Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in Japan recently to attend a Quad meeting. On one occasion during the meeting, the leaders were walking down a flight of stairs. Modi being Modi decided to walk ahead, a step or two ahead of even the US President who was busy talking to the new Australian Prime Minister. Modi, as usual, stared straight into the camera in front of him. This photograph was published in the Indian media and was enough to send the “bhakts” into a frenzy. According to them, the prime minister had already become the most important world leader, leaving even the US president far behind. Modi’s cabinet colleagues and party admirers hit the town in their ‘bhakti’. The Indian “Vishwaguru” had finally arrived.
This image has now crumbled with a BJP spokesperson crossing all bounds of decency by making derogatory remarks against the Prophet. For nine days, this remark went under the rug until some Muslim nations woke up, called Indian ambassadors and registered their strong protest. But the outrage didn’t stop there. People are calling for a boycott of Indian products and obviously the large expatriate Indian population there has been thrown into avoidable disarray. The government has called these spokespersons “fringe elements”, which no one buys. Earlier, the US Secretary of State had expressed concern over the deterioration of religious tolerance in India, which we dismissed as being caused by the “vote bank” policy there.
The indignation of the Muslim countries with which we have until now maintained very cordial relations obviously cannot be taken lightly. It has shaken India’s position in the concert of nations and caused serious damage to our image as a liberal and secular democracy. The cat is finally out of the bag because we are no longer a secular, liberal democracy; we have become, under Modi, a “Hindu Pakistan”. Maybe that’s what the prime minister wants and that’s why he hasn’t said a word about it so far. It would be wrong to dismiss it as the fulmination of an isolated individual in the party; it is today the heart of the BJP’s ideology and its infallible formula for winning all elections. It is an important part of the new “New India” ecosystem that the PM wants to create.
India had already earned a place of respect in the world during the Narasimha Rao period due to its economic reforms. During the Vajpayee era, we made India stronger and it earned the country a place at the global high tables. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first BJP Prime Minister, enjoyed great personal respect among world leaders and therefore it was no surprise that he was invited to sit at the same table as the powers of the G-7. And all this after India was declared an outcast after the nuclear tests in May 1998. India must forever remain indebted to Jaswant Singh for his remarkable personal diplomacy in the aftermath of the nuclear tests, ultimately culminating in the visit of the President Bill Clinton in March. 2000 and the global acceptance of India as a nuclear weapon state. It is another matter that the same Jaswant Singh was repeatedly humiliated by the party later on. But respect for India was not limited to the Prime Minister alone. We have all shone in its reflected glory.
The best of Express Premium
I remember once when I was attending an IMF/World Bank meeting in Washington, a senior official from our delegation, a veteran of many such meetings, approached me and said that he had never, ‘in his long experience of attending such gatherings, seen India so prominently as it does today’. Prior to that, I had been unanimously elected Chairman of the Development Committee of the World Bank, the first and only Indian to date to hold this position. Together with the chairman of the International Monetary and Financial Committee of the IMF and the chairman of the G-20, which had already emerged, we have together formed a high-level group to deal with global finance. Later, I was unanimously elected the second chair of the G-20 after Paul Martin of Canada, who served as the first chair.
My tenure at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been equally rewarding. I regularly visited Heads of State/Government when I traveled abroad as Minister of Foreign Affairs. But even I was very surprised when, after landing in Washington in January 2004, I was informed by our Ambassador that my first meeting was with President Bush in the famous Oval Office of the White House. Until now, the practice was and still is that a visiting foreign minister would call the United States national security adviser to the White House and the president, if he wished, would drop by for a session of pictures. It was the first and only time so far that India’s External Affairs Minister was actually invited to meet the US President in the Oval Office.
I mention these examples not to brag about my personal achievements, but to point out that there was an earlier period also marked by great achievements and great international respect for India. And it was for real, not contrived. The honor bestowed upon me was not personal; it was an honor for India under Vajpayee. The foreign dignitary would surely have been informed that I was really a political lightweight but gave me undeserved respect because I was representing Vajpayee India. But at that time, we believed more in doing our job than in advertising it. Today, advertising is everything.
As someone who has been involved in the affairs of state, I deeply regret the downfall India has fallen into today. The mask has fallen and the ugly face of India under Modi is visible to all. I hope that Islamic countries will show maturity and leave it at that. The Modi government and the BJP will have learned their lesson and will behave in the future with the dignity expected of them as representatives of the great country that India truly is.
This column first appeared in the print edition of June 9, 2022 under the title “Le masque detaches”. The writer, a former Union minister, is vice-president of the All-India Trinamool Congress