Last week, I received an email from a producer in a global TV network requesting me to be a guest in a discussion on Aadhaar. In normal circumstances, I would have happily obliged. However, the timing—post midnight—was inconvenient and I sent my apologies. The producer replied asking me to reconsider: “We certainly don’t want to put the conversation at a disadvantage by not having someone who can explain the benefits of the Aadhaar system.”
I was, to use an English colloquialism, completely gobsmacked. Here was one of the largest countries of the world putting in place a bold measure to collect financial data, ensure better tax compliance and rationalise welfare payments and all that the TV station could do was to collect a group of dissenters. I could understand if the channel felt that getting too many official spokesmen would lead to an imbalance and that critics of the system too had to be heard. However, to posit me as the lone contrarian in a panel that was, presumably, to be dominated by NGOs and libertarians—the anti-Aadhaar brigade whose petition had been rejected by the Supreme Court—struck me as being odd and tendentious. In any case, it indicated the pre-determined bias of the channel.
This is not an isolated example. A senior academic in the United Kingdom expressed exasperation that student essays on contemporary Indian students were increasingly resembling political pamphlets. They were one-sided tirades against the supposed political iniquities of the Narendra Modi government and couched with loaded terms such as majoritarianism, masculinity, homophobic—keywords that have come to replace a more nuanced analysis of complex Indian realities. In May, while attending the London chapter of the Jaipur Literature Festival, I was struck by the glibness with which audience responses were prefaced with the observation that the space for democratic freedom had shrunk alarmingly after Modi came to power. In other quarters, I have heard the facile equation of Modi’s India with Putin’s Russia and Erdogan’s Turkey. Curiously, the quality of democracy and civil liberties in China is never a source of indignation.
Most of the irritation with India stems from accounts in the media. Since the summer of 2014, the foreign journalists reporting India have increasingly come to live in an ecosystem that is both wary of and hostile to the winds of change blowing over India. The Economist doesn’t seem to have gotten over its disappointment that its endorsement of Rahul Gandhi in the 2014 general election was disregarded and the editorial board of the New York Times seems to dominated by supporters of the Maoist insurgency and Kashmiri separatism. When Modi visited London in October 2015, the Guardian even carried a long article by a staff columnist arguing that the UK government should have no truck with him.
I don’t believe political ideology has anything much to do with this uniformly negative coverage of India in the western media. The media is no doubt dominated by journalists who share a disdain for the Right and also profess the right to be preachy—something Indian foreign policy also specialised in until P V Narasimha Rao initiated a course correction. However, apart from a handful who believe in ideological crusades, the tone of coverage tends to be uneven. There is rarely uniform adulation or sustained outrage. Why then has the coverage of India moved to an extreme?
Part of the explanation stems from the ideological ghettoisation of the foreign correspondents, particularly in Delhi. Most correspondents of western publications meet just one type of Indians—mainly representatives of the ancien regime who rue their loss of power, influence and political moorings. This invariably leads to near-zero contact with those who can be said to represent the new dispensation. There is a cultural factor too. Western journalists are inclined to be socially much more at ease with the Congress’ babalog brigade than they are with the BJP’s Hindi-medium types. Authenticity is often given the go-by for professional laziness.
Another major factor is the unrelenting hostility of western academia to the Modi government. Some of it stems from the BJP government’s withdrawal from the system of active patronage of South Asia departments—something that the UPA had excelled in. Some of it is a consequence of the combative interventions of freelance Hindu activists, determined—somewhat overzealously and occasionally unthinkingly—the cultural bias of western scholars. And some of it is a bandwagon effect. If stalwarts such as Amartya Sen, Sheldon Pollock and Partha Chatterjee are unequivocally hostile to the Modi dispensation, it is only natural that many of their colleagues will follow suit. Indeed, as the Indian government steps up its mobilisation of the Indian diaspora, partly as a counter to the revolt of the intellectuals, it is likely that the opposition of academia will become even more visceral.
At one level, what the western media says is of no consequence. I asked the Finance Minister, just back from a three-day visit to Korea, whether he detected any concerns in a country that has a huge economic stake in India. He replied that it was all positive. Is it because Korea is not influenced by the western media? Or is it because intelligent capitalism has its own independent sources of information and evaluation?
No doubt international capital and international trade follows its own logic, quite separate from the concerns of academia and journalistic proclivities. However, at a time when inward FDI is a priority, projecting a more rounded view of India is an important project. I don’t think sufficient attention has been paid to the need to get the Indian message across effectively and in the right places.
The author is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a Presidential Nominee to the Rajya Sabha