Government’s ability to overcome international criticism depends on rebuilding national consensus on key policies and healing social rifts

Unending outrage is part of India’s routine political discourse. The latest bout is directed at either the emerging international support for the protesting farmers or the government’s sharp response, rejecting external meddling in India’s internal affairs.

A calmer look suggests that India’s problem is not with external criticism, which in any case, is not too difficult to handle. India’s real challenge is the deepening domestic political divide. The inevitable extension of this divide to the diaspora has created more favourable conditions for foreign meddling.

But neither the negative international scrutiny nor the Indian nationalist rejection of it are new. Recall Mahatma Gandhi’s dismissal of Katherine Mayo’s critical book called Mother India as a “gutter inspector’s report”. Mobilising nationalist sentiment and evoking territorial sovereignty in fending off external criticism have been consistent themes in the conduct of independent India’s foreign policy. Any time the UN Secretary General or an American official chose to speak about Kashmir mediation or when the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation referred to the rights of Muslim minorities in India, Delhi’s reaction was visceral.

The intensity of international scrutiny and Delhi’s rejection have varied over time and space, but they are unlikely to ever disappear. As India becomes more deeply connected to the world and its footprint widens, there will be more global interest in its internal dynamics. At the same time, like all rising powers, India will push back against demands that it must always measure up to external expectations.

Realists among Asian elites know that the Western power to turn sensible sentiments on democracy and human rights into consistent policies is rather limited. They also know that the issue of human rights has never been the sole factor shaping US foreign policy towards other nations.

But there is no denying that the Western power to create problems is real and Asian pragmatists also know it does not pay to lock yourself into needless political arguments with the US over your domestic politics. Asian realists also know that it is not difficult to neutralise Western liberal critics by emphasising engagement with others that might have commercial and security interests.

What about the celebrities like Rihanna, who have jumped into the fray on the farmers protests in India? The celebrity bark is worse than its bite. The English actor and director Ricky Gervais put it rather bluntly at the Golden Globes awards night last year, when he told the Hollywood elite to stop pontificating on all kinds of issues when receiving their awards.

“You’re in no position to lecture the public about anything” said Gervais. “You know nothing about the real world. Most of you spent less time in school than Greta Thunberg. So if you win, come up, accept your little award, thank your agent and your God and f*** off”.

Well, if Greta Thunberg can continue to speak up, don’t expect the celebrity stars to stop pronouncing on various issues. Even when Hollywood is seriously committed to an issue, its ability to change the world can easily be overestimated. Consider for example, Richard Gere.

Few Hollywood celebrities have shown a deeper commitment to the Tibet cause than Gere. Forget convincing the Chinese Communist Party to change its course on Tibet, Gere and multiple celebrity supporters of the Dalai Lama can’t stop Hollywood today from censoring itself to avoid giving any political offence to China. For the Hollywood moguls, after all, market access is far more important than moralpolitik on Tibet.

What about the US Congress, where the concerns about Indian democracy are being raised frequently? Those who are anxious about this critical sentiment should know that in the early 1990s, passing resolutions against India on Punjab and Kashmir was routine. Two gentlemen, the late Gurmeet Singh Aulakh (President of the Council of Khalistan) and Ghulam Nabi Fai (founder of the Kashmiri American Council) seemed to have a free run in the US Congress.

But once Delhi began to engage with US Congress and explained the complexity of the issues involved, the tide began to turn. The Indian diaspora helped by reaching out to their representatives and pressing them to reconsider their positions. Within a decade, supporters of separatism in Punjab and Kashmir could not even move the resolutions in the US Congress.

Delhi has its task cut out in changing the negative narratives about India in the US and the West. That task, however, is terribly complicated by the unprecedented domestic polarisation, and amplifies internal disputation and invites external intervention.

Nearly three decades ago, when statements on Kashmir by a US State Department official created an uproar in India, the political class in Delhi got together to pass a unanimous resolution in both Houses of the Parliament affirming that Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh are integral parts of India.

Prime minister P V Narasimha Rao and BJP leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, acted in close consultation to navigate severe international challenges at one of India’s weakest moments. It is difficult to imagine such political cooperation across the aisle on key issues today.

Meanwhile, India’s internal conflicts have inevitably enveloped the diaspora. Sections of the diaspora that have a beef with Delhi’s policies are actively mobilising the political class in their adopted countries to raise the voice against India. They are also building wider coalitions to put the Indian government on the mat. If the diaspora in the past helped India overcome some difficult problems with the US, it is the counter mobilisation of the diaspora that is at the very cutting edge of shaping the western criticism of India.

The government’s ability to overcome the growing external criticism of its policies depends crucially on rebuilding the national consensus on key policies and healing the multiple social rifts. Without a visible and sincere political effort to promote unity at home, internal divisions will get worse and make India more vulnerable to external meddling.

Those who think foreign sticks are as good as any to beat the government with must not forget that talk of external intervention makes it easier for the leadership to rally people round the flag. Nationalism is easy to mobilise and xenophobia lurks just below the surface in the non-Western world.

Those who take a longer view point out that if the US can’t change the domestic politics of Cuba or Haiti right next door, it is unlikely that it can force fundamental changes in even more complex Asian states that are a hemisphere away from America. India’s own experience with Sri Lanka and Nepal underlines how hard it is to persuade other societies to accept Delhi’s preferences on the rights of minorities and federalism. In the end, democracy and pluralism can never be foreigner’s gifts. The struggle to construct and preserve democracies remains an internal one.

The writer is director, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore and a contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express

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