Limits of showmanship

Limits of showmanship

Showmanship is good, but too much of that is unhealthy for a democracy like India.

The American President’s recent visit to New Delhi to be the Chief Guest at the Republic Day celebrations, and the many rounds of useful dialogue that the two sides had, were indeed admirable foreign policy achievements, no doubt.

What is disconcerting though is not just the manner in which the BJP has changed its ideological colour, from opposing the Indo-US nuclear deal to becoming its greatest champion, but more importantly the fashion in which the saffron party’s think tanks and its newly-minted acolytes, got into a media overdrive to primarily showcase how unmatchable, able and powerful India’s new leader, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is. This was also amply showcased during Mr. Modi’s recent overseas visits, notably in Sydney and the Madison Squire Garden in New York. 


Showmanship is good, but too much of that is unhealthy for a democracy like India. While it is understandable why the BJP propaganda machine would like to project an assailable and infallible image of Mr. Modi, and a fresh new beginning of India’s foreign policy, what is unsettling is the manner in which our mainstream liberal media is suddenly turning into pliant cohorts of a smart party machinery. Take, for instance, the fact that there has hardly been any dissenting or critical note on Modi government’s foreign policy choices in the recent past. All that the media seems to be focused on covering is how the Modi magic seems to be working no matter where he goes! 

Even as many curial details of the India-US nuclear deal are yet to be released by the government, the so-called “done deal” continues to be celebrated by the Indian media. This is manufactured consent and is unhealthy. 


Even as one may wish forgive the BJP’s desire to claim all credit for itself for operationalizing the Indo-US nuclear deal, what is not so easy to forgive is their nerve to undermine Dr. Manmohan Singh’s contribution in actually inking this deal with the US, at a time when the BJP was dead against it. BJP seems to be innocent of any knowledge of its own leaders’ harsh statements against the nuclear deal.


Then there is the domestic political use of foreign policy decisions. For sure, this is not the first time that a political party ruling the Centre is using the international persona of its leader for domestic political mileage. But this is perhaps the first time that a fiercely “swadeshi” party is taking a “videshi” leader’s help to win local elections. The BJP candidate from Delhi’s Tilak Nagar constituency Mr. Rajiv Babbar has even put up posters featuring himself, Modi, Kiran Bedi and Barack Obama! This is after declining to invite Delhi’s former Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, who is putting up a tough fight against the Modi wave in Delhi assembly elections, to the Republic Day function in the capital.   


I don’t say all this to undermine the importance of a bilateral partnership with the United States. Having been in the foreign policy business for over a decade now, I not only realize the importance of strategic partnerships but also the importance of forging one with the world’s sole superpower, however declining it may well be. All I am trying to highlight is the lack of appetite in the mainstream Indian media to move beyond the official handouts and critically decipher the contours of India’s foreign policy as well as it’s new foreign policy directions, including the BJP government’s new approach towards Israel. The absence of a critical appraisal of India’s foreign policy is clearly not in keeping with the critical discursive traditions of this country. 


Moreover, as many commentators have already pointed out, India may well be finally shedding its traditional anti-Americanism. But overcoming anti-Americanism should not lead to aping the American foreign policy preoccupations and priorities. The problem with many of America’s Western allies today is that they are unable to keep a critical distance from Washington and as a result unable to have their own independent foreign policy lines. It is necessary that we realize the essentially transactional nature of American partnership, strategic or otherwise and devise our policies accordingly. 


One major negative impact of getting too close to the US is alienating China, a neighbor with whom India has had a troubled relationship both due to its defeat in the 1962 war and also because of the unsettled border that it has with China. And yet, China is India’s biggest trade partner. India, therefore, needs to deal with China with a great deal of deft and diplomatic skills. In other words, India’s policy towards China should move beyond any binary logic: there is a need to engage China in order to settle the bilateral issues, that perhaps is the only way of having a warm enough relationship with China. New Delhi, in that context, needs to be careful about partnering with the US in checkmating China in the region. 


Finally, the BJP would do well to keep in mind Obama’s parting statement about religious tolerance. While the BJP, whose fringe elements are busy with ‘Ghar Vapsi’ and deleting the phrase ‘secular’ from the Indian constitution, tried to pay down Obama’s words, the latter couldn’t have chosen a better place and time to remind us that “India will succeed so long as it is not splintered along lines of religious faith, along lines of anything, and is unified as one nation.”