By Rajdeep Sardesai
Long before ‘foreign soil’, there was the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’. At a public rally in Kolkata in 1976 at the height of the Emergency, then prime minister Indira Gandhi told her foreign critics not to interfere in India’s affairs. “As the prime minister I can say the more they try to suppress us or oppose us, the stronger and united we will be. We don’t care for their criticism, whether it comes from the Socialist International or any other organization.”
Ironically, those who opposed Indira Gandhi during the Emergency years are in power now and it is they who have borrowed from her political playbook and chosen to raise the ‘foreign soil’ bogie, this time targeting Mrs Gandhi’s grandson and Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi. Where once Indira Gandhi accused her critics – from George Fernandes to Subramanium Swamy – of being patronized by anti-India ‘foreign powers’, this time the BJP has chosen a familiar trope to debunk its detractors.
And yet India in 2023 is hardly the country it was in the mid-1970s. Then a country barely 30 years independent was still feeling bruised by the wounds of colonialism. The Cold War was at its peak and an economically dependent India couldn’t help but get tangled between the competing spheres of influence. An economy crawling at three per cent, more than 50 per cent of the population below the poverty line, high levels of rural distress, low literacy levels, India was truly a ‘Third World’ country struggling to move ahead. The sheer scale of the problem made it easier for an all-powerful but deeply insecure leadership to pin the blame on a ‘foreign hand’ for its own failures.
The ‘new’ India of 2023 ought to have no such concerns. This is, after all, a country which is tom-tomming its G-20 presidency as ‘India’s moment’ on the world stage, is now lauded as the world’s fastest growing large economy, is self-sufficient in foodgrains, pitches itself as a global vaccine capital, is an incubator for dozens of unicorns, takes pride in its vast pool of skilled engineers and is marked by a rapid infrastructure growth. In such a feel-good milieu, why should India’s political leadership, with a comprehensive majority in parliament and every chance of completing a hat-trick of Lok Sabha triumphs next year, be at all troubled by what a dissenting opposition voice might have to say?
Which is why the insistence by government law-makers that Rahul Gandhi must apologise for questioning Indian democracy on ‘foreign soil’ appears disingenuous on several counts. This is, after all, the same government whose G 20 mantra is an inclusive ‘One Earth, One Family, One Future’ and which boasts that under prime minister Narendra Modi, India is well on its way to becoming a ‘Vishwa-guru’ or a ‘teacher to the world’. Surely a country which has such lofty aspirations should be easily able to handle any sharp criticism, whether in Cambridge University or at a campus closer home? The ‘foreign soil’ argument flies in the face of a ‘world without boundaries’ framework, one which India hopes to spearhead as part of a less divided new world order.
Moreover, the BJP and prime minister Modi have always seen the increasingly influential Indian diaspora as an integral part of a wider political parivar. No prime minister has courted the diaspora as aggressively as Mr Modi: almost every overseas prime ministerial visit includes a meeting with the Indian community in that country. In many of those meetings, the prime minister has castigated his predecessors without being charged of misusing foreign soil for partisan politics.
Truth is, India’s global ambitions are hobbled by its domestic political realities. The self-confidence displayed by the prime minister in the world fora is in sharp contrast to the anxieties revealed while playing populist politics at home. It is one thing for the BJP to contest Mr Gandhi’s ‘democracy is under attack’ contention, a constant refrain of the Congress leader with far-reaching implications. But it is quite another for government ministers to then block parliament by demanding an apology on the grounds that Mr Gandhi has made an ‘anti-India’ statement. Unless the Modi government too believes in adapting an Indira Gandhi era sycophantic slogan to a ‘new’ India: Modi is India and India is Modi!
Indeed, by pursuing a path of relentless confrontation and vindictiveness with its political opponents – many of whom are facing the heat of the enforcement agencies — the Modi government runs the risk of failing to build upon India’s soft power as an oasis of democratic stability in an increasingly chaotic world. You cannot aspire to be a ‘Vishwa-guru’ to a world audience but then become a street bully at home: images of a barricaded parliament swarming with police personnel to stop an opposition march to the Enforcement Directorate office is not reflective of a robust democracy but more a reminder of an inflexible police state.
Paradoxically, this is a moment when the Modi government is at its strongest and the opposition lacks a cohesive spirit, with seemingly no common purpose or inspirational leadership. If the government is still choosing to turn the heat on its opponents in the run-up to the 2024 elections, it reveals a deliberate strategy to take no chances in the quest for re-election. The sharpened, near-obsessive attack on Rahul Gandhi is part of this endeavour. By focusing on what Mr Gandhi said on ‘foreign soil’, the attempt is to clearly question the Congress leader’s patriotism, create a narrative that foregrounds ‘ territorial nationalism’ and thereby push their primary challenger into a familiar trap. That Mr Gandhi isn’t the most natural political communicator makes it easier for the BJP to constantly deride him, often by distorting his remarks for social media lampooning.
The ‘foreign soil’ controversy is then only a contrived debate which serves multiple purposes for the BJP and the Modi government. Firstly, it helps deflect from any embarrassment the government may face as a result of any further revelations on the Adani story within parliament and outside. Secondly, it re-opens cleavages within the opposition, not all of whom are enamored with Mr Gandhi’s style of leadership. And finally, it energises the BJP’s core support in their constant search of an ‘anti-national’ hate figure. It almost seems as if the BJP needs a Rahul Gandhi in the headlines to keep their own political pot boiling.
Post-script: The ‘foreign hand’ has thrown up many unusual conspiracy theorists. Last year, Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekhar Rao said he suspected a ‘foreign hand’ behind the cloudbursts in some parts of the country. What next? Blaming a cricket defeat on a swinging ‘foreign ball’ maybe!
(The writer is senior journalist and author. mail: rajdeepsardesai52gmail.com)