Prime Minister Narendra Modi was recently in Japan to attend a Quad meeting. On one occasion during the meeting, the leaders were walking down a staircase. Modi being Modi decided to walk in front, a step or two ahead of even the US president who was busy talking to the new Australian PM. Modi, as usual, was looking straight into the camera ahead. This photograph was published in the Indian media and was enough to send the “bhakts” into a frenzy. According to them, the PM had already become the most important global leader, leaving even the US president far behind. Modi’s cabinet colleagues and admirers in the party went to town in their “bhakti”. The Indian “Vishwaguru” had finally arrived.
That image has now come crashing down with a BJP spokesperson crossing all limits of decency by making derogatory remarks against the Prophet. For nine days that remark remained under the carpet until some Muslim nations woke up to it, called the Indian ambassadors and registered their strong protest. But the outrage has not stopped there. People are calling for the boycott of Indian goods and, obviously, the large Indian expatriate population there has been put to avoidable discomfiture. The government has called these spokespersons “fringe elements”, something nobody is buying. Earlier, the US Secretary of State had expressed his concern at the deteriorating religious tolerance in India, which we dismissed as being prompted by the “vote bank” politics there.
The outrage in the Muslim countries with which we have had very cordial relations until now obviously cannot be taken lightly. It has brought down India’s standing in the comity of nations and caused grievous damage to our image as a liberal, secular democracy. The cat is finally out of the bag because we are no more a secular, liberal democracy; we have, under Modi, become a “Hindu Pakistan”. Perhaps this is what the PM wants and that is why he has not said a word about it so far. It will be wrong to dismiss it as the fulmination of an isolated individual in the party; it is today the core of the BJP’s ideology and its sure-shot formula to win all elections. It is an important element of the new ecosystem of the “New India” the PM wants to create.
India had already earned a place of respect globally during the Narasimha Rao period because of its economic reforms. During the Vajpayee era, we made India stronger and that earned the country a place at the global high tables. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the first prime minister from the BJP, enjoyed great personal respect among world leaders and, therefore, it was not surprising that he was invited to sit at the same table as the G-7 powers. And all this, after India was declared a pariah after the nuclear tests of May 1998. India must forever remain indebted to Jaswant Singh for his remarkable personal diplomacy during the aftermath of the nuclear tests, ultimately resulting in the visit of President Bill Clinton in March 2000 and the global acceptance of India as a nuclear weapons state. It is another matter that the same Jaswant Singh was repeatedly humiliated by the party later. But the respect for India was not confined to the prime minister alone. We all shone in its reflected glory.
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I remember once when I was attending a meeting of the IMF/World Bank in Washington, a senior official of our delegation, a veteran of many such meetings, walked up to me and told me that he had never,” in his long experience of attending such meetings, seen India in such high profile as today”. Before that, I had been unanimously elected chairman of the development committee of the World Bank, the first and the only Indian so far to occupy that position. Along with the chairman of the international monetary and finance committee of the IMF and the chairman of the G-20, which had already come into existence, we together constituted a high-level group to deal with global finance. Later, I was unanimously elected the second chairman of G-20 after Paul Martin of Canada, who was its first chairman.
My tenure in the external affairs ministry was equally rewarding. I used to regularly call on the heads of states/governments during my visits abroad as external affairs minister. But even I was greatly surprised when after landing in Washington in January 2004 I was informed by our ambassador that my first appointment was with President Bush in the famous Oval Office of the White House. The practice so far had been and still is that a visiting foreign minister would call on the national security advisor of the US in the White House and the President would, if he so wished, drop by for a photo op. This was the first and only time so far that the Minister of External Affairs of India was actually invited to meet the US President in the Oval Office.
I am mentioning these examples not to brag about my personal achievements but to make the point that there was a period earlier also which was marked by high achievements and great international respect for India. And it was for real, not contrived. The honor bestowed on me was not personal; it was an honor to India under Vajpayee. The foreign dignitary would have surely been briefed on the fact that I was really a political lightweight but gave me the undeserved respect because I represented Vajpayee’s India. But in those days, we believed more in doing our work than its publicity. Today, publicity is everything.
As someone who has been a participant in the affairs of state, I deeply regret the lows to which India has fallen today. The mask has come off and the ugly face of India under Modi is for all to see. I hope the Islamic countries will show maturity and leave the matter at that and the Modi government and the BJP will have learn their lesson and in future will behave with the dignity expected of them as representatives of the great country that India truly is.
This column first appeared in the print edition on June 9, 2022 under the title ‘Mask comes off’. The writer, a former Union minister, is vice-president, All-India Trinamool Congress