This Article is From Feb 04, 2021

Modi Government's Paranoia On Full Display, Courtesy Rihanna

I went to sleep on the night of February 2 secure in the knowledge that my country, Mera Bharat Mahan, was strong, secure, and self-reliant-in a word, atmanirbhar. I woke up the next morning to find that our security and sovereignty had been shaken to its foundations by a tweet from a foreigner. By the evening, however, my fears and anxieties had somewhat abated. A statement by our always truthful Ministry of External Affairs, a tweet by our always honourable Home Minister, and, above all, some profound thoughts from those great and visionary political theorists, Akshay Kumar and Sachin Tendulkar, had collectively ensured that I went to bed last night confident that our nation's pride and self-reliance was entirely intact.

Satire is not my natural style, and I shall soon depart from it, but perhaps only mockery and satire can do justice to the way in which our government and its useful idiots responded to a short tweet by a lady named Rihanna. Their response was steeped in hypocrisy and dishonesty, but above all it lacked a sense of proportion. Those collective, coordinated, expressions of pride, solidarity, defiance and resolution strikingly revealed the fragile foundations on which our nationalism now rests.

The seventeenth-century French writer La Rochefoucauld famously described hypocrisy as the homage paid by vice to virtue. This aphorism is particularly apposite in this case. For it should never be forgotten that as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi actively intervened in the political affairs of another nation, by asking Americans of Indian origin to vote for Donald Trump in the presidential elections of 2020. In departing from decades of principled bipartisanship by previous Prime Ministers, that endorsement was extremely foolish. It was also extremely counter-productive. Surely an Indian Prime Minister instructing Americans on whom to choose as their President is a more egregious act than a Barbadian singer merely drawing attention to a news article detailing some facts about a farmers' protest in India. Indeed, after Modi said what he did about Donald Trump in Houston with Trump beside him, the Indian government has absolutely no leg to stand on when confronted with any sort of criticism of its actions by any kind of foreigner at all.

At a lesser level, the hypocrisy in the government's response was also manifest in the tweet from the Home Minister. For the inventor and overseer of the ruling party's IT cell, for this Grand Master of spin and distortion, to accuse others of 'propaganda' brings to mind hoary proverbs both in English (the pot calling the kettle black) and in Hindi (ulta chor kotwal ko daante). For a politician who has thrived and prospered on stoking divisions of religion, caste, language and region to ask for the country to be 'united' calls to mind the same cliches. In India, even more than elsewhere, hypocrisy is indeed the price paid by vice to virtue.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of External Affairs or MEA issued a statement that began with a lie. This was that the farm laws had been passed 'after a full debate and discussion' in Parliament. In fact, laws that proposed such far-reaching changes in the agricultural sector should first have been discussed with the states. They were not. They should have been referred to a parliamentary committee; they were not. After bypassing these procedures, the Modi Government acted more brazenly still, by not even allowing a division and a formal counting of votes in the Rajya Sabha. As Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote at the time, "This is a travesty of parliament. It is railroading a bill through, not on its deliberated merits, but on the sheer dint of power."

The MEA claims that the government's handling of the farm protests is proof of "India's democratic ethos and polity". In truth, in this - as in so many other respects - the Modi Government has acted in bad faith, both inside and outside parliament. Had the laws not been passed in such an underhand and deceitful manner, the protests may not have taken the shape, or assumed the scale, that they eventually did. The venomous characterization of peaceful protesters as Khalistanis, the barricading of roads with spikes and fences all around the country's capital, the suspension of internet services in district after district, the spate of FIRs against journalists, the pressure on Twitter to block accounts of those critical of state excesses, all mean that claims made by the Modi Government that they understand or seek to uphold "India's democratic ethos" carry little credibility.

Before yesterday, I barely knew who Rihanna was. Nor, I suspect, did our Home Minister or our Foreign Minister. But once they did, they acted as if all they wanted was for her one hundred million Twitter followers to be annulled by one hundred million Twitter followers of Indian celebrities taken together. Film stars and sportspersons were thus falling over each other to promote the government line, often using the same words and same hashtags on Twitter.

The government's response to a single six-word tweet by a foreigner was disingenuous, dishonest, and absolutely over the top. In his own tweet, the Foreign Minister stated: "Motivated campaigns targeting India will never succeed. We have the self confidence today to hold our own. This India will push back." The very wording of this tweet showed the emptiness of the boast made therein. Along with his colleagues, the Foreign Minister had revealed to the world the fragility and insecurity of our collective national ego. For, unlike our own craven 'celebrities', the Barbadian singer was speaking spontaneously, as a free and independent agent. It was the response of the government and the ruling party that was motivated. And it displayed not self-confidence, but paranoia. A government more sure of itself would have ignored the tweet altogether.

As a lover of cricket myself, it was sad to see the individual and collective abasement to state power of our most famous and feted cricketers. Only one of the ilk stood his ground, held his own. This was Bishan Bedi, who responded to the manufactured outrage with this dry, self-deprecatory, and devastating tweet: 'Honestly it seems I didn't know anything about what's going on at the Delhi borders until the... Barbadian in conjunction w/Indian TV's woke me up from my slumbers.. Come on Old Man start becoming "touchy" or else U are heading towards anti-nationalism..!!!'

Meanwhile, as a student of Gandhi, I wondered what that most patriotic of all Indians would have made of the hyper-heated jingoism that parades as love of the nation today. What would he have thought of the boasting and bragging, the stigmatizing and name-calling, that passes for desh-bhakti in Modi's India? Some remarks that Gandhi made in 1938 give a clue: "In this age, when distances have been obliterated, no nation can afford to imitate the frog in the well. Sometimes it is refreshing to see ourselves as others see us."

(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include 'Environmentalism: A Global History' and 'Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World'.)

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