ON THE MARGIN: Emergency, Modi’s India & the world

New DelhiWritten By: Shastri RamachandaranUpdated: Jun 29, 2021, 07:13 PM IST
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photograph:(PTI)

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In recent decades, though, the world has changed. Liberals in the West, such as Angela Merkel, are no longer celebrated. The toast of the town in western capitals are the new nationalists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.

This is that time of the year when the country’s politicians, political commentators and the media look back upon the Emergency that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi had declared on June 25, 1975. People’s rights and freedoms were suspended, political leaders jailed and the Press put under censorship. The dark days lasted for 21 months, until 1977, when Mrs Gandhi held elections, which the newly formed Janata Party won to form India’s first non-Congress government.  

The failure of the Janata Party experiment brought Mrs Gandhi back to power in 1980, the year in which the Jana Sangh, a constituent of the Janata Party, was relaunched as the Bharatiya Janata Party.  

More than anything else in her political life, it is her bid to exercise absolute power during the Emergency that led to Indira Gandhi being perceived—including by votaries of the BJP and Narendra Modi—as India’s most powerful Prime Minister. This perception was reinforced by the fact of the political campaign to defeat her, particularly during the Emergency, being carried out in several foreign countries especially the UK, Europe and the US. 

However, a cursory look at how the world at large dealt with India’s “most powerful” Prime Minister then and how it is “behaving” now shows that most countries, including the “international community”, are more circumspect, if not cautious, in their dealings with Modi sarkar. This tells us a lot about the politics, values and interests of these countries, and the shrewd politicking of their representatives in India. 

Those who campaigned against Indira Gandhi overseas became heroes and were favourites in New Delhi’s diplomatic circuit dominated by the US and the West. Her critics enjoyed support in western quarters and drew strength from there.

Many of these public figures, editors, journalists, artists and academics were often the toast of the diplomatic community. They were honoured, feted and invited to events in India and abroad, which further raised their profile. The diplomatic missions basked in the company of these political liberals and dissenters, intellectuals and activists, besides opposition political figures.

Many of those thus cultivated by a powerful West was seen as an “alternative” or “counter” elite. In a way, this was an extension, a celebration of the West’s support to those who had stood up for democracy, freedom and human rights during Mrs Gandhi’s time. It is no secret that during the Emergency, western diplomats had helped get censored news and information to the outside world; and, Indians who dealt with them felt confident that they would not be persecuted. 

After the Emergency, too, this relationship continued because it was mutually beneficial. The Indians who had reason to fear the government during the Emergency found reassurance in such company; they felt their “proximity” to such power centres may protect them from persecution, besides raising their profile.

For the West and its diplomats, such engagements validated their avowals of being uncompromising supporters of pluralism, diversity, a free Press et al.  

In recent decades, though, the world has changed. Liberals in the West, such as Angela Merkel, are no longer celebrated. The toast of the town in western capitals are the new nationalists like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson and international relations are transactional; diplomacy is more about business than culture, literature and much else that brought together countries in the past.

Today, the West’s diplomacy is financialised and driven by military, commercial and corporate interests to the exclusion of development in its broadest sense and all else. 

Hence, diplomats no longer want to attract attention for what might irk or offend the political powers in the capitals to which they are posted.

In New Delhi, it is not only the government and the ruling party that they defer to. Diplomats, including a few ambassadors, have gone so far as to curry favour with Sangh Parivar by paying court to the RSS—not because they support Hindutva or Golwalkar’s ideals but because it is good for the business and investment prospects of companies in their country.  

Like functionaries and factotums in the government and the ruling party, diplomats also have learnt to anticipate and act to please the political bosses of the day in their place of posting. Many of them are loathe to engage with people or opinions that may be frowned upon by the ruling elite.

Is this a Modi effect?  

If yes, then Prime Minister Modi is far more powerful than Indira Gandhi ever was. That means, in the matter of inter-governmental relations, India under Modi has changed to stay in step with changing world. The conduct of many a good man from the West posted in New Delhi—and not necessarily to lie for his country—suggests that Modi's government has redefined the terms of diplomatic endearment.   

Of course, the West still raises the issue of democracy, human rights and media freedoms. But more as instruments in pursuit of their military, trade or business interests, and not as values. 

(The author is Editorial Consultant, WION TV.)

(Disclaimer: The views of the writer do not represent the views of WION or ZMCL. Nor does WION or ZMCL endorse the views of the writer.)