Modi And The World: Here Be Dragons

Modi And The World: Here Be DragonsPrime Minister Narendra Modi.
  • India needs to take media management seriously as it is a necessary part of building the Indic Grand Narrative globally.

India is getting that most precious of gifts: a second chance. Prime Minister Narendra Modi can now put India on a trajectory to becoming a major world power. The opportunity existed at Independence in 1947 (as documented in the original BRICs report from Goldman Sachs), but it was fumbled then, and especially in the 10 lost years 2004-2014 when the nation regressed by 20 years. But now there is a window of opportunity to rise and to craft a grand narrative that competes with America’s and China’s, and to be the third pole in a G3.

Serendipitously, the Thucydides Trap scenario gives India, if it can avoid collateral damage, the chance to narrow the gap between itself and the current G2. The trade war is likely to damage China and limit its power, and if India is prepared, it can attract firms fleeing China for cost, tariff and sanctions reasons. If there is a shooting war — and there are hints about this, for instance in Chinese saber-rattling in the recent Shangri-La Dialogue — China will be severely affected.

So there is opportunity, but there are also threats. Modi 2.0 will not be a cakewalk on any front, domestic or international. There are challenges domestically, especially related to the parts of the state decimated by decades of graft, corruption and nepotism: academia, media, bureaucracy and judiciary.

In addition, the Constitution itself needs urgent attention. Despite the Prime Minister’s gesture in bowing to the Constitution, he knows as well as anybody else that it has flaws. Some have advocated a wholesale rewriting of the document as a short, 10-page document that will be adjudicated by a Supreme Court that confines itself to constitutional cases. But at least ameliorating the most damaging bits should be a priority. Besides, the recent blow-up in Britain — India’s model via the written Irish constitution — and the unending soap opera over Brexit suggest that there’s something fundamentally wrong with that parliamentary model that India chose to emulate.

On the economic front, a 31 May article in the Financial Times, “Indian economic growth pace slows sharply in early 2019”, is pessimistic. India is indeed a large market based on domestic consumption alone, but it is not immune to global trade slowing as the Americans and Chinese continue sparring. Fortunately, a 3 June article in the same publication, “Indian factory output speeds up despite economic headwinds” suggests that purchasing managers are optimistic.

Just as Modi 1.0 benefited from a sharp fall in oil prices, Modi 2.0 will be affected by negative global trends. Nevertheless, this is a potential point of inflection for the country. India just overtook the UK as the fifth largest economy at $2.9 trillion (in real terms, not the make-believe purchasing power parity), and, with strong growth, it should be able to challenge Germany and Japan in a few years, perhaps 10. To double its gross domestic product (GDP) in 10 years, India needs to grow at 7.17 per cent per annum, which is doable. It’s not trivial, and the new Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has her work cut out for her, but it’s not a huge stretch.

There are other worries. There is a ‘perfect storm’ arising, and the fabled Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse are upon us in different incarnations: climate change, unsustainable exploitation of the planet, (trade) wars and terrorism. We may be reaching an inflection point where there is a sudden, catastrophic switch to a new equilibrium. India may not be equipped for this.

On the environmental front, India is vulnerable to global warming (as it is, temperatures in parts of India have risen to 47-50 degrees celsius) and the consequent rise in sea levels; and also to water stress, after seriously depleting its groundwater. In addition, there are reports of arsenic poisoning as well as the effects of excessive chemical fertiliser runoff. In this context, it is good news that the government has just formed a comprehensive Water Resources Ministry.

Terrorism continues to be a major concern for India, and will prove a handful for the new Home Minister. The Easter blasts in Sri Lanka and the links to the Indian states of Tamil Nadu and Kerala are dangerous pointers to the influence of terror organisation Islamic State (IS) in the region. The soft state approach in Jammu and Kashmir has paid few dividends: for instance, the practice of releasing the bodies of killed terrorists for massive funerals is counter-productive. The Maoist Naxal menace exists, surfacing regularly: and their Urban Naxal counterparts flourish in various universities.

But perhaps the most worrisome, and under-appreciated, threat comes from a framing and a narrative that have gained currency. It was manufactured in the Indian mainstream media, but its most avid consumers are the famous Western media brands, which appear to have a disproportionate influence on global opinion. This is not necessarily benign, and can have serious consequences.

There were times when people like Congress Member of Parliament Shashi Tharoor cautioned us about how something in India would be projected in Western media. It appeared to be just a euphemism for “whatever will our white friends think when we meet over cocktails?” which could be safely ignored: a little embarrassment is not a big deal.

