What is the truth about India’s ‘increasing international respect’? 

According to the Henley Passport Index, India’s ranking has fallen from a high of 74 in 2010 to 86 in 2019. International awards pouring in for PM Modi hasn’t helped. But what people see is bonhomie

What is the truth about India’s ‘increasing international respect’? 

Samir Nazareth

Today, if anyone was to ask an Indian ‘How is the josh?’ she/he would in all likelihood stand up, salute and say, ‘High Sir’.

This response has apparently got to do with the success of the Bollywood commodification of the surgical strikes against Pakistan and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Prime Minister Narendra Modi using it as an India-coming-of age statement.

And there is every reason for Indian citizens to be on a high. Article 370 has been abrogated with ease and without an international peep. This, besides suggesting BJP’s stranglehold on the country and the political narrative, indicates that the international community has reconciled to India’s continuing Modification.

What better proof of this than Narendra Modi being the most internationally awarded Indian Prime Minister ever? He has been awarded a peace prize and is the recipient of an UN environmental award. Even Bill Gates presented him with an award as he thinks Modi is doing a fine job for the country’s people. Further, several Muslim majority countries have awarded Modi ji their national awards. Hindutva apologists argue that such recognitions only prove his secular credentials.

One cannot argue against such an observation. However, one needs to point out that these countries do not have much to say about democracy, freedom of expression, dissent or human rights, the Uyghurs or about the Palestinian morass for example. In fact, Saudi Arabia, which too has conferred an award on the Prime Minister, has also honoured Chinese premier Xi Jinping.

A recent article suggested a certain expediency to the Modi hugs — the hugs are more forthcoming with leaders of rich nations. Similarly, one cannot but not wonder about the Machiavellian motives behind these national awards presented to the Indian Prime Minister.

But that does not concern the common Indian. They see bonhomie, even if made for the camera and to the other person’s discomfort, and international recognition. Thus, it came as no surprise that at a rally specifically organised at the airport on his return from the UNGA and the ‘Howdy Modi’ event in Houston, Narendra Modi could majestically announce that the world’s respect for India has grown since 2014 — that is, since he came to power.

What are the tangible outcomes of this ‘increase in respect’? According to the Henley Passport Index, India’s ranking has fallen from a high of 74 in 2010 to 86 in 2019. In fact, between 2014 and 2015, India’s ranking fell from 76 to 88. Thus, the rise in international respect for India has not translated to visa-free entries to more countries.

Was the absence of international condemnation a reflection of this new respect or an acknowledgement of India’s long-held position that Kashmir is a matter to be resolved between her and Pakistan and no one else?

There are other international rankings that suggest that all is not well, despite the rise in India’s stature internationally. Take for example the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, where India has fallen two places to 140. Or for that matter India’s score on the Global Hunger Index. India scored 17.8 in 2014; now the score is 30.3 (the lower the score, the better is the performance).

In the Global Happiness Index, India’s position has been falling, i.e. India is growing unhappier. India’s rank has fallen to 140, lower than Pakistan, Bangladesh and China. The country’s position in the Global Competitive Index report has also fallen as has her rank in the World Fragility Index.

One could sweep aside these declines and point to other indices — improvement in the country’s rank in innovation and ease of doing business. But what is the use of these improvements if there is a rot at the foundation itself — economic inequality, economy, factionalised elite, group grievances, human flight, human rights, public services, security apparatus, state legitimacy —some of the 12 indices used to calculate fragility.

So, is India in the throes of a Marie Antoinette moment? The country could do a ‘Sitharaman’ – a reference to the Union Finance Minister who blamed millennials for the country’s economic downturn. Or a ‘Goyal’, another Minister who, while attempting to rubbish doubts on India achieving a Rs 5 trillion economy, claimed that math was not necessary in Einstein’s discovery of gravity — actually discovered by Newton — to either explain away this dissonance or disparage it.

But the question remains: Is this new pastime to flaunt ‘increasing international respect’ for India comparable to the French queen Mary Antoinette advising people to have cakes when they complained that they couldn’t access bread?

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