Days after the joint session of the US Congress heard the stirring words of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the affinity between the two large democracies and applauded him for it, Americans have got to see another side of him and his party – a side that we Indians see every day.
While in front of an august audience, Modi comes across as a statesman talking of lofty issues and speaking of a partnership, there is another side which mocks those very words and sentiments.
While Modi was in the US, former president Barack Obama gave an interview with Christian Amanpour of CNN in which he said: “I think it is true that if the president meets with Prime Minister Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority-Hindu India, that’s something worth mentioning.” Without such protection, there was “a strong possibility that India at some point starts pulling apart”.
Then, Modi addressed a press conference in which he took an impromptu question from an Indian and an American reporter, something he has not done in his eight years. The US journalist, Sabrina Siddiqui of the Wall Street Journal, asked him about how while India was a democracy but there were allegations of discrimination against Muslims.
It was the kind of question no Indian journalist had ever asked the prime minister – indeed, no one would even get an opportunity, Modi would make sure of that. In the event, Modi responded the way a clever politician would, emphasising that India was a democracy and there was no room for discrimination against anyone irrespective of their background. Clearly, this one question that he has answered was one too many.
Both, Obama’s comments and Siddiqui’s question apparently inflamed the BJP, as subsequent events show.
No sooner was the press conference done, BJP trolls went after Siddiqui, emphasising her Muslim identity over and over again. For them, it was sacrilege that someone had dared questioned their Supreme Leader, and a Muslim woman at that.
Siddiqui feebly tried to counter that, posting a photo of herself wearing an India T-shirt during a cricket match, but it didn’t help. The White House had to step in and express its unhappiness at this trolling—“unacceptable” the spokesperson said. This was the same White House that had hosted him for dinner, preparing a menu geared to his tastes.
But surely the White House and the Biden administration were not aware that Muslims and journalists, especially women, were trolled and even jailed in India. Did they talk about freedom of speech and human rights? A spokesperson had said before the visit that the administration would not “lecture” the Indian prime minister.
Then it was Obama’s turn to be attacked. Except that it was not done by the usual suspects, the BJP’s 2-rupee troll army, but by senior party members – the chief minister of Assam Himanta Biswa Sarma and two cabinet ministers, Nirmala Sitaraman and Rajnath Singh. Clearly, the remarks had stung Modi, coming as they were during his visit.
Obama is the president Modi had hugged when he visited India (and in a meeting wore the famous suit with his name woven in golden thread), and then called him “my friend Barack’. Now his top ministers were criticising him and subtly bringing up his Muslim middle name.
This couldn’t have been anything but a command performance, authorised by the boss himself, who, after he has returned to India, has shed off the garb of an international statesman and reverted to form.
In Madhya Pradesh, with elections four months away, Modi is talking about the Uniform Civil Code, a pet project of the BJP because the Sangh thinks personal laws needlessly favour the Muslims. More is bound to come, because, after the loss in Karnataka, the BJP does not want to lose another state; religious polarisation is the only weapon in the party’s armoury and Modi wields it well.
Before Modi went to the US and even while he was there, many media commentaries pointed out that while India was an important country, Modi had many serious questions to answer about the suppression, often violent, of minorities, the assault on media freedom and much more. “Mr. Modi has presided over the nation’s broadest assault on democracy, civil society and minority rights in at least 40 years,” wrote Harvard Professor Maya Jasanoff in the New York Times.
The Biden administration knows all this but had its own reasons for laying out the red carpet for PM Modi. The Americans, and Western countries in general, are warming up to India for their own strategic objectives and it is not as if they have not been friendly with all kinds of autocratic leaders. And India is a democracy – why would they not welcome its democratically elected leader?
So far, all they had heard about Modi and his supporters was happening somewhere far away. Now they have seen that it can strike them too. The White House has commented on the trolling of a reporter, but not said, so far, anything about the remarks about a former president. But it couldn’t have gone unnoticed. Now they know: all the homilies at official functions mean nothing, this is the real thing.