JUNE 1, 2022
When he travels abroad to speak at an international forum, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi paints a picture of India as a failed democracy, riven by caste and communal violence. Media freedom in India is under existential threat, he claims. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is the embodiment of corruption. The governance of institutions has sunk to an abysmal low.
Criticism of the government and the prime minister by an Opposition leader is an essential part of democracy. In an era of relentless media scrutiny, criticism of government policies by Opposition leaders on public platforms, even when abroad, encourages debate, dissent and dialogue.
Should Indians be concerned about what the rest of the world thinks about India when an Opposition politician calls India a dysfunctional democracy? India obviously is not. But a peculiar kind of Indian craves foreign validation.
Journalist Karan Thapar, for example, was aghast about what foreigners think of us. Writing in the Hindustan Times (29 May 2022) Thapar, wringing his hands, wondered: “We can’t hope to be recognised as a world power if we fail to exercise what little power we have when the world is expecting precisely that from us. We may sit at the United Nations Security Council, partner the United States, Japan and Australia in the Quad and proclaim we’re vishwaguru, but if we don’t act when the time comes, that means precious little.”
Thapar was anguished by India’s decision to ban wheat exports in order to ensure food security for Indians. The ban of course is partial and Indian wheat has in recent days been shipped to countries where there are food shortages. But why let facts stand in the way of opinion?
What Rahul Gandhi said on public platforms during his recent overseas trip had a well-crafted strategy. Gandhi recognises that forming an Opposition-led government after the 2024 Lok Sabha election is a distant prospect. Hence the recourse to a “scorched earth” policy.
In essence, this involves disparaging India’s achievements and exaggerating its infirmities. Gandhi knows that 2024 could be the family’s last chance to redeem itself as “custodian” of the Congress. If the Congress encounters a big defeat in the 2024 general election, the drip-drip departures of senior leaders from the party could become a flood.
Retreating armies that have given up the battle use a scorched earth tactic: Destroying bridges, ammunition dumps, weapon caches and transport facilities. When the enemy takes over territory, there’s precious little left.
Gandhi is helped in his scorched earth policy by a cabal of academics, journalists, activists and others who despise the BJP (for good reasons perhaps). The idea is to project India as a failed nation.
Consider this op-ed in The Indian Express (24 May 2022) by Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University on the Gyanvapi controversy. He writes: “If it is serious about its Constitution-protecting role, the judiciary should check the Hindu nationalist popular frenzy. But it does not even schedule hearings of any fundamental challenges to Hindu nationalist policies or legislation: For example, Article 370 and the CAA. It even approved conversion of a contested site in Ayodhya into a Hindu temple. It has now admitted petitions on the Gyanvapi mosque, and it is not clear which way it will go. The Places of Worship Act, 1991, made in accordance with the Constitution, clearly said that the status of a religious place cannot be altered beyond what it was at Independence.”
Varshney then advises the judiciary: “Judicial interpretation must follow the law, not faith. But the courts can always ingeniously construct arguments that show why the 1991 law was neither usable for Ayodhya, nor might be applicable now. If religious equality and minority protections, two of the fundamental principles of the Indian Constitution, are made prisoners of electoral passions, India will not cease to exist, but its 1950 republic will end. Hindu nationalists, then, will go on challenging many more disputed sites as long as they have the electoral power. We can expect a relentlessly violent India, whose majoritarian horrors are bound to be internationally noted.”
Read the last line again: “We can expect a relentlessly violent India, whose majoritarian horrors are bound to be internationally noted.”
Look at the adjectival play of words: “relentlessly violent India”; “majoritarian horrors”; “internationally noted”.
The Varshneys, Thapars and others of their ilk employ the international carrot and stick argument as part-warning, part-threat. To them, international approval for India is what matters.
Consider now India’s real infirmities. The Modi government’s slide into protectionism is regressive. Its policy of majoritarianism is as dangerous as the Congress’ half-century-long policy of minoritarianism. Both have polarised society. Every issue is now seen through a Hindu-Muslim lens. In the process the real achievements – and failures — of the Modi government’s eight years in office are both swept aside.
What the world thinks of India should not matter except to minds that genuflect reflexively to foreign opinion. What should matter to Indians is improving institutional governance, reforming the criminal justice system, modernising the economy, and focusing on jobs, inflation and education.
Rahul Gandhi should criticise the Modi government as much as he wants to — in India or overseas, on public platforms or in private. But what India needs from the country’s largest Opposition party is specific solutions to the country’s myriad problems.
A better Opposition makes for a better government by keeping it on its toes. But when Opposition leaders abandon all hope of winning back power and in vengeful pique use scorched earth tactics, they are laying the groundwork for exactly what Varshney accuses the Modi government of: “Creating a relentlessly violent India.”
That is what scorched earth policies seek to achieve: An ungovernable land. Gandhi knows this. That is why he does what he does.
The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.