In the close to seven years that it has been in power at the Centre, the BJP has repeatedly claimed that India has taken pride of place among the world’s successful democracies. According to his party and admirers, all credit for this goes to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This assertion resurfaces at every milestone, as it did when the Indian press recently marked the start of Modi’s 20th year in public life.
Yet a perusal of international news reports and opinion articles published since 2014, some even earlier, in a few of the world’s leading publications does not support their claim. To read these newspapers and magazines is to know what is really said and believed in the world about India and its Prime Minister. The impression is far less sanguine than the BJP insists—and for this, at least to a degree, Modi is responsible.
Before He Was Prime Minister
Search “Narendra Modi” in the digital archives of the New York Times, the United States’ third most popular newspaper, to discover him on its pages in early 2002, days after a communal conflagration in Gujarat. In a dispatch published on 2 March the newspaper’s South Asia correspondent at the time, Celia W Dugger, wrote that Modi “appealed to the news media not to identify whether rioters and their victims were Hindu or Muslim. To do so would be to encourage strife, he said. But he then went on to suggest subtly that Muslims had provoked the two most deadly incidents in Ahmedabad…”
Ironic words considering the BJP always accuses the Congress party of fomenting the violence of October-November 1984 and denial of justice to Sikh victims. In fact, in the eyes of the world, there is no justice for any victims of any riot in India.
If the riots had tarnished the image of Modi, Gujarat, and India, the 2002 Assembly election campaign and subsequent BJP victory (126 of 182 seats) hardly helped regain lost glory. “The vote seemed to affirm the success of the campaign strategy of the incumbent Bharatiya Janata Party, which had focused on uniting Hindus against a threat of Islamic terrorism and implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, against the state’s Muslims,” New York Times’ Amy Waldman wrote a day after the result.
To these reports, the BJP would claim that the riots in Gujarat were extensively covered, whereas India has a long history of communal violence. The subtext is that the BJP was ruling Gujarat in 2002, so its rival, a then powerful Congress, trained the spotlight on it. But it is only partially true that other violent episodes go ignored: two years ago, the Indian press campaigned against Congress for nominating Kamal Nath as chief minister of Madhya Pradesh over his alleged role in 1984. It is bizarre to believe that international publications had aligned with BJP’s rivals: Gujarat 2002 was the first communal violence to be telecast live on India’s emergent 24/7 TV channels. Unsparing gory detail, such as “confessions” by alleged Hindutwadis, often secured by journalists on hidden cameras, were widely telecast. These reports shocked the country—and the world—for years. Besides, activists like Gautam Navlakha, who campaigned for justice for 1984 survivors, have been imprisoned during the present Modi regime.
It is an article of faith among human rights and anti-communalism campaigners that justice denied to one set of victims creates new victims in future. It would seem this happened to Gujarat’s Muslims, who were attacked 18 years after the massacre of Sikhs in 1984. This is one reason why the foreign press focuses repeatedly on the BJP’s ideological underpinnings.
In early 2003, the New York Times reprinted an International Herald Tribune comment on communalism and politics by Stanley A Weiss, a well-known business figure. After citing a remark apparently made by then prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, ‘What face will I now show the world?’, Weiss wrote, “There is only one way India will realise its full potential as the world’s largest democracy and gain its rightful place as a leading global power. New Delhi must preserve the delicate balance of a secular state in a religious country.” The inference was that this was not being done.
It was obvious that such reports infuriated Modi, who said once that his “only mistake” in 2002 was he “did not handle the news media better”.
Modi’s August 2003 visit to the United Kingdom stoked polarising protests and adoration, prompting The Guardian newspaper to question the British government. It reproduced a Home Office statement in one report: “‘We are aware he’s visiting the UK. He is not visiting at her majesty’s government’s invitation nor does the government plan to have any contact with him when he’s here. We do understand the concerns expressed but there were no appropriate grounds to refuse Mr Modi a visa’.”
It is understandable for Modi’s party colleagues to praise him and ignore his failures. But it is odd the Indian media forgot them too while celebrating his 19 years wielding power. To be fair, the world’s media was caught up with Modi’s “development messiah” projection for a while—though they never forgot his or his administration’s missteps.
