Paradigm Shift

Two recent articulations of Modi’s “New India” paint a grim picture

Jaishankar's speech was in keeping with his recent role as a shrill spokesperson of the Narendra Modi government. Raj K Raj / Hindustan Times
31 October, 2022

“India is celebrating 75 years of its independence, what we call ‘Azadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav,’” S Jaishankar, the minister of external affairs, told the United Nations General Assembly, on 25 September. “The story of that period has been one of toil, determination, innovation and enterprise of millions of ordinary Indians. They are rejuvenating a society pillaged by centuries of foreign attacks and colonialism. And they are doing so in a democratic framework, whose steady progress is reflected in more authentic voices and grounded leadership.” In keeping with his recent role as a shrill spokesperson of the government abroad, Jaishankar extolled the virtues of a “New India,” under the “visionary and dynamic leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.” He parroted the five pledges announced by Modi in his Independence Day speech: resolutions to “make India a developed country in the next twenty-five years,” “liberate ourselves from a colonial mindset,” take pride in “our rich civilisational heritage,” “promote greater unity and solidarity,” and “instil consciousness of duties and responsibilities.”

None of this was unusual for a representative of the Modi government, whose penchant for obsequious sycophancy has plumbed depths scarcely seen in Indian public life in almost half a century. But such speeches are customarily delivered to domestic audiences. Modi has, on occasion, attacked his predecessors and political opponents in foreign speeches, but even those have been limited to private settings, such as diaspora gatherings. Jaishankar was speaking for India—not the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party or its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—during the annual debate of the General Assembly. The former diplomat Vivek Katju wrote in The Hindu that Jaishankar’s speech was “perhaps the first time that the basic interpretation of Indian history of the current ruling dispensation has been projected in the UNGA, although in coded language.”

By invoking “centuries of foreign attacks”—in all likelihood, Katju noted, the first ever “disparaging reference made to pre-colonial India in an Indian statement during the general debate, or indeed in any UN forum”—Jaishankar was reciting a shibboleth of Hindutva to demonise the Muslim rulers of mediaeval India. Conflating them with British colonisers is an attempt to portray Indian Muslims as foreigners. It is a notion that India rejected when it chose to be constituted as a pluralist republic, spurning calls for the creation of a Hindu Rashtra as a virtual mirror image of a Muslim Pakistan. Instead, India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, described India as resembling “some ancient palimpsest on which layer upon layer of thought and reverie had been inscribed, and yet no succeeding layer had completely hidden or erased what had been written previously.”

Jaishankar’s claim that the Modi government represents “more authentic voices and grounded leadership” is similarly dubious. It undermines the democratic credentials of every previous prime minister, from Nehru to Manmohan Singh, most of whom were elected with larger mandates than Modi. It reflects something even more malicious: a longstanding attempt by the forces of Hindutva to portray Nehru as inauthentic and un-Indian. Jaishankar was expressing in a more sophisticated and subtle manner the Hindu Mahasabha leader NB Khare’s denigration of Nehru as “English by education, Muslim by culture and Hindu merely by accident of birth”—a quote that Khare, and many BJP politicians, have misattributed to Nehru himself.