Indian foreign policy establishment reacting increasingly like China to criticism

India’s imperious reaction to criticism of its declining democracy, much like China, is not enhancing its stature but exposing it to ridicule

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking in Singapore’s parliament
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong speaking in Singapore’s parliament

Nilova Roychaudhury

Whatever the government may say about Chinese aggression and incursions into Indian territory and no matter how many Chinese apps it bans, the Narendra Modi-led BJP government has apparently decided to adopt the Chinese model to stave off all criticism and project its ‘power.’

Defence minister Rajnath Singh said at a recent poll rally that the BJP government has changed the world’s perception of India; the world, he said, now views India as a powerful country. The Bhakts believe the Russian and American Presidents do not take any important decision without consulting the Indian Prime Minister. Indian TV channel Zee News actually discussed whether US and Russia would go by Modi’s advice to defuse the Ukrainian crisis.

The world’s perception of India has changed, but the Indian government appears unable to deal with that changed perspective. Like Beijing, New Delhi has adopted one standard response: hit back at anyone remotely critical, whether another country’s parliament, or a prime minister or a pop star, or human rights advocates-- just call them “anti-Indian”, their commentary “misplaced”, “malicious,” or “unnecessary interference”, much like China disses comments about Xinjiang and visits to Arunachal Pradesh.

The Indian Ministry of External Affairs, diplomats joke, has transformed into the verbal equivalent of a missile defence system, staving off increasing attacks. This is apparently now a well-planned strategy to show off India’s muscular heft. It is important to adopt a “muscular” approach to tackling criticism as the best way to project Indian power.

It came as no surprise therefore that the MEA has actually prepared a presentation to impress upon the rest of the world the uniqueness of India’s democratic model, distinct from western, anglicised perceptions of parliamentary democracy, or democracy with Indian characteristics, as it were.

This was readied soon after the US-based Freedom House and Sweden-based V-Dem Institute downgraded Indian democracy in March 2021, the latter calling it an “elected autocracy”, prompting External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar to hit back saying, “India is not looking for their approval, and India is not willing to play the game they want to play.”

The presentation was however prepared by the MEA and shared with Speaker of the Lok Sabha, Om Birla, to use during his meetings with foreign envoys. The talking points outlined for him stated that those critical of Indian democracy did not appreciate how broad-based and truly representative it was; how reflective Indian democracy is of Indian diversity and ethos. Since India’s new practitioners of democracy are not English speaking and their values are rooted in Indian culture, the Western world did not understand how Indian democracy worked and were thus harsh in their judgements, the brief maintained.

When envoys of countries stationed in India had to witness the ‘Kumbh Mela,’ it was presented as a uniquely ‘democratic’ cultural practice. The term democratic is literally translated to mean mass participation, much like India’s electoral process. The majoritarian view prevails but surely that is democratic, is the argument.

Having reaped huge dividends from its “soft” power diplomacy in recent decades, particularly from the tenets of democracy, non-violence, Mahatma Gandhi and diverse culture, the Indian government feels it is in an unassailable position as the “Vishwa Guru,” or global leader, where nobody can, or indeed should, question the Indian government’s credentials.

This identification of the ruling party and government with the nation is a strange concept for most foreign interlocutors, except those from monarchies and autocracies, and hence, increasingly, questions are being raised at international forums.

The MEA said it was “uncalled for” for Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, of a friendly state like Singapore, to speak in his country’s parliament about democracy and cite the rise in criminality and fall in standards today from the era of the BJP’s bugbear, Jawaharlal Nehru. Refusing to accept that Lee’s words could indicate that India’s democratic credentials are beginning to fray at the edges in global perception, the MEA responded by summoning the country’s High Commissioner and essentially told him to tell his Prime Minister to watch his words!

There is definite disbelief, even dismay, among diplomatic circles that India is reacting exactly as China does, to any critical comment about it. It was inexplicable to them why the MEA needed to issue an official statement condemning “celebrities and others” for their “neither accurate nor responsible” comments when international figures, like actor and pop sensation Rihanna, tweeted – “why aren’t we talking about this?” – about farmers protesting against the farm laws; or when US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ niece, Meena, said the “world’s most populous democracy is under assault,” about the same farmers’ agitation. There were howls of self-righteous outrage, and support to the farmers agitation was deemed “malicious and motivated” and an “international conspiracy to defame India.”

However, it was not deemed interference when Modi, in Houston in September 2019 proclaimed, along with former US President Donald Trump, “ab ki baar Trump Sarkar,” (this time Trump) and repeated the message, in February 2020, in Ahmedabad, when the Covid-19 pandemic erupted.

Earlier, run-ins with foreign governments would be about Jammu and Kashmir, usually responses to statements issued by the Organisation of Islamic Countries (OIC) after their annual meetings. But an OIC comment earlier this month, urging the UN Human Rights Council to take “necessary measures” to curb the ‘hijab’ controversy, saw the MEA saying the OIC had “harmed its own reputation.” Even more astoundingly it said the Islamic organisation had a “communal mindset” and was overtaken by “vested interests.” Yet the same government had sung paeans of praise to the organisation when Sushma Swaraj attended the OIC ministerial meet.

It is supremely ironic that the government of India, the world’s largest democracy, looks to capitalise on the democracy dividend at every conceivable international forum, from the United Nations to the United States-organised Global Democracy Summit to other multilateral and bilateral interactions to expand its strategic and security options, yet opts to follow a pre-determined agenda moving away from open, democratic discourse and choosing the unilateral route to conducting its business.

It has chosen to dismiss any criticism of government, domestic or foreign, and opposition to government legislation and way of conducting business, whether by elected legislators to the Indian Parliament or legislatures of other sovereign nations as “ill informed”, anti-national and inimical to national interest.

It is unlikely that following these tactics of China, an economic superpower, will reap any real dividends for an economically-challenged India.

(This was first published in National Herald on Sunday)

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