Do you care what the world says about India? I know I do. But the Foreign Office says it doesn’t care. A few weeks ago, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar not only dismissed criticism of the state of India’s democracy from US organizations, but also explained to us why they were criticizing India. They were, he said in an interview with India today Conclave, “a set of self-appointed guardians of the world who find it very difficult to accept that someone in India doesn’t seek their approval, doesn’t want to play the game… so they invent their rules, their parameters, they pass judgment …”
Stir things up, right? Except it turns out he was kidding. He didn’t really mean it.
The documents consulted by the Indian Express revealed that within days of the Foreign Secretary’s public show of defiance, his ministry was racing to try to contain the damage. He prepared a detailed slideshow and a list of talking points to show the world how our democracy was, in fact, celebrated “the Indian way”.
These talking points were, to say the least, laughable. They came up with a new version of the them and us defense so popular domestically with the Bharatiya Janata Party trolls. The problem, the ministry suggested, was that India’s current rulers are “less English-speaking”, leading to them being “judged harshly”.
So, when in doubt, blame it all on a global version of the “Lutyens” lobby? It’s those damn English speakers who are so negative.
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Open season in India
Frankly, the Foreign Office is right to be concerned about criticism, although the minister probably has political constraints that lead him to adopt these macho postures in public. In the last two months it was the open season on India. Last week, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, while emphasizing that the fervor and integrity that fuel a democracy rarely lasts more than two generations, gave the example of India. “Nehru’s India has become one where, according to the media, nearly half of Lok Sabha MPs have criminal charges pending against them, including charges of rape and murder,” he said. declared.
He was right, of course, about the deteriorating quality of our politicians (all parties), but the Foreign Office was very restless. Singapore’s ambassador to India has been summoned for an interview and a ministry official told Reuters the remarks were “unwarranted”.
Then there was the onslaught of statements and tweets from US officials and semi-official sources complaining about the erosion of religious freedom in India, the hijab controversy in Karnataka and the attitude of the government to journalist Rana Ayyub.
Religious freedom includes the ability to choose one’s religious attire. The Indian state of Karnataka should not determine the admissibility of religious clothing. Banning the hijab in schools violates religious freedom and stigmatizes and marginalizes women and girls.
— Amb. in General for International Religious Freedom (@IRF_Ambassador) February 11, 2022
Add to that the problem of spectacular bad press. Almost all foreign media have been extraordinarily critical of this government and its policies. Once again, the Minister of Foreign Affairs publicly displayed his indifference. “My reputation is not decided by a New York newspaper,” Jaishankar said in a 2019 interview. But the truth is, the government cares. As international criticism mounted during the ‘delta wave’ of the Covid-19 pandemic, MEA officials were tasked with countering the media narrative in the countries where they were posted and telling reporters what a fabulous job the government is doing. was doing.
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The predicament of the foreign minister
I have some sympathy for the plight of the Minister of Foreign Affairs. Jaishankar is a patriot and a decent and honorable man who is highly respected in global diplomatic circles. He cannot just excuse the ‘gau rakshaks’, people who deny education to young girls who wear the hijab, or criminals who have entered politics. His job description requires him to do something to stem the criticism. Likewise, he cannot afford to appear unduly concerned.
What he and his government colleagues need to do is agree on a policy that makes them less ridiculous. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is not responsible for the situation of minorities in India nor for the persecution/prosecution of journalists. He must also recognize that unless things change very drastically in India, criticism from the foreign press will not go away. It’s fine for trolls to take the line that The New York Timesthe BBC, The Washington Post, Time magazines, etc are inconsequential organizations with no ethical standards.
This position is clearly not based on facts (these are some of the most respected news outlets in the world), but it suits party supporters and trolls to dismiss them. However, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs cannot adopt the same standards. India’s Foreign Service cannot emulate the infamous ‘IT cell’.
We have been here in the past. Even before the state of emergency was declared, Indira Gandhi had ordered her officials to regularly attack foreign media. When BBCThe national television service screened a series of documentaries about India directed by acclaimed director Louis Malle, Indira Gandhi, who was told the films were ‘anti-Indian’, in fact expelled BBC from India. It did him a lot of good. And it certainly made no difference to the way India was covered.
During the state of emergency, as Natwar Singh recalled, the Foreign Office was asked to ensure that foreign newspapers presented the Indian government in a “favorable light”. It was a wasted effort and only made our diplomats look ridiculous. The Narendra Modi government now risks repeating Indira Gandhi’s mistake.
The only way forward for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is to accept that no one can control the international press. If he does not agree with this The New York Times said, he should skip the cover and move on. Nothing is gained by displays of defiance, public fulminations and the childish suggestion that a global “Lutyens lobby” is at work against Hindi speakers.
When it comes to reviews from think tanks, the same rules should apply. Under this government, a sort of reset seems to have taken place. Think tanks and NGOs are taken more seriously than ever. In fact, they should be treated on an equal footing with the press and left to fend for themselves. Nobody wins by persecuting an NGO or threatening people who contribute to foreign think tanks. It doesn’t change 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 the right to respond. Some reviews are reasoned and cynical. For example, there is no doubt that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is addressing an extremist Sikh national constituency. When he makes statements like the one he made about the hustle and bustle of the farmer, we should tell him where to get off. Liberals who praised him for his show of concern were duped. The man doesn’t care about India. He cares about winning votes at home. But all is not so simple.
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The American problem
America presents a particular problem. The US government is not a monolith. And it is now increasingly clear that various sections of government are deeply concerned about what is happening in India. It is not yet known what the White House thinks of these concerns and the public statements to which they lead. But it’s fair to say that the Joe Biden administration has done little to silence critics of India.
This is ultimately the real problem. And that’s the prime minister’s problem, not the foreign minister’s. Modi seems to believe that the divisive and polarizing policies followed by his party in the States and at the Center are popular. It will therefore do nothing to prevent hatred from being stirred up during election campaigns. This seems to be paying off at the national level. (And if not, we’ll find out soon enough next month).
Modi must therefore make up his mind. Does he really care how he is viewed abroad? Is he reconciled to Washington losing respect for him again, as it did two decades ago? He spent many years rehabilitating his image. Is he now ready to say goodbye to all that?
Ultimately, it is the decisions that will determine how the world views India. All the provocative bluster and public relations presentations count for nothing in the long run.
If you don’t like what people say, then change what they see.
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)