How the BJP can counter international criticism
The vast majority of Indians has no idea who Roger Waters is. The vast majority of Indians has no clue what Pink Floyd is. And even some who have heard of Pink Floyd probably think it is a who, not a what, and do not know that Roger Waters was a co-founder of the band.
Ditto for John Cusack, despite him having a part in a potboiler that is perhaps the third most aired film on Indian satellite channels after Commando and The Shawshank Redemption (it’s called ConAir, by the way).
Or John Oliver, who’s probably a bit better known this week than he was last, after a streaming service decided it was better off not uploading in India the latest version of his show, Last Week Tonight.
In recent days, all three have criticised Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act, or the CAA, the communal riots in Delhi or two or more of these.
Waters, Cusack, and Oliver may have little relevance in India, where they can be described, generously, as niche cultural icons, but they are not the only ones.
Since it was re-elected with a majority, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government of Modi has come under international fire over the Kashmir issue, the CAA, and the violence surrounding some anti-CAA protests, and, most recently, the communal riots in Delhi.
From business leaders such as Satya Nadella or Tim Draper to political leaders across countries (including some aspirant Democratic nominees in the United States presidential race) and the chief of the United Nations, and, of course, international media, there’s been widespread criticism of the Indian government or, at the least, concern exhibited over happenings in India.
Sure, some of the reports in foreign media may be incorrect, but some others are not. The government argues that the criticism and the protests themselves are the work of forces, both internal and external, opposed to India, but there’s little to prove this.
For a country that has always prided itself on its soft power, and which likes praise and endorsement from other countries and global leaders across various domains, this is not a good place to be in.
To make things worse, India’s economy has slowed significantly. with both consumption and investment growth declining. The latest data shows that gross domestic product (GDP) grew an anaemic 4.7% in the three months ended December. A booming economy may have made many countries and investors temper their criticism — that’s the nature of realpolitik — but in the absence of that, there’s little to offset the negative perception of India.
There are three main contributors to this negative perception.
The first is that local political leaders in Kashmir continue to remain under detention seven months after the government changed the erstwhile state’s status. Three former chief ministers have had the stringent Public Safety Act invoked against them, which means they can be held without trial for up to two years. The region itself remains under a security blanket. All these facts are not lost on even those foreign envoys who have been taken around the region by the Indian government in recent months to show that everything is normal.
The second is that there has been no attempt by the Union government to engage with people, including students, protesting against the CAA.
The third is the violence surrounding the anti-CAA protests. In Uttar Pradesh, 23 people lost their lives in protests in December. In Delhi, more recently, anti-CAA and pro-CAA protests mushroomed into a full-blown communal riot of the kind not seen in the capital for at least three decades. Both Hindus and Muslims have died as a result of the riots, and both communities have suffered the loss of property and livelihoods. Questions are being asked as to why Delhi Police, controlled by the federal home ministry, did not do enough to prevent the riots. Questions have also been raised on hate speech and rhetoric that may have created an environment conducive to the violence in which at least 42 people died in the city-state.
Unfortunately, there’s only so much that diplomacy can achieve in addressing this image problem. Sure, given the transience of attention spans and the overload of information, people may move on. But there’s also a chance of these issues becoming a cause celebre of choice among global businesspeople, actors, musicians, TV anchors, politicians, perhaps even sportspeople.
Even as it addresses international concerns — dismissing them outright won’t work — New Delhi should strive for a resolution to the underlying issues themselves. Specifically, it should focus on restarting the political process in Kashmir (and that includes releasing detained leaders) and work towards achieving closure on CAA.
Recent resolutions by the Bihar assembly (supported by the local BJP, which is a partner in the state government) may provide some guidance in this context.