thus, diplomatic envoys of all countries stationed in India must witness the ‘kumbh mela’, presented as a uniquely ‘democratic’ cultural practice. The term democratic is literally translated as "with mass participation", much like India’s electoral process. And what the majority believes is right and must be carried through.
The 'Unassailable' Vishwa Guru
Having reaped huge dividends from its “soft” power diplomacy over recent decades, particularly through the tenets of non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi, democracy and culture, the Indian government feels it is in an unassailable position as the “Vishwa Guru”, or global leader, where nobody has the right to question the government’s credentials.
The identification of the government with the nation is a concept most foreign interlocutors, except those from monarchies and autocracies, are finding increasingly difficult to understand as the normal for a democratic, parliamentary form of governance. Hence, increasingly, questions are being raised at international fora.
However, for the MEA, it is “uncalled for” when Lee Hsien Loong, the Prime Minister of a friendly state like Singapore, speaks in that country’s Parliament about democracy and cites the rise in criminality and fall in standards today from the era of the BJP’s bugbear, Jawaharlal Nehru. Refusing to accept that Lee’s words could indicate that India’s democratic credentials are beginning to fray at the edges in global perception, the MEA responds by summoning the country’s High Commissioner and essentially telling him to tell his Prime Minister to watch his words!
There is disbelief, even some dismay, in diplomatic circles that India is reacting exactly as China does to any critical comment about it. It was inexplicable to them why the MEA issued an official statement condemning "celebrities and others" for their “neither accurate nor responsible” comments when international figures, like actor and pop sensation Rihanna, tweeted – “why aren’t we talking about this?” – and landed herself in paroxysms of righteous Indian indignation!
Lebanese model Mia Khalifa mocked allegations of people being paid to tweet in the farmers’ favour, while US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ niece, Meena, said the “world’s most populous democracy is under assault”, causing nationalistic outrage, and support to the farmers agitation deemed “malicious and motivated” and an “international conspiracy to defame India”.
It was not, however, deemed interference when Modi, in Houston in September 2019 proclaimed, along with former US President Donald Trump, “ab ki baar Trump Sarkar”, (this time Trump) and repeated the message, in February 2020, in Ahmedabad, when the COVID-19 pandemic began.
China Has Become the Role Model
Earlier, run-ins with foreign governments were about Jammu and Kashmir, usually related to comments from the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) after their annual meetings. But an OIC comment earlier this month, urging the UN Human Rights Council to take “necessary measures” to curb the ‘hijab’ controversy, saw the MEA saying the OIC had “harmed its own reputation”.
“Issues in India are considered and resolved in accordance with our constitutional framework and mechanisms, as well as democratic ethos and polity. The communal mindset of the OIC Secretariat does not allow for a proper appreciation of these realities.” The same government sang paeans of praise to the OIC when Sushma Swaraj was invited for the OIC ministerial meet.
It is supremely ironic that the government of India, the world’s largest democracy, looks to capitalise on the democracy dividend in every international forum to expand its strategic and security options, but opts to follow a pre-determined agenda moving away from open, democratic discourse and choosing the unilateral route to conducting its business.
Like domestic opposition to government legislation and way of conducting business, even by elected legislators to the national Parliament, foreign commentary is ridiculed and those opposing the government’s actions are labelled as ‘anti-national', inimical to national interest.
India might ban some Chinese apps and criticise their incursions and aggression along the Line of Actual Control, but clearly, China has become the role model on how to respond to critical commentary about India. While that model may work for China, given its economic superpower status, for India it is unlikely to reap real dividends.
(Nilova Roy Chaudhury, a senior journalist, is Consulting Editor with India News Stream and a Senior Fellow with think tanks WISCOMP (Women in Security, Conflict Management and Peace) and Society for Policy Studies. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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