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Sanitary inspectors

For the man who plays minder to Rahul Gandhi on his overseas visits, the Western media coverage seemed to imply that Modi had lost the plot and was on the cusp of being perceived as a global pariah

Swapan Dasgupta Published 25.04.24, 07:27 AM
Cult status.

Cult status. Sourced by the Telegraph.

Earlier this week, Sam Pitroda, the chairman of the Indian Overseas Congress, now based in the United States of America, went on social media to compile a long list of recent headlines in the Western media on Indian politics and the general election. Predictably, nearly all the headlines showed Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a poor light, tarring him with the brush of authoritarianism and undemocratic conduct. These included “India: democracy in name only?” (Le Monde), “The US should not normalize Modi’s autocratic and illiberal India at the G20” (The Guardian) and “Has Modi pushed Indian democracy past its breaking point?” (The New Yorker). For the man who plays minder to Rahul Gandhi on his overseas visits, the Western media coverage seemed to imply that Modi had lost the plot and was on the cusp of being perceived as a global pariah.

A random sample of the generous coverage of Indian politics in the wake of the general election is worth highlighting. In an essay, “Modi’s Temple of Lies”, Siddhartha Deb, a US-based novelist of modest consequence, wrote: “Mr Modi and his party are giving India the Hindu utopia they promised, and in the clear light of day, it amounts to little more than a shiny, garish temple that is a monument to majoritarian violence, surrounded by waterlogged streets, emaciated cattle and a people impoverished in every way.” Deb, who was last in Ayodhya in 2021, was miffed that in the temple town “There was no hotel bar — a sign of Hindu virtue — and the food served was pure vegetarian, a phrase implying both Hindu caste purity and anti-Muslim prejudice.”


Maybe Deb’s self-loathing and over-inclination to wallow in cosmopolitan arrogance is an extreme example of the Katherine Mayo-style journalism that fits smugly into the political agenda of Western liberalism. But such “sanitary inspector’s report[s]” — Mahatma Gandhi’s telling description of writings that are calculated to wound and offend — have become the order of the day.

In language that is much more restrained, a Chatham House report this month has highlighted charges of “authoritarianism by stealth through controlling key levers of power, including security services, tax authorities and the media.” The Modi government has been warned that unless “democratic backsliding” is checked and reversed, the bonhomie between the Modi government and the ‘democratic’ West will be a thing of the past.

The belief that shrill indignation in the centres of intellectual capital will influence ‘native’ opinion and delegitimise the Hindu nationalists has been a facet of public life for long. After the disputed Babri shrine was demolished in 1992, the then Congress government bankrolled the visits of ‘secular’ academics to many Western universities. Apart from dissecting the apparently pernicious ideology of the saffron ‘fascists’, they didn’t lag in suggesting that only the Congress (and, maybe, the Left) stood in the way of India being overwhelmed by trishul-waving obscurantists.

Some 10 years ago, on April 10, 2014, while Indians were voting in the general election, a clutch of India-watchers, including Salman Rushdie, the Harvard professor, Homi K. Bhabha, the artist, Sir Anish Kapoor, and others published a joint letter in The Guardian, charging Modi with “failure of moral character and political ethics.” “Were he to be elected prime minister,” they argued, “it would bode ill for India’s future as a country that cherishes the ideals of inclusion and protection for all its peoples and communities.”

The notables, most of whom were not Indian citizens, were aware that there was very little they could do apart from fulminate and curse the Congress for letting the side down. But not The Economist that imagined that it must have a say in how Indians determine their political future. Quite forgetting that Indians are not receptive to foreign interference in their domestic politics, it suggested that voters support Rahul Gandhi, albeit grudgingly. “But we have to recommend it to Indians as the less disturbing option.” In the event the Bharatiya Janata Party won, “its coalition partners should hold out for a prime minister other than Mr Modi.”

A palace coup mounted by what used to be called the 220 Club in the BJP never materialised because voters gave Modi an emphatic majority in both the 2014 and the 2019 elections. However, the temptation to tell Indian voters what is good for their well-being has never deserted the Western agenda. Like a stuck gramophone record, the disregarded theme song of 2014 is being replayed.

This is not a wild, conspiratorial charge levelled against well-meaning reporters who often try to apply universal standards to India’s political behaviour. Speaking, earlier this week, to a gathering in Hyderabad, the external affairs minister, S. Jaishankar, was scathing in his assessment of the Western media coverage of Indian politics. “If they criticise our democracy, it’s not because they lack information. It’s because they think they are also political players in our election.” He referred to an article where the government was attacked for conducting elections in such unbearable heat. “I read that article and I wanted to say, in that heat my lowest turnout is higher than your highest turnout… These are politics. These are our domestic politics which is going global, global politics which feels they must now intrude in India… So, they actually think they are part of our electorate. It is time today that we disabuse them.”

After June 4, it will be clear whether the concerns voiced by the Congress and the Western media resonate with the Indian people. It could be, as an article in the Financial Times argued, that India has imbibed the East Asian habit of trading its democracy for economic growth. However, if this genetic explanation of political behaviour is discounted, a Modi victory would prompt two conclusions. First, that the boisterously argumentative India that has been celebrated for long is alive and well and the fears exist in the minds of those who loathe Modi. Second, that the vote for the BJP is also an emphatic rejection of an old, cosmopolitan, political elite and its replacement by political leaders who are more rooted. They are also more vernacular, a reason why the foreign media finds them more difficult to comprehend than the affable, English-speaking elite around the Gandhi family.

There is, of course, a third possibility. Modi has moved from being the tallest Indian leader to acquiring cult status.

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