Western perceptions and Indian realities The Statesman 30 Apr 2024 Maj Gen Harsha Kakar



Western perceptions and Indian realities The Statesman 30 Apr 2024

          Writing for The Chatham House, a British thinktank, Dr Bajpaee, mentions, ‘Over the decade that the BJP has been in power, assessments of the country’s democracy have pointed to a downward trajectory, with its democratic principles, including freedom of expression, under strain. At the same time, it is important to recognize that Indian democracy is more robust than may be commonly perceived.’ He concludes by stating, ‘Already, there are some worrying signs as the BJP government pursues a more divisive, identity-driven path at home, and where the party’s Hindutva agenda spills over into India’s external engagements.’

          A Rahul Bedi penned op-ed in the Irish Times of 11 Apr criticized India’s free speech claims mentioning journalists critical of the government are prosecuted ‘under colonial-era sedition statutes.’ An editorial in the same newspaper titled, ‘Modi tightens his grip,’ mentioned, ‘he (Modi) has leant heavily on a widespread crackdown on free speech and opposition parties, with hundreds of politically targeted corruption and tax cases filed against opposition MPs and leaders. India’s democratic credentials have been severely tarnished.’

          It went on to term PM Modi as a ‘strong leader’ and added, ‘the age of strongman leaders like Viktor Orbán and Recep Erdogan, and their “illiberal democracies”, marches on.’ This prompted the Indian ambassador to Ireland, Akhilesh Mishra, to respond. In a letter to the editor, Mishra wrote, ‘PM Modi has implemented a paradigm in the ethos of development focused on the empowerment and welfare of the poorest, including youth and women.’

He added, ‘The fight against the deeply entrenched ecosystem of corruption (created by the 55-year rule, including first 30-years by a single dynastic party in India) is a major factor behind Modi’s ever-growing popularity.’ This came in for criticism within India with the opposition demanding action against Mishra. Jairam Ramesh tweeted, ‘defending the government of India is one thing and expected. But to attack opposition parties openly in this manner like a party apparatchik is not expected from an ambassador.’

Anti-India and anti-Modi criticism has been on the rise in recent years. 70 members of the US senate penned a letter to the Biden administration prior to PM Modi’s visit to Washington last June. It mentioned, ‘A series of independent, credible reports reflect troubling signs in India toward the shrinking of political space, the rise of religious intolerance, the targeting of civil society organizations and journalists, and growing restrictions on press freedoms and internet access.’ Subsequently, the same critics gave PM Modi a standing ovation post his address to the US congress.

The Sweden-based V-Dem Institute reported that India was ‘on the verge of losing its status as a democracy’ because of severe ‘shrinking of space for media, civil society, and the opposition under PM Modi’s government.’ It classified India as an ‘electoral autocracy.’ Freedom House terms India as a ‘partially free democracy.’  

Can such criticism really be true? Morning Consult, a US based research company has described PM Modi as the world’s most popular leader. It mentions that he possesses 77% approval rating based on its latest data collated between Jan 30th and 05 Feb this year. He received 17% disapproval and 6% don’t knows. His nearest rival was Andres Obrador from Mexico with 65%. A 77% rating implies approval from all sections of society. Erik Solheim, a former minister of Norway tweeted, ‘With an Incredible 77% approval rate for PM Modi, maybe it’s time for Western media to give India and Modiji some positive coverage?’   

The same agency had given a similar result through 2021 to 2023. PM Modi’s rallies aimed at interacting with the Indian diaspora abroad have drawn thousands. Addressing the rally alongside PM Modi in Sydney, the Australian PM, Anthony Albanese, mentioned, ‘The last time I saw someone on this stage was Bruce Springsteen and he did not get the welcome that PM Modi has got. PM Modi is the boss.’

When questioned on appearing alongside ‘tyrant’ Modi on the stage and calling him the ‘boss,’ Albanese replied, ‘India is of course the world’s largest democracy … PM Modi is certainly popular, not with everyone, it’s a democracy, but he’s popular with a majority of people.’ There has been immense enthusiasm in every diaspora event addressed by PM Modi spreading from the UAE to the US.

President Trump mentioned while attending the ‘howdy Modi’ event in Houston in 2019, ‘I’m so thrilled to be here in Texas with one of America’s greatest, most devoted and most loyal friends, PM Modi of India.’ The rally was attended by over 50,000 Indians, most of whom had travelled across the US and Canada to be present.

Rhea Mogul, penning for the CNN, recently wrote, ‘At his (PM Modi’s) rallies, tens of thousands gather in near frenzied religious devotion in support of a man whose policies they say have transformed the lives of ordinary Indians – and helped enshrine the nascent promise of social mobility in a country still riven by caste divisions.’ She adds, ‘According to 2023 Pew research, about eight-in-ten Indian adults have a favorable view of Modi, including 55% who have a very favorable view.’

The fact is that if India is not democratic and the current government is not working for its people, would the rating give the same output over the years. Further, if democracy was sliding and autocracy was the norm, would there be such hysteria across all parts of the world to listen to the PM.

Such a contradiction is not possible in a globally connected environment, especially in nations where the Indian diaspora is well educated, aware and in touch with their relatives in India. The criticism by a few disgruntled or jealous individuals or institutions cannot be assumed as views of the majority.

The fact that PM Modi has worked to project a positive image of India, making it a global voice, has evoked both praise and criticism. The fact is all democracies are not similar and cannot be compared on a common yardstick. Some western governments have disapproved India’s strategic autonomy and its refusal to toe their line. India today is no longer a nation which can be sidelined. As Jaishankar mentioned, ‘No major issue in the world is decided without some consultation with India.’


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