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Patralekha Chatterjee | The siege within: India and the foreign hand'

DECCAN CHRONICLE | Patralekha Chatterjee

Published on: February 10, 2021 | Updated on: February 11, 2021

There is really no way we can prevent the rest of the world from taking interest in our domestic affairs, especially if we wish to be at the high table of the international community. (Photo:AP)

Can tweets by international pop star Rihanna, teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg and other global celebrities in support of India’s protesting farmers destabilise this country of over 1.3 billion people?

Or should we look within? Is foreign meddling the real threat facing us or is India’s real challenge the deepening domestic polarisation on just about every front?

Successive governments in India have pointed at the "foreign hand" in times of crisis. I entered journalism in the 1980s when one regularly heard of the invisible "foreign hand" that was out to dismember our country. In many of her public speeches, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi spoke of the dark spectre of foreign forces out to destabilise India.

Rajiv Gandhi, who came to power in 1984 with a huge majority after his mother’s assassination, also talked of the "invisible" foreign hand trying to derail India’s development.

Back then, there was no Twitter or social media or troll armies, and no virtual slugfests. But on government-run Doordarshan and All India Radio and in sections of the print media, there was no escaping allusions to these dark, powerful and invisible forces out to get us.

Cut to the New India. The "foreign hand" is back. The ruling BJP sees comments from global celebrities in support of the ongoing farmers’ protests as part of a deep conspiracy against the country. Prime Minister Narendra Modi says India has been seeing increased FDI but there is a new FDI that has emerged -- "Foreign Destructive Ideology". Modi says India needs to be protected against it.

Is the world really out to get us? Or should we get used to the fact that in a networked globalised world, nothing is local anymore? As protests erupted across the United States following George Floyd’s death at the hands of the police on the streets of Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement resonated around the world. Support for BLM led to demonstrations in a number of countries. In a more recent example, the coup in Myanmar has been denounced by individuals around the world, including in India.

There is really no way we can prevent the rest of the world from taking interest in our domestic affairs, especially if we wish to be at the high table of the international community. If we so eagerly lap up foreign praise, can we afford to be so prickly about the foreign gaze when the comments are adverse? If Indians rejoice at going up the World Bank’s ease of doing business 2020 survey, they can’t totally shrug off slipping in the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 Democracy Index’s global rankings.

The problems will not go away simply if foreigners stop talking about it. And as for us, stopping and reversing the current trend of polarisation is vital, for the simple reason that no country or society can make real progress if social cohesion starts eroding.

Leaving aside the foreign gaze for a moment and looking within, we cannot but help notice a deeply polarised and fractured nation, with deepening domestic political divisions. That is the real challenge, and that challenge cannot be surmounted by simply choking protests or forcibly shutting up views that clash with those of the government of the day. There must be a dialogue. The government must stop its storm troopers -- from ministers to those on the streets -- from statements and actions that polarise further. Else, social cohesion will become even more fragile.

The Global Risks Report 2021 brought out by the World Economic Forum lists "social cohesion erosion" among the highest-likelihood and highest-impact long-term risks facing our pandemic-battered world. "As public health gaps, digital inequality, educational disparities and unemployment -- risks that result from a complex combination of existing inequalities and the impact of the pandemic - - affect vulnerable groups the most, they may further fray social cohesion," it says.

Too many people have little left to lose. The global recession, the report notes, is now expected to force as many as 150 million more people into extreme poverty, increasing the total to 9.4 per cent of the world’s population. This setback in the global development agenda will heighten vulnerability to future shocks and threaten the erosion or collapse of states, it warns.

Our government also admits that the economic shock caused by the ongoing pandemic is severe. It is now hoping for a V-shaped economic recovery. No such recovery will be possible without the vibrant pluralistic democracy that is key to India’s power. If democracy is our calling card, we must also listen to critical views and voices without feeling the need to link them with ulterior motives. Getting prickly about criticism will only worry the whole world even

"There is a debate about the potential impact of American concerns about the state of democracy and liberalism in India on the US-India relationship," pointed out Tanvi Madan, director of the India Project and senior fellow at globally renowned think tank Brookings, in a January 2021 essay titled "Democracy and the US-India relationship".

"Often commentators argue there will either be no effect because of India’s utility for the US or major impact because of the incoming Biden administration’s emphasis on values," Madan added. "The answer is likely to lie somewhere in between. A pragmatic Biden team will likely recognise that India will be key to their objectives vis-à-vis issues like the Indo-Pacific and China, climate change and global health security."

"However, questions about India’s trajectory as a pluralistic democracy could directly or indirectly affect the pace and tone of the relationship — especially if they are accompanied by doubts about India’s capabilities, economic growth and policies, and willingness to play a balancing role versus China."

India’s handling of the ongoing farmers’ protests has taken a lot of sheen off the country’s image, coming as it does on the back of many other illiberal measures. This is unfortunate for many reasons, including the fact that India is getting a few things right even in these fraught, polarised times. Take India’s vaccine diplomacy. India has supplied low-cost coronavirus vaccines to many countries across the world. "With the US and Europe preoccupied with Covid-19 and many nations looking to India for a Covid-19 antidote, Delhi can score valuable points," as G. Parthasarathy, a former diplomat, noted in a recent commentary.

The bottom line: we must get our act together. At the end, a country does not rise or fall because of the foreigner’s gaze but because of what its insiders do or fail to do.