The Unravelling of Prime Minister Modi’s Posturing on Democracy and Human Rights

After extolling democratic values during his visit to the US, the prime minister went back to his good old ways barely a day after his return. Here are five top times when Modi poses globally, but trashes locally.

It’s been a week of celebration and triumph by the national gush media here over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s extravagant spectacle of his first state visit to the US. This, irrespective of the fact that the US mainstream media, from major television news networks from CNN, and ABC, to newspapers like the Washington Post, the New York Times etc, expressed deep concern over the erosion of democracy by the BJP-led government. On the other hand, 75 US lawmakers wrote a letter to President Joe Biden urging him to raise human rights issues such as the Modi government’s crackdown on human rights groups, independent media, religious minorities, and any form of dissent or challenge to the present strident Hindutva nationalist politics with the Indian prime minister.

Who said discrimination? Or bigotry? Injustice? Prejudice? India is the mother of democracy, thundered Modi at the joint session of the US Congress, “For millennia ago, our oldest scriptures said ‘truth is one but the wise express it in different ways’.” Quite a swing from what he had said two months earlier at the virtual global Democracy Summit, when he said, “India is indeed the mother of democracy, the idea of elected leaders was a common feature in ancient India, long before the rest of the world.”

It seems Modi changes fact for tact, rather than be tripped on historical evidence.

First Lady Jill Biden, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and President Joe Biden at the White House. Photo: Twitter/@WhiteHouse.

And why is Modi being feted and fawned over by the Biden administration despite being pressured by his own colleagues and democratic institutions to check the former? As far as US foreign policy goes, after three decades of cautious Indo-US warmth, today, India has emerged as the perfect foil to China to tilt the balance in US favour in the Indo-Pacific region – Modi has been on a roll before the US visit making a trip to Japan, Australia, Papua New Guinea, where China too has been making overtures. India is also an economic alternative to the US for manufacturing goods to reduce its reliance on China and hopefully, inflict economic damage to its economy; and most importantly, India is the “largest democracy in the world” as opposed to dealing with “authoritarian Communist” China, apart from becoming a multibillion dollar market for US defence, tech and space merchandise.

Yeah, all that’s fine, but where will the US be when China continues to encroach on India’s borders?

Both Biden and Modi underlined the D-word or democracy at every opportune moment, mentioning it dozens of times, in speeches, interactions with the media, in the address to Congress, as if to wish away any accusations of tyranny by the Modi government. But it was not long before Modi went back to his good old ways – and this time the US too got a taste of Modinama, barely hours after the US visit. So, what is the Modi playbook, or his toolkit, as home minister Amit Shah once famously declared?

Here are five top times when Modi poses globally, but trashes locally

Even as Modi was being bestowed Egypt’s highest honour, ‘Order of the Nile’ by President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo, none other than finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman who, taking over from Hindutva trolls, hit out at former US president Barack Obama for daring to raise fears about minority rights in India.

In a strategically timed television interview, when Modi was swanning in Washington, extolling about India’s great spirit of democracy, Modi’s “my friend Barack” expressed alarm about the attacks on religious minorities. Obama warned that if Modi did not protect the rights of a Muslim minority in a Hindu majority, then India may “pull apart”.

All hell broke loose after BJP’s Assam chief minister Himanta Biswa Sarma tweeted about the “many Hussain Obamas” that have to be taken care of in India first – alluding to Muslims in the country, which in turn triggered Hindutva trolls calling Obama a Muslim ‘Hussein’. If a CM abused his constitutional post to threaten Muslims, it was stunning that Sitharaman lashed out about Obama’s “hypocrisy” after “bombing six Islamic countries” and adding that Modi had received the highest civilian awards of 13 countries.

It’s the classic Modi toolkit – attack the person but ignore the issues raised, something similar to victim smearing in sexual assault cases. Is it not common to raise questions of past “immoral” behaviour to punch holes in his/her creditworthiness in court?