But this narrative has acquired much more dangerous overtones lately, and perhaps the new Foreign Minister S Jaishankar will work with the Information and Broadcasting Minister to ensure that a little heat is applied when the narrative about India goes haywire, as it did just before the election results.

The narrative has changed over time. Earlier, the image of India was of a benighted place, with naked, dark people starving to death because of over-population. Kind Westerners donated food to stave off mass starvation. I remember meeting a kind old lady when I first arrived in the US. She asked me if I was happy I was in the US since I was getting three square meals a day. And this was said with no irony, no malice: she just thought we were all naked and starving.

Later, the narrative changed. It became what the US activist Rajiv Malhotra calls the ‘cows-caste-curry’ meme. India is full of sacred cows, Hindus invited all sorts of societal problems with the horrid caste system, and Indian food is something called ‘curry’. Then it changed slightly again. With the storied success of software engineers, and the visibility of doctors of Indian origin, the model-minority moniker was increasingly applied to Indians.

But now there’s something much more sinister about the narrative on Hindus and India. It is demonisation, blunt and ruthless. Vamsee Juluri and Ramesh Rao, both professors of media, have separately documented the viciousness, vindictiveness and sheer vitriol in the coverage of a) Modi, b) Hindus, c) the Indian electorate. The subliminal messaging: a) fascist monster, b) primitive barbarians, c) idiots seduced by Modi’s siren songs who don’t know what’s good for them.

Demonising the enemy is a standard practice dating back to hoary antiquity. It’s much easier to exterminate someone whom you have already declared to be inhuman, subhuman, monsters. For example, during the colonial invasions, Spaniards declared that Aztecs were cannibals; Aztecs returned the favour; but since Spaniards won, their version stuck.

During the Second World War, demonising the Japanese was a standard part of the playbook, and the entire ‘yellow peril’ meme took off. We know what that led to: the atomic bombs in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, not to mention the internment of Japanese Americans in concentration camps. Let us remember that German Americans were not so treated. It may safely be assumed that race matters.

Today, there is some demonisation of China, but it may not work for a couple of reasons. One is that, after years of deliberate infiltration into foreign media (a famous Indian newspaper is virtually a mouthpiece for Xinhua propaganda agency) and into foreign academia (consider the views of a professor at UC San Diego, formerly in the Barack Obama administration), it is hard to do much propaganda against China, although Donald Trump is trying. But it doesn’t work: even the Tiananmen anniversary was brushed off by them.

This is clearly not true of India, however. India can be shamed, and shamed continuously on all sorts of things: women’s rights, religious freedom, hygiene, antibiotic resistance. And Indians do care what the West thinks. Let us also remember Hillary Clinton, her close aide the Pakistani American Huma Abedin, and Pakistan-related adviser Robin Raphel and how they kept denying Narendra Modi a visa. They were distinctly Indophobic, and Robin Raphel, who was under federal investigation for allegedly spying for Pakistan, was rehabilitated in 2016 and was packing her bags to be chief Indian subcontinent aide until Hillary Clinton lost the election.

There was also Faigate, the alleged information warfare operation run by Gulam Ahmed Fai and caught by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “in a suspected influence-peddling scheme to funnel millions of dollars from the Pakistani government, including its military intelligence service, to US elected officials”, according to The Washington Times (19 July 2011).

So if anti-Asian racism is to be given free rein, it is best to do it against Indians and Hindus, because there will be no pushback. Westerners are aware that it is best not to say or do things against Muslims, because there will be consequences. The Charlie Hebdo incident made a big impression. But you can demonise Hindus all you want.

There is precedent for this sort of “manufacturing consent” as theorist Noam Chomsky called it. The US media keeps its populace in a state of ignorance about the rest of the world, with only “all the news fit to create an agenda” is pushed to them, to take a little liberty with The New York Times’ motto. The fact is that there appears to be a supra-national entity loosely referred to as the ‘deep state’ that controls the narrative that emanates from so-called global media: the NYT, the Washington Post, The Economist, The Financial Times, The Guardian and the BBC, for instance. It’s their agenda-driven ‘news’ and editorials that apparently constitute ‘international opinion’, which is consumed by Davos types and many senior political figures, so they have clout.

