It should be clear by now that India has a global image problem. Most Western newspapers of note (The New York Times, Le Monde, Time, The Washington Post, The Guardian, The London Times, etc.) have all been critical of the government’s record on farmer protests, Kashmir, free speech, the right to dissent, treatment of minorities, and so on.
Nor is it any secret that this criticism has now spread from the media to people with influence. American and British legislators have spoken out. And now, show business stars and social media celebrities are joining in.
One way of responding would be to say that it does not matter. In Turkey, President Erdogan does not seem particularly concerned about what the West says. So it is in North Korea, where Western opinion counts for little. Even Vladimir Putin in Russia seems unaffected by the way he is portrayed in the West.
I am not sure if that option is available to India. Because we do care what the world says about us.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a well-travelled man who is proud of the relationships he has forged with foreign leaders. For all of his first term, his supporters sought to portray him as a global statesman increasing India’s international influence. America, in particular, seemed to matter a great deal. PM Modi invested heavily in his personal relationship with US President Donald Trump – to the extent that he was accused of campaigning for Mr Trump’s re-election.
So, if the global criticism does, in fact, matter, then how should the government cope? Well, one obvious way would be to remove or reduce the grounds for criticism.
Show a more humane approach in Kashmir. Don’t portray Punjab farmers as Khalistanis. Stop concentrated attacks on journalists and the media. Stop using sedition laws against patriotic Indians. Don’t arrest comedians for jokes they did not crack. Stop this love jihad madness. But over the last month or so, it has become clear that the government wants to make no substantive changes to the manner in which it is running India. Its supporters are happy. The Prime Minister’s approval ratings are high. Why should it change the way it does things?
And yet, it can’t have it both ways. If it continues down this path, the international criticism – which it deeply resents – will increase. And as the government grapples uneasily with this dilemma, it has reacted with knee-jerk responses and ill-considered anger towards critics and criticism it should have ignored.
I can understand the Foreign Ministry objecting to the Canadian Prime Minister’s remarks. Mr Trudeau broke with diplomatic precedent and issued a statement in his official capacity about the farmers’ stir. But can it really afford to get agitated over every US Congressman or Senator who expresses an opinion? These are, mostly, individual views. So it is with British MPs.
And we are now seeing official responses to tweets from people who hold no official positions. There was something almost comical about the way in which the Ministry of External Affairs issued a ponderous statement in the aftermath of the singer Rihanna quote-tweeting an article from CNN.
Apart from the truism that babus are ill-suited to responding to pop personalities, the statement, written in deathless MEA-prose, was so dense that I wonder how many people bothered to read it to the end. Worse still, it ended with hashtags, a non-traditional method of signing off statements made on behalf of the government of India. It was a little like seeing your granny queuing up at a body-piercing shop.
While the MEA’s heavy-handed response may only be the consequence of bureaucrats treading into unfamiliar territory, the coordinated social media campaign that followed it was both disturbing and farcical. The farcical part was when celebrities were sent texts of proposed tweets and asked to post them. Some celebrities just copy-pasted – with the pasting showing. Most did not even bother to alter a word of the approved text. And bizarrely, given that the provocation was tweets from Americans, it was cricketers (nearly all of whom are largely unknown in the US where cricket is not a popular sport) who were drafted to lend heft to the campaign.
The disturbing part is the nature of the orchestrated hatred that followed. Portraits of Meena Harris, niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris, were burned. Abusive tweets were directed at Rihanna, Harris and others. The scale and viciousness of the responses shook many of its targets. And ironically enough, it kind of proved their original point anyway. If somebody suggests that anyone expressing a contrary opinion in India will be the target of retribution from a largely Hindu lynch-mob comprised partly of misogynistic nutcases, then the worst thing you can do is to send a misogynistic lynch mob of vicious social-media nutcases after them. And while the tweet storm would have died out in a day, the overkill and the hysterical nature of the responses gave it a new lease of life.
The reality is that the criticism will not go away. The Western press will not be intimidated by supporters of the government. The government’s only option will be to go back to the Indira Gandhi playbook and say that foreigners are trying to destabilise India. Nor will the social media campaigns stop. In fact, they will get worse after this episode where the government’s supporters demonstrated the depths of viciousness, abuse and misogyny they were willing to resort to.
The government now has two choices. It can say it doesn’t care about global opinion. Or it can get its act together, project a more tolerant face and protect PM Modi’s global image.
There really isn’t a third way.
(Vir Sanghvi is a journalist and TV anchor.)
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed within this article are the personal opinions of the author. The facts and opinions appearing in the article do not reflect the views of NDTV and NDTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same.