Vibrant Business Leader Phase
In this 31-paragraph report in The New York Times from February 2011, 24 are on Modi’s image-building exercise. “...even Mr. Modi’s fans sometimes grumble that he and his image makers may be taking outsize credit” for Gujarat’s economic progress, said the report by Heather Timmons, the paper’s South Asia chief at the time. “Corporate executives, though, tend to concentrate on Mr. Modi’s pro-business attributes, which they see as something of an anomaly in an India where government bureaucracy, bumbling or corruption too often impedes commerce,” it said.
“Ford is investing in the state of Gujarat, whose chief minister, Narendra Modi, has drawn international attention for his business-friendly attitude, the same author wrote in July 2011. “But Mr. Modi, a long time Hindu nationalist, also remains one of India’s most polarising politicians...”.
Skip to a 23 December 2007 report in The Washington Post on that year’s Assembly election. Emily Wax wrote, “Now, in the boomtowns of Gujarat, Modi speaks only about development, rarely mentioning the religious tensions that once got him elected.”
In October 2013, while the chief minister, his party and supporters were still drumming up the “Gujarat Model” of development, the New York Times’ Editorial Board poured cold water all over them: “Mr. Modi has shown no ability to work with opposition parties or tolerate dissent,” it said.
Future Prime Minister
In 2014, Modi was declared the BJP’s prime minister candidate. The New York Times Editorial Board somewhat softened its stance: “The decision by the United States to have its ambassador to India, Nancy Powell, meet Narendra Modi...was a pragmatic step in engaging with India and the controversial and troubling politician who could well become the next prime minister in May.” The newspaper’s blog dedicated to India [no longer updated] quoted Seshadri Chari, an important BJP member, saying, “When a person becomes prime minister, I don’t think the United States would be foolish enough to think otherwise than issuing a visa.” Therefore, it is India which gave Modi pride of place, and not the other way around.
Don’t go by the New York Times or The Guardian. The Economist magazine marked Modi’s one year as Prime Minister with a cover story in May 2015 that said, “...India needs a transformation—and the task is too much for a one-man band.” It also said, “As he [Modi] cracks down on groups like Greenpeace, some complain of his authoritarian streak.” “But Mr Modi’s ego seems easily big enough to leave him untroubled by such views,” the magazine noted sarcastically.
Jump to 2020
That was 2015 and this is 2020 and you would say, times have changed. Have they? In its 25 September issue, The Economist remarked that the Sushant Singh Rajput affair has “certainly diverted public attention from the real and numerous problems facing India”. Its 14 February issue said “a line of police looked on” while a shooter in Delhi fired at protesters.
But no critique—nor occasional praise for business-friendly measures, arms deals, or managing Covid-19—match the magazine’s cover story on Modi for the week ending 31 January. On the cover are the self-explanatory words: “Intolerant India. How Modi is endangering the world’s biggest democracy” Inside, a column said: “You might think that the BJP’s scheme [for CAA and NRC] was a miscalculation. It has sparked widespread and lasting protests. Students, secularists, even the largely fawning media have begun to speak out against Narendra Modi, the prime minister, for his apparent determination to transform India from a tolerant, multi-religious place into a chauvinist Hindu state. In fact, the scheme looks like the most ambitious step yet in a decades-long project of incitement...”
In its 2 October issue, The Guardian said “The pandemic is not Mr Modi’s fault, but he owns his government’s dysfunctional response. He imposed a draconian lockdown in late March with no warning and no planning.”
No doubt BJP’s supporters will find articles favourable to their views printed overseas. But few regimes have invited as much criticism, which they never mention. For instance, on 22 September, the Washington Post published a Bloomberg opinion piece by columnist Andy Mukherjee. He dives right in: “From justifying its bizarre overnight ban on most banknotes in 2016 to defending suspiciously cheerful GDP data and suppressing a not-so-rosy household consumption survey, Team Modi has left no stone unturned when it comes to spinning a narrative in which it’s doing everything right. The longer this pretense continues, the higher the risk of India getting stuck in a post-pandemic sub-5% growth rut.”
To sum up, Modi and his government are getting plenty of criticism, for their Hindutva and for mishandling the economy. With the kind of seats they have in Parliament, they seem to think they can ignore it all.