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OP-ED: Modi’s Magic Act

Published in Global Affairs / Aug 2016

Mr. Modi sold India – as progressive, liberal, enlightened - shining ever so brightly; everything a carefully nurtured democracy ought to be. His bedazzled audience might find no flaw in this beautifully crafted, perfectly airbrushed version. The Indian Prime Minister’s recent visit to the United States further burnished his nation’s image as an investment haven, strategic buffer and new best friend / ally. Because it wants the world to buy into its noble agenda and a lot is riding on the lavish spectacle on display for western consumption.

Modi’s overtures to the American people appeared to be well received. He conferred with Obama, addressed the joint session of U.S. Congress, casually waved shared ideals to establish rapport and received numerous standing ovations. The media actually kept a tally.

He was the man of the hour whose work ethic and rags to riches story must have resonated with the western world. His pitch perfect performance was hailed as a masterstroke that washed away India’s appalling human rights record, occasional curbs on free speech, deepening religious fissures, accusations of exporting cross-border terrorism, and random spy related scandals. There’s an added complication where not too long ago their PM was barred from entering the U.S. for his role in the aforementioned human rights violation. He also faced a 10-year ban from some former colonial masters (U.K). Both have been revoked in light of Mr. Modi’s new found mantle of premiership.

His legacy as an RSS activist – an organization that has been outlawed thrice and described by Foreign Policy magazine as “a quasi-fascist body prepared to use violence to achieve its goal of ‘purifying’ India of non-Hindu elements' lies forgotten. As does the fact that the Prime Minister’s BJP party comes with a political wing while using VHP as the religious chapter that subscribes to the Hindutva ideology – equating the word Indian with being Hindu.

That Modi would prefer to be seen as a thing of the past. This Modi can be seen jet-setting through Afghanistan, Qatar, Switzerland, US, all the way to Mexico, keeping Putin on speed dial, and cleverly avoiding recent references to a high ranking Indian official allegedly caught instigating terrorism in neighboring Pakistan. Today he is on a whirlwind tour rallying support for India’s bid for membership in the coveted (Nuclear Suppliers Group) NSG club, a grandmaster of diplomacy, adept in the art of deal making.

Nudging the biggest democracy to the top of the strategic pyramid requires a degree of guile. But its ascent has been marred by waves of intolerance, coupled with evidence of fostering regional disturbances that are impossible to ignore. The beatific likeness projected to the world shows a land of possibilities united under the banner of prosperity. It is a different face when stripped of the free speech illusion and noisy declaration of peaceful aspirations.

It is one that harbors deep-seated prejudices and ancient rivalries responsible for spurts of religious persecution that target Christians and Muslims alike. That provides safe havens to Hindu extremists held responsible for countless terror acts wrongly attributed to other faiths and other nations. And that continues to malign its neighbors for much of its own failings.

The most recent attack on India’s soil which targeted an air base and where Pakistan was exonerated by Indian investigators serves as an example. This ability to reshape perceptions regarding the victim / perpetrator card and mobilize global opinions in its favor is one of its many talents.

Under Modi’s governance, India has apparently witnessed a surge in defamation suits, sedition charges, contempt cases and intimidation tactics against activists, students, scholars and musicians. It hides a restive civil society where more than 41 intellectuals have returned awards, citing “rising intolerance and growing assault on free speech, after one of their own was murdered. It tends to gloss over cases of communal violence where men have been lynched by mobs for daring to impinge upon the scared tenets of Hinduism. Where being cattle traders can become a crime. And consumption of beef can trigger a violent backlash overturning the inter-faith harmony argument.

Up close India appears to be no better than the South Asian neighbors held in contempt for their bigotry laden, fear inducing visuals that are given round the clock coverage. Such worrisome trends belie the secular colours India has draped itself in.

A nation waving the freedom flag leads the Global Slavery Index with 18.35 million in bondage. Where gender based violence often ends up as lead headlines. 79 percent women have admitted to facing public harassment and award winning documentaries that tried to amplify an ordinary Indian’s outrage get banned; its maker threatened with arrest and forced to flee the country. And where nuns associated with RSS schools who dream of a Muslim-free, Congress-free India continue to have a platform.

Can they be dismissed as isolated voices that do not represent an increasingly prevalent mindset? Fledgling democracies like Pakistan have their fair share of crazies who regularly steal the spotlight damaging its already battered reputation - but letting the seeds of fanaticism grow unchecked is bound to diminish India’s famed shine as well. And while India seeks the most flattering lighting to position its causes, the backdrop remains bleak.

BJP government functionaries have been accused of tacitly supporting Hindu Nationalist groups - and India recently denied visas to USCIRF – (US Commission on International Religious Freedom). USCIRF’s travel itinerary reportedly includes worst offenders like Saudi Arabia, Vietnam, China or Pakistan. A study referring to mounting levels of religiously motivated violence was cited as the reason for the blockade. They say 69 NGO’s had their funding frozen, 30 of which were working for minority welfare. Organizations like Greenpeace invoked the ire of authorities for being “a threat to national economic security.” They also say that up to 10,000 civil society groups with revoked licenses worked in health or environmental sectors.

These are hardly the traits of democratic institutions, especially those who have vaulted to global prominence on the strength of democratic credentials courtesy of some savvy marketing and now campaign for top-tier spots in a changing world order.

Such incidents have not dampened western enthusiasm for Indian wares or affected its privileged status. China remains a stumbling block in the NSG saga. Elsewhere it appears to be barreling its way through opposition under a Modi led juggernaut with an imposing looking wish list in tow.

Thus far, India has managed to snag a place in the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) – an international anti proliferation grouping, partnered with Iran for the development of Chabahar port to offset the neighboring Pak - China Economic Corridor, floated the vision of a Digital India and found time to inaugurate the biggest dam in Kabul estimated at $ 290 million.

And if India’s rapidly expanding footprint is viewed with trepidation by its closest neighbours, it is with good reason. A nation that now commands the largest stage and has the loudest voice can abuse this outreach to scuttle competition on a whim. Mr. Modi has already used the U.S. Congressional platform to pat their law-makers on the back for their decision to block the sale of 8 F-16’s to Pakistan which happens to be India’s traditional rival. Not exactly neighbourly conduct since the neighbour in question happens to be on war footing clearing out terrorist cells at the moment while bearing the brunt of the so called GWOT.

Modi’s charm offensive and entrepreneurial spirit aside, US Senate has yet to affirm its status as a‘global strategic and defence partner.’ But world leaders under India’s spell do not seem to care about what lies behind the curtain. Mr. Modi’s act has many takers. However, a nation that fails to confront its domestic demons can hardly be expected to play a meaningful role in ushering in a new era of economic bliss or regional stability. And India’s mad dash to the top can only open more breaches in the ever widening sub-continental rift.

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