India's image takes a beating
It’s past time for the Government to wake up to the damage done to India’s international standing by the ongoing standoff over the farmers’ protests, and the authorities’ unwillingness or inability to resolve them -- but the way it has chosen to do so has left many citizens squirming.
It took a tweet from pop singer Rihanna -- in turn quote-tweeting a CNN article about the government’s ham-handed internet shut-downs in parts of, and around, the nation’s capital -- to stir the Government to react. Rihanna has the small matter of a 100 million-plus followers on Twitter, some 40 million more than the Indian Prime Minister himself, so in the peculiar logic of social media influence, her post had to be taken seriously even by people who had never heard, let alone liked, a Rihanna song.
The Government’s response took three parallel forms. First, the Ministry of External Affairs, whose job is to deal with governments, diplomats and the world public, issued a statement bristling with indignation. Second, prominent ministers, including two who were former diplomats, issued tweets echoing the MEA statement. Third, as Rihanna was joined by a gaggle of other Western boldface names, notably teenage environmental crusader Greta Thunberg, the government wheeled out a cabal of Indian celebrities, mainly movie stars and cricketers, to tweet their defiance of the foreigners.
This reaction was embarrassing at multiple levels.
First, it really isn’t the job of the official MEA Spokesman, whose every word is meant to send signals to chancelleries around the world on hot-button issues facing Indian foreign policy, to react to Rihanna. To decry her one-sentence tweet as neither “accurate nor responsible” – you want a pop singer to be “accurate” and “responsible”? – was bad enough. To respond to her six-word query (“Why aren’t we talking about this?”) with a six-paragraph rejoinder garnished with two facile hashtags, #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda, was, to put it mildly, worse.
For a Ministry that wants to be taken seriously by governments around the world to huffily tell celebrities that the facts on the issue must be ascertained before rushing to comment -- and sniffily urge them to resist the ”temptation” of sensationalist social media hashtags -- was, in the words of former Home Minister P Chidambaram, “puerile”.
Second, as Chidambaram also pointed out, there’s nothing scandalous or offensive in foreigners commenting on news stories about domestic developments in India. We do it all the time about domestic developments abroad – indeed, had just done so the previous day in reacting to the coup in Myanmar. “Why did the PM of India comment on the assault on the Capitol building in Washington?” the senior Congress leader asked. “Come on MEA, when will you realize that people concerned with issues of human rights and livelihoods do not recognize national boundaries?”
Even the US, a supporter of farm reforms in India, called for a “dialogue” with the farmers and urged the Indian government to recognise “peaceful protests” and allow “access” to the internet. "Unhindered access to information", an official statement added, "including the internet, is fundamental to the freedom of expression and a hallmark of a thriving democracy."
Third, putting Indian celebrities up against Western celebrities is childish conduct, unworthy of a serious government. Aside from the fact that the combined following of all the Indian celebs enlisted to defend the government’s honour on Twitter doesn’t even match the pair of Rihanna and Thunberg, there is the fundamental fact that these celebs’ fans are overwhelmingly Indian – whereas the damage that the government seeks to counteract is damage done to the global image of India among foreigners.
Since even something as blindingly obvious as this appeared to have been overlooked, I felt constrained to comment: “For GoI (Government of India) to get Indian celebrities to react to Western ones is embarrassing. The damage done to India’s global image by GoI’s obduracy & undemocratic behaviour can’t be remedied by a cricketer’s tweets”. (Not to mention that Rihanna and Thunberg hail from countries where people only know cricket as an insect.) Noting one of the officially-patronised hashtags, I added: ”Withdraw the farm laws and discuss solutions with farmers, and you’ll get #IndiaTogether”.
The simple truth, that should have been apparent to anyone in the government with a smidgen of familiarity with the basic rules of public diplomacy, is that successful image-building depends entirely on having a good story to tell. For decades India’s soft power burgeoned in the world because we were “the land of the better story” – a free-market democracy that offered, in its domestic politics, an unparalleled example of the successful management of diversity in a free and open society.
Today, sadly for all of us, the opposite is true. Pick up any major newspaper abroad, whether on the right (like the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times) or the left (like the Guardian or the Washington Post) and all you see from and about India are critical articles and editorials. The drumbeat of daily reporting, as well as the op-ed columns, is relentlessly negative, recording heavy-handed police tactics against the farmers, internet shutdowns, orders to Twitter to suspend critical accounts, cases against journalists -- even (if I may point out) five FIRs against an Opposition MP for a deleted tweet.
It is because of such behaviour by the authorities that India is increasingly seen as bigoted and intolerant, led by a chauvinist government that is wilfully driving sectarian wedges between its people and promoting a Hindutva majoritarianism that has no appeal to the world outside. This is the image we need to change, and the government can only change it by changing its conduct, not by issuing hashtags.
Whatever the BJP hardliners might wish, there are good reasons to do so. What the world thinks matters more to us now than ever before, not least because, as this week’s Budget reminded us, we are in an economic crisis, and India is far more dependent on external trade, investment and goodwill than ever.
But foreign investment is an act of trust and faith in the future, which is fast eroding abroad as India’s image takes a beating. The ruling party’s sectarian, divisive actions, driven by narrow political goals, have to stop. If the government hopes to repair its tarnished image, the reality must change, by a revival of democratic practice and inclusive politics.
Then we can all, with pride, tweet #IndiaTogether.