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THE WEST STRIKES BACK
- The international media’s approach to Modi is an eye-opener

Earlier this week, the film-maker, Mahesh Bhatt, referred to an old advertisement, which used to claim that four out of every five doctors recommended a particular brand of Aspirin. “I want to hear what the fifth doctor has to say,” said Bhatt, with passionate intensity. The Bollywood celebrity was, of course, alluding to the ongoing election campaign, in which opinion polls suggest that Indian voters are inclined to prefer Brand Narendra Modi over the competition. Bhatt, needless to say, is not a Modi supporter, but was asserting his right to go his own way.

Doubtless, he had a point. It would be a sad day for democracy if the only voices heard in the public domain were one-sided and reflective of majority opinion. Mercifully, that is not the case in India. On the contrary, we are confronted with the bizarre situation of the intellectual establishment being dominated by the opinions of the dissidents. It is not that the voices of the so-called ‘moral majority’ have been driven underground, as happens in crude dictatorships. It is just that a small group has such a stranglehold over the levers of intellectual power that dominant sentiment is either deemed to be non-respectable or intimidated into occupying the fringe space reserved for contrarians. A thorough content analysis of the media (both print and electronic) for the past six months may be able to identify the quantum of bias. However, it is very hard to shake off the impression that the big guns have chosen to direct their fire at Modi.

The international media’s approach has been an eye-opener. Earthy wisdom would have us believe that what The Economist recommends to the Indian voter is going to have zero impact on the voting classes. At best, it could be a one-day talking point among bankers and diplomats and, at worst, was calculated to raise nationalist hackles. However, when adverse comments on a Modi-led India become the theme song of almost all the ‘quality’ publications of the West that can be bothered to devote editorial space to the world’s largest festival of democracy, the group-think is bound to have some effect.

First, it is calculated to paint the picture of an electorate that is guided by raw emotion rather than enlightened self-interest, a proposition that is in direct conflict with the abiding global faith in the modernity of the Indian middle classes. Second, it has served to confuse foreigners who have an economic stake in India. Their personal experience, bolstered by inputs from their Indian partners, is that the advent of Modi is certain to give a boost to economic activity. But the unrelenting hostility of the editorial classes to any possible Modi dispensation has the potential of being translated into opposition from small shareholders who may have begun to believe that the gullible masses are on the cusp of electing a Hindu Hitler. What has added to this confusion is the numerous appeals penned by India-connected notables, such as Salman Rushdie and Anish Kapoor, expressing grave fears at the likelihood of a Modi- led government. The quantum of alarmism can be assessed by a blog in the Guardian website, where a Cambridge academic of Indian origin recommended that the British government scale down its diplomatic engagement in India if Modi comes to power.

To detect a direct link between the alarm bells in the Anglophone world media over a possible Modi victory and the hysteria over impending fascism among India’s intellectual elite wouldn’t be far-fetched. India is too much of a rumbustious democracy for its historians and playwrights to be reduced to echo-chambers of Western liberal fashion. On the contrary, if the editorial classes in London and New York have developed a Modi allergy, it is because they have been guided by their counterparts in India.

In the normal course, someone like Salman Rushdie would have found reason to celebrate the continuing vibrancy of Indian democracy rather than join a version of the International Brigade against Modi. I recall interviewing Rushdie, then in hiding in London in the summer of 1997 on the occasion of 50 years of Indian Independence. At that time, he was a persona non grata in India, and had been deprived of his visa to travel to his beloved Mumbai. It was a terrible predicament to be for a writer who felt he was emotionally linked to India.

In that interview, Rushdie spoke poetically of the “loss of India”. However, when it came to politics, he stressed the need for an engagement with the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, which was, in the aftermath of the Ayodhya demolition of 1992, regarded in the West as a wild bunch of Hindus. I don’t believe that Rushdie’s desire to engage with the BJP stemmed from some wishy-washy romanticism about India. It was grounded in a pragmatic calculation that the BJP was likely to be in power after the ramshackle United Front government collapsed, and that it was only the BJP that had opposed the ban against Satanic Verses in India. The cynical would have interpreted his appreciation of the complexities of Indian politics as a visa application for the future.

Whether it was or not, the fact is that among the first things that the National Democratic Alliance government did in 1998 was to re-establish Rushdie’s right to visit India. I would like to think that the interview he gave to me played a modest role in the government’s change of heart. Indeed, the records show that the British writer was better able to speak, travel and live in India during the NDA rule than subsequently. Two years ago, his invitation to the Jaipur Literature Festival resulted in threats by Islamic radicals and his non-appearance following broad hints by the Congress-run Rajasthan government. I doubt that unfortunate incident is likely to be repeated under a NDA dispensation. What is more, I think Rushdie knows it.

I don’t expect Rushdie or, for that matter, other concerned Western liberals to desist from their condemnation of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Those riots were horrible and must not be repeated. But the general election of 2014 in India isn’t being fought over the faultlines that reappeared in 2002. It is being contested on very different themes. And if, after a robust debate, where liberals had unrestrained rights to say their piece and broadcast their dire warnings of the future, Indian voters choose to elect Modi, should the proclaimed friends of India in the West turn their back on a whole people?

There is a certain cussedness about the Western liberal over-reaction that many in India find deeply patronizing and offensive. In the event that Modi wins on May 16, we are likely to see two trends. First, the enthusiasm of business for a fresh start will rub off on the Western media. The Economist will be more circumspect than before. Second, the Modi government will be put on notice from day one and not be given the benefit of a honeymoon. Any trip-up will be mercilessly exploited. And finally, there is likely to be an unholy alliance between Indian liberals and the forces of anti-capitalism to thwart the revival of manufacturing. India will be painted as a crude practitioner of bandit capitalism.

For Modi, the internal challenges may be formidable, but far less daunting than the diplomatic roadblocks he will encounter. The enfeebled liberal establishment in India will organize its fightback from abroad.