On global criticism, tread with caution | HT Editorial
- It requires being more democratic and communicating more strategically
The farm protests have captured global attention, with a set of political, cultural, and environmental figures — including the popular artiste, Rihanna, the fourth-most followed person on Twitter — tweeting their solidarity with the protests. This has led the ministry of external affairs (MEA) to issue a statement, blaming “vested interest groups” and pointing to the evolution of the farm laws, the need to see protests within the framework of India’s democratic structure, the efforts made to reach an agreement with farm groups, and the violence on Republic Day. This is unusual simply because the government usually ignores comments from non-State actors.
There are two distinct issues here. The first is the international solidarity that the movement has been able to generate, either due to the Sikh diaspora’s network, the larger mobilisation by liberal, left, and human rights groups, or the nature of the international media’s coverage of the protests. At a time when it is not unusual for narratives to be controlled through influencer networks and IT cells — and India is no stranger to either — it is entirely possible (no matter what the probability) that at least some of these displays of solidarity have been engineered.
But irrespective of the causes and the merits of the criticism (or the merits of the underlying protest), the fact is that it erodes India’s soft power and image as a democracy. The government will have to recognise the intricate ways in which domestic developments intersect with global politics, especially at a time when social media has disproportionate power in shaping perception. The most substantive and effective way in which the Indian State can respond is by strengthening its own democratic framework and reiterating its commitment to individual liberty and the right to dissent, in principle and practice. Rihanna, for instance, with over 100 million followers on Twitter is unlikely to be cowed down by a troll army, or fears of falling sales of her music in India.
The second issue is the ability of this criticism — confined at the moment to private, even if influential, citizens in the West — to become a matter of inter-State deliberations. This is where the MEA’s statement comes in. It can be read as an attempt to both counter what the government sees as “propaganda” to discredit India, and an effort to pre-empt foreign governments from being guided by the social media storm. It is unlikely that foreign governments, particularly the US, will, even if they issue token statements, make it a top diplomatic issue. But what is clear is that India, because of the ideological and economic shifts underway in the country and the subsequent polarisation, will face questions.
This requires ensuring that these transformations are democratically managed internally, and smarter strategic communication about the nature of these changes externally.