Dear Mr Prime Minister,
Your Minister for External Affairs, S Jaishankar, who as ambassador to the US arranged the Sept 28, 2014 public relations circus with NRIs at the Madison Square Garden in New York (when Barrack Obama was President) which won your heart and fetched him first the Foreign Secretary-ship and later a Cabinet berth, no doubt considers himself an expert on all matters American. Hopefully he has warned you just how markedly the political ground has shifted in Washington from when your “jigri dost” and “yaar”, the Republican, Donald Trump, inhabited the White House to now when the Democrat Joe Biden, occupies it.
This has happened less because of developments at the US-end than because of the carryings-on of your select chief ministers in BJP-ruled states here, especially Adityanath in Uttar Pradesh. Adityanath may be faulted for taking to heart the belief permeating all state governments and central govt agencies alike that the way to impress you is to go at Muslims and your political opponents quite literally with hammer and tongs.
In the age of lightning fast visual, aural and written communications — Twitter, Instagram, Facebook — the very electronic mediums you have successfully used to marshal support and to instantly reach out to and message tens of millions of people at the flick of your finger, physical and verbal abuse of citizens whether by neighbourhood goons or by local and state police acting as hand-maidens of chief ministers of the day, captured on mobile phones and broadcast realtime to the world, can be absolutely devastating for the concerned CM, of course, but even more for your fast eroding image and reputation, Modiji.
What could have been more appalling PR than that mobile video gone viral of an aged Muslim being beaten and bruised, his beard pulled and finally sheared, and being forced to chant ‘Jai, Shri Ram’? Bad advertisement for the ‘Ram Rajya’ Adityanath is presiding over and wants you, Modiji, to endorse! No wonder it has sent Adityanath into apoplectic fits and UP policemen scurrying to find the villains responsible for this excess of electronicaly transmitting the UP reality to the world.
Fewer and fewer people remain unaware of how bad things really are on the ground, Mr Prime Minister. But once Twitter, Instagram and Facebook showcase this reality — the media and those in power in the West, who take their cues from the leading press and media outlets, will begin to let their outrage show. If you think — or if Jaishankar has given this spin, that given how the US finds itself in a Russia-China vice with Russian combat aircraft yesterday dropping fragmentation bombs in the path of a British warship that had strayed into Crimean waters off Sebastopol and, at the other end, the Chinese military making noisy preparations (or so the always hyperventilating ‘Global Times’ reports) for possible invasion of Taiwan, that the Biden Admin would be too preoccupied to make a song and dance about some Muslims in India getting roughed up then, I am afraid, you are being given faulty advice.
We know, you have been trying hard to impress Biden & Co and are keen to recover for yourself the kind of personal traction you enjoyed in Washington during Trump’s tenure but, so far, you have striven without much success. This was evidenced in the leisurely way in which the Biden Administration responded to your frantic calls for help when the 2nd wave of the Covid pandemic hit. Your pleas for speedy export to India of materials and ingredients needed to produce the vaccines here, instead of expeditious processing, was met with a lot of empathetic gas and platitudes. US officials hee-ed and haw-ed but did nothing about actually shipping to India bioreactor bags, cell culture mediums, lipid nanoparticles, microcarrier beads, etc. even as the crisis reached levels of extreme god-awfulness — dead bodies by the hundreds every day thrown into rivers when not set afire at road sides.
For two months and more the Biden White House tarried, calculating how much of what ingredient export would hurt the US production of vaccines and how that would affect the President’s campaign for optimum vaccination, which had a July deadline, by when it was wrongly estimated that levels of 60+ percent of the American population would be vaccinated and herd immunity achieved. Washington announced a couple of days back that this deadline would not be met.
I had warned in my blog post (https://bharatkarnad.com/2021/04/27/cost-of-trusting-america/ ) of April 27 that someone in your PMO may have alerted you to, that the export of vaccine ingredients to India wouldn’t even begin to get underway for several more months at the very least, and that to turn to America for succour in an emergency was futile. And so it has proved. Of course, the US pharma companies (Pfizer, Moderna, Johnson & Johnson) agreed happily to export their vaccines at high profit margins and on the basis of a liability exemption, meaning if anyone in India dies from the vaccine the company can’t be held responsible in law! (It is like the exemption the US company, Westinghouse, has secured from your government about its unproven AP 1000 nuclear reactors it wants India to buy — all such transactions enabled by the civilian nuclear cooperation deal negotiated by your cabinet colleague, Mr Jaishankar!).
