In 2015, the newly elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi achieved a great achievement: He successfully convinced the United Nations to declare June 21st International Yoga Day. On the occasion in 2016, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon highlighted the physical and other benefits of practicing yoga. His support was widely seen as the new high point for Indian soft power.
Since then, however, India’s soft power has steadily disappeared. Recently, New Delhi’s ruthless handling of protests by large farmers against new agricultural laws has won government criticism from social activists and cultural celebrities such as Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and Susan Sarandon.
At least Modi could have made an anodyne statement or two promising to hear the plight of the farmer and make Indian agriculture work for everyone. Instead, the government has doubled in size, condemned international interference and even launched an investigation into the “toolkit” for protests that Thunberg apparently shared.
How did India, which made headlines around the world a few years ago for skillfully using soft power, ruin the reputation it had secured? Erroneous decisions by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) certainly played a role. The problem lies deeper, however. For decades, governments in India, regardless of political orientation, have been over-sensitive to foreign criticism of their domestic policy decisions regarding a wide variety of internal issues, including routine police brutality and minority abuse. Sensitivity, in turn, has become an element of the country’s political culture.
For example, India has historically responded quite negatively to any criticism of its human rights record in riot-hit states. She has also tried to fend off any criticism of the persecution of minorities. All too often, government officials have invoked the cloak of sovereignty to undo foreign criticism of India’s domestic affairs. India may not be perfect, thinking seems to be going, but it is doing the best it can against a range of problems that developed powers like the United States cannot understand.
The defensive tendency has really come to the fore under the second Modi government, which took office in April 2019. This increased recoil is due to Modi’s quest for an ideologically charged political agenda that raises serious questions about India’s commitment to the principles of liberal democracy. For example, when Malaysia raised concerns about India’s citizenship change law, the government reduced palm oil imports from the country.
Many such decisions have damaged India’s image as a liberal democracy that advocates freedom of speech, freedom of the press, the rule of law and the protection of minority rights. In turn, one of India’s greatest soft power assets, its claim to be the greatest functioning democracy in the world, has been eroded. Unfortunately, the process is spiraling: if the country’s image is damaged, it becomes more defensive and its reputation continues to decline.
For example, imagine how the national government recently suffered a body blow when it kept a diligent silence after police in Madhya Pradesh state, also under BJP rule, charged a stand-up comic, Munawar Faruqui had been accused of a joke about a Hindu deity that he had not cracked. The arrest was made on the assumption that he planned to do so, and he was held for 35 days. It was not until his attorney appealed to the Indian Supreme Court that he was finally released on bail. The episode underscores the government’s acute hostility towards freedom of speech.
It wasn’t the only one. In February, the government used a colonial law to accuse a number of journalists of rioting. They were arrested for reporting only the farmers’ protests. The formal charge was that their reporting provoked violence. Attendees included Rajdeep Sardesai, a well-known national television presenter for India Today, and Vinod Jose, the editor-in-chief of Caravan, a long-term journalism magazine. Since both work for well-known news organizations, they likely have access to excellent legal counsel. In the meantime, however, they and their employers will be embroiled in legal proceedings that could drag on for weeks, if not months, given the pace of legal proceedings in India.
The government is also increasingly aggressive towards human rights defenders. Another case is that of Stan Swamy, an 83-year-old Jesuit priest who worked for decades in the Indian tribal communities in Jharkhand state. Swamy came into the government’s crosshairs for advocating for a tribal population exposed to predatory investors seeking mineral resources from their land. In early October 2020, India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) arrested him on terrorism-related charges in a 2018 incident involving caste-based violence allegedly linked to Maoists. Since his arrest, he has languished in prison while awaiting trial. In the meantime, his lawyers had to call several courts so that he could get a drinking cup with a straw because he has Parkinson’s disease.
Academic freedom is also at risk. Foreign scholars working on issues that the government considers politically sensitive have long struggled to obtain a research visa to the country. In recent years, previous governments dealing with the damage such policies had inflicted on India’s image in foreign academia had relied on the stringent visa requirements. However, a directive from the Indian Ministry of the Interior announced a little over a week ago could put an end to this progress. All virtual meetings between foreign academics and their Indian counterparts dealing with issues affecting the national security of India and unspecified “internal affairs” now require prior approval by the ministry responsible for upholding domestic law and domestic law Order is mandated.
It seems reasonable that the government made a cynical calculation. Although it has come under significant international criticism on a number of its political decisions, it has found that the decline in soft power is a small price to pay to push through its particular political agenda and cement the position of the BJP. It appears that given the size of the Indian economy, its growing presence in global forums, and its importance to global politics, that criticism will fade and wane in due course. In the meantime, the government will have rebuilt Indian society around its own ideological vision.
It’s a risky calculation. Even if the Modi government believes it can stand up international raised eyebrows, it may not do so well under the gaze of its own citizens. She has literally barricaded herself in New Delhi dealing with the peasant protests, which have real concerns about the recently passed bills in parliament. With cement blocks, accordion and legions of armed police blocking access to the state capital, the government is now addressing another self-inflicted wound.
India’s soft power, if used skillfully, could have significantly increased the country’s global stature. Unfortunately, due to a flood of flawed political decisions, the government has missed a multitude of opportunities to increase and improve the attractiveness of the country for the global community. Foreign investments in India are already dwindling in the wake of the pandemic, combined with a series of dubious political decisions. Given the waning excitement about India’s economic prospects, it’s worth noting that Freedom House, the noted global human rights commissioner, has classified India as “partially free” for the first time in decades. In these circumstances, few people around the world will look to India for spiritual or other inspiration when International Yoga Day arrives this year. Meanwhile, more and more Indians themselves are vocal in their demands for change.