Modi Administration’s Global Image Management: A Struggle Against Rising Criticism

Featured & Cover Modi Administration's Global Image Management A Struggle Against Rising Criticism

In the lead-up to the G20 summit, the Narendra Modi administration frequently employed the phrases ‘mother of democracy’ and ‘vishwaguru’.

The term ‘mother of democracy’ seemed to be introduced as a counter to India’s swift decline in the global democracy index.

‘Vishwaguru’ aimed to convey the message that Modi is a global leader whose presence cannot be overlooked any longer.

India’s presidency of the G20 rotates, and last year it was India’s turn to host the summit. Yashwant Sinha reminisced about his chairing of the G20 during Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s tenure, noting that Vajpayee didn’t utilize it for cult-building purposes. However, the current government’s focus during the G20, symbolized by a globe resting on a lotus, was centered on projecting India as a robust democracy with Modi as its singular leader. This shift prompts the question: why has the BJP manifesto now replaced ‘Vishwaguru’ with ‘Vishwabandhu’?

Recently, several Western nations have expressed concerns about events in India. The US, for instance, has raised issues regarding communal tensions, religious freedom, and the arrests of political figures:

The US State Department’s annual human rights assessment highlighted “significant” abuses in Manipur;

  • It also voiced concerns about communal violence in Gurugram;
  • The US Commission on International Religious Freedom noted a ‘decline in religious freedom’ in India and urged the Modi government to release 37 individuals of various faiths detained for the ‘peaceful exercise of their freedom of religion or belief’.
  • State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller stated that the US closely monitored the arrest of Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and the freezing of Congress party bank accounts, emphasizing the need for fair, transparent, and timely legal processes.
  • A State Department official called on India to uphold its human rights obligations.

President Joe Biden’s absence as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade, the postponement of the Quad summit, and NSA Jake Sullivan’s cancellation of visits to India have been interpreted by some as indications of US disapproval. The latest negative comment was Biden’s labeling of India as ‘xenophobic’.

Even during the G20 summit in New Delhi, a resolution was passed advocating for religious freedom, freedom of peaceful assembly, and condemning all acts of religious hatred.

In response to criticism, the Modi government’s initial reaction has been to dismiss it as Western propaganda and minimize its impact on domestic politics. Television channels and print media have cooperated, often presenting carefully curated versions of reports that cast the government in a favorable light. Frequently, the mainstream media leads such stories with official denials before briefly acknowledging the criticism and dismissing it.

This age-old tactic, reminiscent of the Cold War era, was employed recently when Germany and the US commented on Kejriwal’s arrest. Envoys were summoned to the External Affairs Ministry and handed formal protests against ‘interference’ in India’s internal affairs. Simultaneously, the government launched a robust diplomatic offensive against what it deemed ‘disinformation’.

One strategy borrowed from the US involves leveraging trade and arms purchases as diplomatic tools, with mixed success. While France, India’s defense collaborator, and Gulf countries have remained relatively silent, India’s External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar has defended India’s democracy in foreign capitals, and Indian embassies have been tasked with countering ‘Western propaganda’.

The Modi government’s unease with foreign criticism is understandable. Initially, the domestic media highlighted such criticism. However, within the first three years of Modi’s tenure, negative news was largely suppressed in mainstream media. Nonetheless, strategies like ‘sam, dam, dand, bhed’ have failed to silence external critics.

The BBC underwent tax raids and faced FDI inquiries, leading it to separate its Indian newsroom into a distinct company. Emily Schmall of The New York Times recounted being invited to meetings with the government, during which ministers would criticize foreign correspondents. At one such meeting, the “minister of information” read aloud headlines from articles written by the gathered correspondents in a seemingly random manner, with a hint of sarcasm. At least 13 journalists, nine of whom were Muslims in Kashmir, have been booked under the anti-terror Unlawful Activities Prevention Act. Schmall emphasized that journalism is under threat in India.

Last year, Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur accused The New York Times of spreading lies after it published an article on press freedom in Kashmir. His response mirrored the government’s tendency to dismiss negative reports as false.

When Lancet questioned the accuracy and transparency of Indian healthcare data, the government dismissed it. Similarly, a Harvard study indicating 6.7 million malnourished children in India was labeled as fake news.

To refute the IMF’s lower GDP prediction, former Chief Economic Adviser Krishnamurthy Subramaniam criticized the IMF’s estimates as consistently inaccurate. Incumbent CEA Anantha Nageswaran has also questioned the metrics of ratings agencies like Fitch, Moody’s, and S&P.

Union Minister Rajiv Chandrasekhar described as ‘half-truths’ a report by The Washington Post claiming that India had requested Apple to ‘soften’ its hacking alert.

Despite these efforts, negative news about India continues to surface:

Reporters Without Borders stated that India’s ranking in the World Freedom Index for 2024 is 159 out of 176 countries, compared to 150 in 2022.

India ranked 111 out of 125 countries in the Global Hunger Index 2023, with the highest rate of child wasting at 18.7%. In the previous year, its ranking was 107 out of 121 countries.

India topped the Global Slavery Index for 2023 among G20 countries, followed by China, Russia, Indonesia, and the US.

Youth unemployment in India in 2022 was 23.22%, higher than in Pakistan (11.3%), Bangladesh (12.9%), China (13.2%), and Bhutan (14.4%), according to World Bank data.

Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and 10 other international rights groups have criticized the misuse of laws like UAPA and financial regulations to silence journalists, human rights activists, and government critics.

Accordingly, an all-out mobilization effort is underway by the Modi regime to counteract this negative narrative. To counter organizations like Freedom House, V-Dem, and the Economic Intelligence Unit, the government-run Niti Ayog has engaged the Modi-friendly Observer Research Foundation to create India’s own democracy index. The Adani group has announced the establishment of a new think-tank. Additionally, pro-government voices, including academic groups, intellectuals, lawyers, and retired judges associated with the Sangh Parivar, are encouraged to issue statements and contribute articles to the media.

The PMO is coordinating the media response, both in print and digital formats. It appears that Vishwabandhu feels he has nothing to lose but his world.

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