If you, Mr Prime Minister, weathered the bad covid publicity and felt comforted, you ought to dust off that sense of complacency because you may be heading into a press freedom storm set off by the afore-mentioned human rights video and by the insensible response to it by your government of pressuring Twitter, Instagram and Facebook into strict self-censorship with the threat of legal troubles and punitive actions. Most companies may squawk some and submit. Then again they may not because the criticism on the twinned human rights-press freedom issue is now acquiring US Establishment legs. The rule of thumb is that whenever Washington Post or New York Times editorializes on an issue it is because that issue is front and centre in Washington.
On June 23 a Washington Post editorial, after surveying the rather fraught situation in India, pointed to the demonstration effect of the Indian government’s actions in the rest of the developing world of muzzling the media and the leading tech communications platforms. It concluded by saying that “What happens in India, …matters a great deal even in nations thousands of miles away — because it sends a signal about what one populous and prominent country thinks still-developing national Internets should look like, and also because it sends a signal about what other countries are willing to tolerate. So far, the United States and its allies have remained largely silent amid this erosion of free expression on the Web, leaving domestic companies on their own to stand up for civil liberties overseas, or to back down. Every day this silence does more harm.” (See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/global-opinions/the-united-states-cant-keep-ignoring-indias-internet-abuses/2021/06/23/1e4c2490-d2c1-11eb-a53a-3b5450fdca7a_story.html )
Never mind the cant and hypocrisy of this Washington Post editorial, considering the US Congress is currently discussing and debating draft legislation to impose restrictions on, and to limit the freedom of, Twitter and Facebook!
But this cannot be any consolation to you, Mr Modi, nor should it surprise you because the US government routinely holds America to one standard, and applies far stricter metrics to judge other countries by which, incidentally, is a trait of all great powers throughout history!
Assuming the Biden White House cuts you and your dispensation some slack, the “Progressive” element in the Democratic Party won’t. Led by Pramila Jayapala, the Congresswoman from Washington State, whose request for a meeting was turned down by Jaishankar on one of his Washington trips during the Trump presidency for reasons that can only be explained as pique, thereby earning for India her personal enmity, can be expected to lead a furious charge. It is not clear whether Jaishankar’s handpicked team in Washington headed by Ambassador Taranjit Singh Sandhu is up to the job of blunting it, especially because the Congressional lobbying help provided the Indian embassy by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee may not be available in quite the same degree because the new coalition government of Naftali Bennett will need all the help it can get to hold off the same Progressives in the US Congress from targeting Israel for nearly sparking off a hot war against the Palestinian regime of Mahmoud Abbas. And because the RSS-leaning Hindu support base among the NRIs in America is on the defensive, unable to answer for the institutionalised ill-treatment of Indian Muslims and for the sly encouragement of the loony Hindu fringe that you and your government are accused of.
You may be reading the domestic political situation right — there’s no one better at it than you. So, you have begun sporting a fuller beard, and have discarded gold-threaded suits for plainer more plebian clothes, still well cut. With a shawl stylishly draped over the shoulder, you look verily like Rabindranath Tagore from a 100 years ago. It gives you the desired sagely appearance as you approach the next general elections when the contest will be tighter. But 2024 is also when Biden may seek re-election. In any case, he will have less time for India or you in the intervening years. The minimum you should ensure doesn’t happen between now and then is that Hindu-Muslim tensions don’t flare up both because the anti-Muslim tilt distracts your government from urgent nation-building tasks and because it fetches you and the country bad international press which, in turn, will attract hurtful US Congressional actions that Biden with his own agenda and priorities, will not be willing or be able to prevent or even divert. Heading into next general elections none of this can be good news for you.
Do take this missive in the right spirit, Mr Prime Minister, because it is written by someone who, as early as 2011 in his writings championed your election as PM on the basis of your conservative economic ideology and hoped you’d free the indigenous talent and entrepreneurial genius from bureaucratic shackles and let India fly. Six years into your rule, you have failed to deliver on that promise, and are relying on statist-socialist solutions for enormous problems, when you ought to know these don’t work (and haven’t for seven decades!).
With your nationalist background, moreover, I had hoped you would by now have put India on the broad gauge track to great power as your adoption in 2014 of the ‘India First’ philosophy I have been advocating since 2002, promised. Disappointingly, I find you have shunted the country onto that old narrow gauge foreign policy line, huffing and puffing to nowhere –badgering Pakistan, kowtowing to China, opting to ride America’s coattails in the Indo-Pacific and, profession of atmanirbharta notwithstanding, permitting the military to binge on arms imports.
Your most significant success to-date has been ridding the Constitution of Articles 370 and 35A. You deserve all the accolades not because it put Kashmiri Muslims in their place, but because the Indian Union of states cannot long endure if only one state is accorded special status. Otherwise, your prime ministership has been bare of substantive achievements. Still, everyone expects you and the BJP to win the next elections because of the absence of a halfway decent alternative. But few will be cheered by this prospect, especially if things continue to proceed as they have done in your first term and so far into your second term.