So, even as Modi sang paeans to a vibrant democracy without discrimination in India, his powerful aides back home, no less than a CM, FM and defence minister Rajnath Singh were threatening Muslims or challenging those who dared raise the Modi government’s discrimination against Muslims. This is not to say that Obama gets a clean chit for launching military attacks in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen and Syria among others, but to say he does not have the right to talk is absurd.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Barack Obama in Delhi. Photo: PTI

Then there’s the ceremonial spectacle of Modi piously bowing down to his knees in front of Gandhi’s statue whenever he travels abroad, even as Hindutva leaders hail Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as a patriot. The worshipping of Godse began as soon as Modi came to power–  with even BJP MPs hailing Godse, from Sakshi Maharaj to Pragya Thakur. It must be noted that Modi did later distance himself from Thakur’s remarks, when he said he would never forgive her – but gave her a ticket nevertheless.

But again, earlier this month, Union minister Giriraj Singh called Godse a ‘son of India’ even though he killed Gandhi, as he argued,  for he was born here, unlike Mughal invaders – whatever that means. This came hot on the heels of another BJP leader, former Uttarakhand CM Trivendra Singh Rawat, calling Godse a patriot.

So, even as Modi pays floral tributes to Gandhi from Washington, Rome to London, and unveils Gandhi’s bust in Hanover, Seoul, and Turkmenistan, dropping Gandhian quotes and teachings liberally in the UN and other international fora, it’s “hail Godse” by his compatriots back home.

Of course, can any speech on civilisational values not include women? On cue, Modi hailed the role of women in India in his speech to Congressmen in Washington – from women sages who composed verses in the Vedas, to women-led development in modern India, and then reminded the audience of the humble tribal woman who was chosen to be head of state at home.

It is another matter that President Droupudi Murmu –  the head of state, the first citizen of the country and commander-in-chief of the armed forces – has been reduced to a showpiece and a mistress of ceremonies, that too only if invited by Modi. She was not called to inaugurate the new parliament building even though she is the nominal head of the executive, namely parliamentarians.

President Droupadi Murmu. Photo: Godlywood Studio/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 2.0

Worse, Modi’s stunning silence on the allegations of sexual assault raised by champion women wrestlers and a minor against a BJP MP strongman, who is also the president of the wrestling federation, and his dogged refusal to take any action, flies in the face of his international preening of hailing women achievers.

Only eight months ago, the Modi government fast-tracked the early release of 11 men convicted of raping Bilkis Bano and killing 14 members of her family during the 2002 Gujarat riots, when Modi was CM, for good behaviour.

Meanwhile, in raging Manipur today, fake news has set off a rage of sexual assaults against tribal Kuki-Zo women by the majority Metei community to avenge the rape of their own women.

Of course, even as Modi postures about equal rights for all citizens abroad – the terror unleashed by the state in the name of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) is a pincer claw around the neck of the Muslim community. The police in states like Delhi and Uttar Pradesh have unleashed a brutal crackdown on peaceful protests, turning victims into perpetrators of crimes, bulldozer justice of razing and looting Muslim homes. Detention camps have sprung up in BJP-ruled states like Assam, boycott calls have been issued against Muslim traders – the list is long. Attacks against Christians have been on the rise: their churches burned or vandalised, and their priests attacked and beaten.

To be fair, Modi has been true to his Hindutva ideology when he said in the White House that India had attained freedom after “one thousand years of foreign rule.” For, he does believe that Mughal rulers were foreigners, even though most of them were born in India, thus alluding to the fact that all Muslims are outsiders too.

But it was the mother of irony for the mother of democracy when Modi unwittingly proved to the world that he indeed poses globally, but trashes locally. In the joint press conference with Biden at the White House where Modi apparently grudgingly agreed to one question, the Wall Street Journal‘s reporter Sabrina Siddiqui dared ask Modi a question on the rights of religious minorities, free speech and the crackdown on dissent.

Sabrina Siddiqui. Photo: Web Summit/Flickr CC BY 2.0

While Biden responded by saying that he and Modi had a “good discussion” about democratic values, Modi was sharp when he said he was surprised at such a question because “democracy is in our DNA… there’s absolutely no space for discrimination… regardless of caste, creed, religion, gender.”

Of course, back home, BJP and Hindutva trolls went on a vicious revenge spree, trolling the journalist about her family and Muslim background. But to the Modi government’s shock and horror, the White House condemned in no uncertain terms the online frenzied attack on Siddiqui. A White House official said the attack was “antithetical to the very principles of democracy”, while the press secretary underlined that “we are committed to the freedom of Press and condemn any efforts of intimidation or harassment of a journalist.”

The fig leaf of the D-word just went up in smoke.

Vrinda Gopinath is a senior journalist.