India’s international reputation is taking a hammering these days. Scarcely a week goes by without another scathing attack on the Modi government in a leading Western publication. The growing chorus has expanded beyond the usual suspects – leftist activists who have always taken a dim view of the Bharatiya Janata Party – to include respected commentators usually inclined to view India in sympathetic terms.
In the Financial Times, earlier this week, Gideon Rachman, castigated the Modi government for “threats to minority rights and the erosion of democratic norms.” His colleague Edward Luce warned that a country he once covered “is gradually but steadily turning into a Hindu Pakistan.” If you toss in the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Guardian, you could probably wallpaper a small palace with commentary critical of India written in just the past three months.
Why is this happening? Some on the Hindu Right, naturally inclined toward both conspiracy theories and a strange mix of anger and mawkish self-pity, insist that the Western media is simply prejudiced against India in general and Narendra Modi in particular. Others blame the government for sloppy messaging. If only officials could do a better job of cultivating the right editors and opinion makers, India’s bad press would suddenly disappear.
This view is not entirely foolish. Some countries are better than others at shaping how the world sees them. During the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union stood up vast apparatuses to buff their images. But in India’s case this line of reasoning misses the proverbial forest for the trees. The Modi government does not face criticism because it’s not doing a good enough job of selling its story. It faces criticism because it doesn’t have a good story to sell.
For instance, take Kashmir. What exactly is it that India is so keen that the world accept? In the age of the smartphone, when many people feel fidgety if they’re separated from their favorite apps for a few hours, it isn’t exactly easy to explain a decision to suspend the Internet for 100 days and counting. How do you justify bifurcating a territory and robbing it of statehood without bothering to consult the people most affected by the decision? Where are the mainstream politicians who, until just the other day, India proudly paraded around the world as authentic representatives of the Kashmiri people?
Ironically, the Modi government’s excellence at domestic political communication may contribute toward its ineptitude abroad. When you’re obsessed with how something will play in Bulandshahr or Baghpat, you are bound to overlook how it may appear in Boston or the Bay Area.
Earlier this year, the ruling party – with helpful assists from the usual fake news factories and hyperventilating TV anchors – managed to convince many Indians that airstrikes in Balakot had taken out scores of dreaded terrorists. But the evidence presented for this great feat ranged from the non-existent to the risible. Nobody should be surprised that it found few takers outside India.
This WhatsApp mode of communication surfaced again with the government’s bungled visit to Kashmir for Members of the European Parliament, many of them from far-right parties known for their xenophobia and virulent hatred of Muslims. If your audience was in Bareilly, perhaps Europeans in suits saying nice things about the government’s Kashmir policy could be sold as international approval. If your audience was in Berlin it was a potential fiasco, saved only by the fact that MEPs – unlike actual members of parliament in national legislatures – do not count enough to merit much media attention.
Will the BJP-led government learn from these snafus? Most likely not. The impulses on display suggest the worst of two worlds: the authoritarian’s need to massage the truth coupled with the ineptitude of a bumbling bureaucrat.
A recent investigative report by EU DisinfoLab, an NGO that exposes disinformation campaigns that target European Union member states, found that the dodgy Indian institute that sponsored the MEP visit is linked to a network of about 265 fake news sites in more than 65 countries. The sites themselves are the journalistic equivalent of the Philip Kotler Presidential Award – essentially bogus. Who has even heard of, much less reads, the Times of Geneva or the Seattle Star?
At a deeper level, for India the process of cultural revival represented by Hindu nationalism may also represent a turning away from ideas that have shaped the modern world. For instance, a belief in universal suffrage is rooted in the notion that all people have equal moral worth. Similarly, as the author Tom Holland points out, the modern idea of human rights is rooted in legal developments in medieval Christendom.
This does not mean that Japanese, Lebanese or Indians can’t find these ideas compelling and adopt them. But it does mean that the policies chosen by a national project rooted in different norms will almost certainly come across as deeply alien to the modern, democratic West.
How far India – whose Constitution and electoral system have Western DNA – will deviate from these norms in places like Assam and Kashmir remains to be seen. But if the deviation is sharp, even the world’s savviest media strategy won’t be able to prevent more negative publicity.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.