Engaging the world on Indian democracy
I’m prepared to bet the emotions that are almost impossible to hide are hurt and pain. They show on your face, reflect in your tone and colour the language of your response. That’s equally true of the most humble citizen as it is of the grandest panjandrum of State. For us Indians, however, there’s a further twist. We crave praise from the West. Their compliments thrill us whilst their criticism deeply wounds.
So, Nobel Prizes and Booker Awards mean more than any Sahitya Akademi honour. Oxbridge, Harvard and Yale carry greater weight than St Stephen’s, Presidency and St Xavier’s. And look how proud we are of Sundar Pichai, Satya Nadella and Indra Nooyi. In comparison, we hardly mention Narayana Murthy or Azim Premji.
Let me be honest and admit it’s the “phoren” stamp that makes things special. This is why appreciation of our democracy from Freedom House, V-Dem and the Economist Intelligence Unit is intoxicating. When they admonish, we bristle.
This, I would say, is the best explanation for the external affairs minister, S Jaishankar’s unseemly, if uncharacteristic, outburst. Terming their criticism “hypocrisy”, he called these highly respected institutions “self-appointed custodians of the world” who “invent their rules (and) their parameters” and claimed they “pass their judgments and then make it look as if it is some kind of global exercise”. But that’s not all. He pointedly added they “find it very difficult to stomach that somebody in India is not looking for their approval”.
Now, the hurt is self-evident and I shall deftly circumvent the name-calling, but who is the “somebody in India not looking for their approval”? Perhaps, there could be such a person meditating on a Himalayan mountain top or far away deep in an Andaman forest, but I doubt if there’s any individual of that description in the government.
Indeed, how could there be when every improvement in India’s ease of doing business ranking is trumpeted by South Block? When groups of ministers meet for months and produce 97-page documents on how to influence the western press and public opinion? Or when the information and broadcasting ministry creates an Index Monitoring Cell to improve India’s ranking in the World Press Freedom Index? And, remember, Mr Jaishankar was part of the group that sought to “neutralise” what it calls “false narratives” and “negative coverage” of the government on international news platforms. Is this “not looking for approval” or desperate for it?
In May 2015, The Economist did a special report and cover story to mark the Prime Minister (PM)’s first year in office. The front page headline was “India’s one-man band”. Adam Roberts, its correspondent, was given an unprecedented 90-minute interview. He described Mr Modi as “thoughtful, sincere and well-briefed” and predicted the PM could become “a truly transformative force”. The government was thrilled to bits. Ministers tripped over themselves drawing attention to the magazine. At the time, the foreign minister was foreign secretary. I wonder if his stomach found this praise indigestible?
Let me make a further point. Criticism of India’s degraded democracy is neither unproven nor unwarranted. But if Mr Jaishankar wants to test for himself, here’s a simple suggestion. To assess how his government treats Muslims, he could lean across the Cabinet table and have a word with his colleague, Giriraj Singh. If the minister wants evidence of how intolerant Indian governments are of dissent, a quiet word with a junior judge in Delhi would suffice. Dharmender Rana could easily explain why cases of sedition have increased 165% between 2016 and 2019. Incidentally, that figure comes from the government’s National Crime Records Bureau. It’s atmanirbhar.
Just as Amnesty, The Washington Post and The Economist kept alive the flickering flame of Indian democracy during the dark days of the Emergency with their concern for our country, I hope V-Dem and Freedom House continue to remind our government of the commitments made in our Constitution, which it’s trying to wriggle out of.
Karan Thapar is the author of Devil’s Advocate: The Untold StoryThe views expressed are personal