Brand 'new' India
Indian government has shifted strategies to accommodate right-wing leaders such as Bolsonaro and Trump amid fears of compromising the rights of Indian farmers
By all accounts, India received a tepid response at the recently concluded, World Economic Forum (WEF) at Davos. Gone was the usual fanfare and excitement of the last few years that has usually met the Indian delegation at the international economic summit. Foreign delegates in private conversations with Indian media marvelled at the sudden decline of India's economic stars. The big blow came from American billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who accused the Indian government of "creating a Hindu nationalist state, imposing punitive measures on Kashmir…and threatening to deprive millions of Muslims of their citizenship." That last comment could easily be the most public nail in Brand India's coffin.
There is no denying that Modi's elevation to the PM's post in 2014 was met with ecstatic euphoria. Overseas Indians had fallen head over heels with Modi and the same man who had once been denied a visa by the US proudly walked on the Yankee red carpet. He addressed thousands of NRIs, alluded to Star Wars and quipped, "May the force be with you" at New York's Central Park six years ago, flanked by actor Hugh Jackman on one side. He hugged several state leaders and smiled more generously on pardesi shores than we had ever seen in India.
The world too loved the 'rags to riches' story of the chaiwala who became king. His personal story was one of aspiration; and his powerful oratory, promises of vikas (development) worked in tandem with his PR and brand-building machinery to create the much-needed image of India and reinforce the idea at home that our time had come at last! Over the last year, however, that international image of the country has taken a severe beating.
Lynchings started the downward trend when first international press picked up the issue. Censorship, killing of activists, sedition cases etc. all contributed to divert attention away from 'Brand India' to 'Bad India'. Abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir and the repercussions that followed (lockdown, detaining political leaders including three democratically-elected former chief ministers and then further imposing Public Safety Act (PSA) made India the talking point outside its borders. Allowing only government guided tours of an EU delegation while denying visa to UK MP Debbie Abrahams most likely for her criticism of the government, are standing out as eyesores too.
And while 'Brand India' has nosedived, it's not just credit ratings agencies and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) that are downgrading India's growth. Questions have been raised on how we even want to position ourselves in the international arena. We welcomed Brazilian far-right President Jair Bolsonaro as chief guest at our prestigious Republic Day this year; US President Barack Obama had been the chief guest in 2014. The controversial Brazilian leader found unlikely support in the BJP government after his US trip in May 2019 had to be scrapped due to protests from gay rights and environmental groups. And now we have American President Donald Trump ready to say "kem chho" (how are you?) next week, just days after his impeachment saga.
Inviting hard-line right-wing leaders to the country is not shocking even though a majority of the developed world would be keeping an arm's distance from characters such as Bolsonaro and Trump. What is alarming are the economic positions of both leaders who have attacked Indian trade policies in the recent past. Let's not forget that it was on complaints from Brazil, Australia, and Guatemala that the World Trade Organisation (WTO) started probing India's sugar subsidy given to our farmers. In order to clinch a trade deal with Trump, India is offering to open up its dairy and chicken markets. As the largest milk-producing nation in the world, we have traditionally restricted dairy imports.
India is bending over backwards to push a limited trade deal with its second-largest trade partner after China. Last year, the Trump administration had suspended India's special trade tag on the back on Indian government's implementation of price caps on medical devices, new data localization requirements, and e-commerce restrictions. The need to accommodate right-wing leaders seems in line with the current political climate. The fears of marginalising the interests of Indian farmers however, looms dangerously large.
Shutapa Paul is an author and media entrepreneur. Views expressed are strictly personal