They do have an influence far greater than their dwindling circulations, because they collectively are considered the ‘newspaper of record’. They have been hurt by the success of social media, which exposes their biases and their exaggerations pitilessly. But India needs to take them seriously, for they are creating a framing that is highly harmful to the country’s image, and is far removed from reality.

There is precedent. I watched in astonishment as the pliant media in the US practically overnight turned opinion against Iraq’s Saddam Hussein. He had been an American ally for long, especially during the Iran-Iraq war, but suddenly became the devil incarnate. And we know what happened to him thereafter. On a slightly smaller scale, the same was true of Manuel Noriega, the Panamanian dictator, who went from American ally to jailbird. There is but a small step from demonisation to invasion.

The same sort of thing must have happened earlier, when Chile’s Salvador Allende was overthrown and assassinated, by all indications with the active involvement of the CIA; and when Mossadegh was removed in Iran. In a small way, the dismissal by Jawaharlal Nehru of EMS Nambudiripad’s Communist government in Kerala in 1959 with the help of local compradors also had the hallmarks of a ‘deep state’ operation.

The ‘deep state’ is definitely against India, and has been so from the old CENTO days when India was seen as a hectoring Soviet ally. Paradoxically, despite his trade huffing and puffing, Donald Trump, as the deep state’s adversary, is in a way a friend of India, on the principle that the enemy’s enemy is a friend. The fact that The Wall Street Journal is just about the only US paper that wrote a balanced editorial about Modi’s victory is notable.

There are two ways to handle this rampant demonisation of India, Hindus and Modi/Bharatiya Janata Party. One way is to do nothing, and believe that India is “too big to fail”, as was said of major banks. India is indeed too large for an invasion as in the case of Panama or Iraq. And it is too important as a partner in the Quad to contain China for the US to really hurt relations with India. (However, recent trade friction over the cancellation of General System of Preferences benefits to India, the moratorium on Indian oil purchases from Iran and Venezuela, and bargaining over India’s proposed purchase of the S-400 anti-missile system from Russia are all signs of trouble).

On the other hand, benign neglect may be counter-productive. The rabidness and foaming-at-the-mouthness of the international media have increased apace. It is a vicious cycle: India’s mainstream ‘Lutyens’ media, increasingly excluded from access to power, and thus losing the ability to broker deals, is furious. It invents #fakenews painting a picture of doom and gloom (fascism and religious tyranny are favourite memes). It is convenient for lazy foreign correspondents to just mouth these fantasies in their papers. Lo and behold, it is then recycled by Lutyens as a ‘validation’ of stories they made up in the first place: truth by repeated assertion.

Such bad behaviour should be punished. Hard states like Singapore did not put up with nonsense: they sued for defamation and libel, declared people personae non grata and gave them 24 hours to clear out. This deterred mischief makers. And there should be both stick and carrot: the Indian reader will become an important target audience for English-language global media. For instance, the NYT offers a Rs 49 a month digital subscription. They may need India more than India needs them: India should exert buyer power, by threatening to keep them (and their IP addresses) out if they misbehave.

Today, it is not only the print and television media, but in particular social media that is exhibiting delinquent behaviour. For instance, Twitter, which is popular in India, has consistently shown intense bias against supporters of Prime Minister Modi, and turned a blind eye to malfeasance by his opponents. There is a drastic remedy: suspend Twitter’s licence, firewall out its IP addresses and shut down its office until allegations are fully investigated.

Doing this to Twitter would be quite the Sun Tzu tactic of ‘killing the chicken to scare the monkey’. Facebook, WhatsApp, Amazon, Google and YouTube would all get the message that India means business; so would the NYTs, FTs, Economists, etc. Robust behaviour by the Indian state will deter the usual suspects in India (almost the entire print and electronic media, and their web-based startups that have all been very anti-Modi and pro-Congress) as well.

Today India is on track to become the third largest economy in the world, and it needs to act accordingly. The meek do not inherit the earth (if that were the case, why would the world spend trillions on weapons?). Information warfare, along with space and cyber warfare, are the future, although armies and navies certainly do not lose their relevance. India has to avoid having a narrative imposed on itself. It has to take media management seriously and start setting up Kalidasa Institutes abroad. That’s a necessary part of building the Indic Grand Narrative.

Rajeev Srinivasan focuses on strategy and innovation, which he worked on at Bell Labs and in Silicon Valley. He has taught innovation at several IIMs. An IIT Madras and Stanford Business School grad, he has also been a conservative columnist for twenty years.


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