The recent broadside fired by the spokesman of the External Affairs Ministry at the BBC, in response to the airing of its documentary “the Modi Question” on the Prime Minister’s culpability in the Gujarat riots, showed the government at its most belligerent as well as its most defensive. Anxious to shield the Prime Minister from the damning charges in the documentary, government ministers and officials went out of their way to attack and discredit the BBC, going so far as to suggest that its film was a politically-motivated attempt to tarnish India’s image just as it had assumed the leadership of the G-20.
The Government also moved swiftly to prevent the film being seen widely in India, blocking social media handles that had shared links to it (and getting YouTube to take down a copy of the documentary that had been uploaded on the site). It was, in other words, a full-scale assault on the Prime Minister’s foreign critics.
This reminded me of another incident just a couple of months ago when another foreigner, the eminent Israeli film-maker Nadav Lapid, disparaged the film “the Kashmir Files”, which had its biggest boosters in the government.
Lapid, heading the jury at the International Film Festival of India, expressed his embarrassment at such a “vulgar” work of “propaganda” being screened at a prestigious festival, where it was simply not at the level of the other works in competition. Lapid’s was an artistic and aesthetic judgement he was fully entitled to make, but the government’s defenders attacked him for allegedly demeaning the sufferings of the Kashmiri Pandit community, which he had never done, pressed the Israeli Ambassador to denounce his own compatriot, and even transferred out of the Film Festival Directorate the hapless official who had invited him to head the jury. Poor Mr Lapid is unlikely to get another invitation or visa to India as long as the present establishment remains in power.
Thin-skinned people over-react to criticism because it seems to challenge their own sense of their self-worth. To see a national government doing this, and that too in a democracy, where criticisms routinely fly in all directions, is (to put it mildly) unusual.
A third instance of such petulant behaviour came earlier last year, when experts at the World Health Organisation estimated that India had under-counted its mortality levels from the Covid pandemic by as much as five to ten times, and that in fact 3 to 5 million Indians had perished in that calamity. Here too, the reaction of Indian officialdom was savage, challenging the integrity, bona fides and even the statistical methodology of the WHO – a United Nations body whose inter-governmental executive committee had been headed during the pandemic by our Health Minister. The Indian numbers, the government insisted, were perfectly accurate; the other Indians who had perished during the pandemic had died of unrelated causes.
All three episodes have a number of features in common. The first is an extraordinarily thin skin, something one associates with hyper-sensitive, immature individuals and not with official institutions, let alone governments. Thin-skinned people over-react to criticism because it seems to challenge their own sense of their self-worth. To see a national government doing this, and that too in a democracy, where criticisms routinely fly in all directions, is (to put it mildly) unusual.
Second, the government appears to have conflated its allergy to criticism and its obligation to protect India’s national honour, to the detriment of the latter. National honour is a precious asset, but not everything that is said about anything Indian necessarily impinges upon it. To take such a belligerent approach to critics implies that our national honour is so fragile and insubstantial that it can be tainted by any contrary view of an issue in which the government is involved. This desire to control the narrative extends to everything from India’s official poverty statistics to details of Chinese incursions into India. That is equally unfortunate.
Finally, it is clear that there is, on the part of the government, a highly-developed awareness of its image abroad. What is said about it by foreigners matters far more than it might have to most governments. The prickly refutations issued by high government officials and official spokesmen reflect a consciousness that foreign criticism stings because it is usually well-founded, because it cannot easily be dismissed as politically biased, and because it can damage the sheen of the country’s and the Prime Minister’s carefully cultivated global image. This is why our government reacts with such vehemence to slights that most other governments would ignore.
The issue here is that mature civilizations, especially democracies, do not behave this way. They are expected to encourage a culture of dissent in which criticism is part of the normal give-and-take in society. They should have developed a strong sense of others’ rights to disagree with any prevailing orthodoxy, and to either take such disagreement in stride or seek to engage constructively with critics to sincerely understand the basis for their disagreement. Acting as if there is only one possible way of seeing a government action, and that all criticism is ipso facto illegitimate, is the hallmark of a banana republic, not a mature democracy.
Indian civilization has long had a culture of enquiry, dissent and debate, from ancient times to the present. By behaving this way, our government and its officials are embarrassing India and betraying our traditions. It would have been far better, in all these instances, for Indian officialdom to take the lofty stand that its critics are entitled to their views, with which our government does not concur. Or in some cases, to even acknowledge that perhaps there is something we can learn from our critics. By over-reacting, challenging the good faith of the foreigners and even seeking to suppress their stories, the government has only drawn greater attention to the criticism and exposed its own vulnerabilities. Governments are not pubescent adolescents -- and ours should stop behaving like one.
Jacinda lesson for Indian politicians
The shock resignation of New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern after five overwhelmingly successful years in office must have seemed incomprehensible to anyone familiar with Indian politics. Indeed her entire career would strike Indian politicians as out of another planet: Prime Minister at 37 after just nine years in Parliament, won worldwide praise for her handling of the Covid pandemic in her country, garnered global applause for her outreach to the Muslim minority after a gun massacre at a Christchurch mosque, gave birth while Prime Minister (and while still unmarried) -- and burned out at 42, she has resigned at an age where most Indian political careers would have barely begun. In contrast, our leaders spend decades in politics climbing to the top and cling on stubbornly once they get there, seeing election victories and defeats as mere milestones on their inexorable journey to senescence. “I know what this job takes,” she said at an emotional news conference, “and I know that I no longer have enough in the tank to do it justice.” Can one imagine an Indian MP, let alone PM, saying this? Perhaps even ancient, vast India could learn a thing or two from tiny, barely-born New Zealand?