International criticism of its management of the farmers’ agitation has presented an unexpected challenge for the Narendra Modi government: A perceptible shift in mood following former US President Donald Trump’s electoral defeat last November. Suddenly, activists of all hues are back in business after being lampooned and marginalised by Trump’s ultra-nationalist, rightwing politics.
Human rights, civil rights, democracy, climate change, protection of religious minorities and a host of other issues that constitute a broad liberal agenda have become important buzzwords in the new world order Trump’s successor Joe Biden hopes to shape. Biden listed his foreign policy priorities in recent speeches and conversations with world leaders. Key among them is to uphold democratic values and human rights and pursue climate change goals which Trump had dumped. In his address to the virtual Munich Security Conference on February 19, Biden warned that “democratic progress is under assault’’ and urged democracies to confront the notion that “autocracy is the best way forward’’. He seemed to suggest that there would be greater scrutiny of the democratic credentials of governments around the world. India could well be on the list in the light of increasing negative publicity in the Western media, especially since it has always been feted for its commitment to democracy.
Given this backdrop, it was decidedly odd that the Modi government chose to come out all guns blazing in a bid to silence its foreign critics on the farm protests. Not only was its irate response to tweets by a celebrity pop star, US Vice President Kamala Harris’ activist niece and others way over-the-top, its decision to pursue a case of sedition for a toolkit tweeted by the teenage heroine of the climate change movement, Greta Thunberg, was completely misplaced. But the real shocker was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s confrontational tone in Parliament. Heaping scorn on activists, he called them andolanjeevi (professional protestors) and parjeevi (parasites). And in an open snub to activist lobbies abroad, he asked the nation to beware of “Foreign Destructive Ideology’’.
His outburst has pitted him against a section of international opinion that wields influence in the current administration in Washington. These are the lobbies that powered Joe Biden to the White House and many of them are deeply embedded in the Democratic Party.
Although Modi has invested considerable time and energy in cultivating western movers and shakers and building his international brand, it seems he has not shaken off the ghosts of the past. The liberal opinion that the Democrats represent is the very opinion he abhors and the one he clashed with many years ago when he was denied a visa to the US as Gujarat chief minister.
Dial back to 2005. Persistent efforts by groups lobbying for human rights and religious freedom along with widespread negative coverage in the foreign media pressured the George Bush administration into rejecting Modi’s request for a visa to travel to the US. Mind you, this was a Republican government, but Democrats in the US Congress threw their weight behind the anti-Modi lobbies to prevail on President Bush despite protests from the Manmohan Singh government. It’s an insult Modi has neither forgotten nor has he forgiven, judging from the anger visible in his body language and words when he decided to use the floor of the Indian Parliament to hit out at activist groups not just here but abroad as well. Clearly, emotions are running high, suggesting worry, bordering on paranoia, that these lobbies may target him again. By upping the ante, the Modi government has attempted to pre-empt this.
It is interesting that Modi has fallen back on an old trope: Indira Gandhi’s “foreign hand’’ theory. At election rallies in Assam and Bengal, he sought to join the dots between foreign activists and “international conspirators’’ out to “destabilise’’ India. He even mentioned the toolkit which landed 22-year-old environmental activist Disha Ravi in jail as part of this conspiracy. Raising the bogey of the “foreign hand’’ feeds into Modi’s ultranationalist narrative. With Article 370 nullified and the Ram mandir done, he needs new talking points to burnish his nationalist credentials. International conspiracies to break up India, defame Indian tea and denigrate yoga is Modi’s Hindutva 4.0.
There are three years to go for the next general election, but Modi is thinking ahead. He knows domestic problems are piling up, particularly on the economic front. He also has a serious military, foreign policy and strategic challenge on his hands in the form of China. Now, another one has appeared, this time from the detested liberal lobbies which have been reactivated. Modi will have to create a toolkit for survival in a post-Trump world.
The writer is a senior journalist