Long before “foreign soil”, there was the “foreign hand”. At a rally in Kolkata (then Calcutta) in 1976, at the height of the Emergency, former Prime Minister (PM) 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 more united we will be. We don’t care for their criticism, whether it comes from the Socialist International or any other organisation.”
Those who opposed Indira Gandhi during the Emergency are in power today and have chosen to raise the “foreign soil” bogey by targeting the former PM’s grandson and Congress leader, Rahul Gandhi. Where once Indira Gandhi accused her critics — from George Fernandes to Subramanian Swamy — of being patronised by anti-India foreign powers, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has now chosen the familiar trope to debunk detractors. Yet, India in 2023 is hardly the country it was in the mid-1970s. With an economy crawling at 3%, more than 50% of the population below the poverty line, high levels of rural distress, and low literacy levels, India then was truly a Third World country, struggling to move ahead. The 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 failures.
The India of 2023 ought to have no such concerns. This is, after all, a country, which is showcasing its G20 presidency as India’s moment on the world stage, is lauded as the world’s fastest growing large economy, is self-sufficient in food grains, 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 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 troubled by what a dissenting Opposition voice might have to say?
This is why the insistence by government lawmakers 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 G20 mantra is an inclusive One Earth, One Family, One Future, and which boasts that under PM Narendra Modi, India is on its way to becoming a vishwaguru or a teacher to the world. Surely a country with such lofty aspirations should be able to handle criticism, whether in Cambridge University or at a campus closer home? Moreover, the BJP and PM Modi have always seen the increasingly influential Indian diaspora as an integral part of a wider political parivar. No PM has courted the diaspora as aggressively as PM Modi. Almost every overseas prime ministerial visit includes a meeting with the Indian community in that country. In many of those meetings, the PM has castigated his predecessors without being charged with misusing foreign soil for partisan politics.
The truth is India’s global ambitions are hobbled by its domestic realities. The self-confidence displayed by the PM in world forums is in sharp contrast to the anxieties revealed while playing populist politics at home. It is one thing for the BJP to contest Rahul Gandhi’s “democracy is under attack” contention, a constant refrain of the Congress leader with far-reaching implications. But it is another for government ministers to then block Parliament by demanding an apology on the grounds that Gandhi made an “anti-India” statement.
Indeed, by pursuing a path of relentless confrontation 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 vishwaguru to a world audience but then become a bully at home. Images of swarming police personnel to stop an Opposition march to the Enforcement Directorate are not reflective of a robust democracy, but more a reminder of a police State.
If the government is choosing to turn up the heat in the run-up to the 2024 polls, 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, even distorting, what the Congress leader said on foreign soil, the attempt is to question his patriotism, create a narrative that foregrounds territorial nationalism, and push the principal Opposition party on the defensive.
The “foreign soil” controversy is only a contrived debate, serving multiple purposes for the BJP. First, it helps deflect attention from any embarrassment the Modi government may face as a result of any further revelations on the Adani story within Parliament and outside. Second, it reopens cleavages within the Opposition because not all are enamoured with Rahul Gandhi’s whimsical leadership style. And finally, it energises the BJP’s core support in their constant search for an “anti-national” hate figure. It almost seems the BJP needs a Rahul Gandhi to be constantly in the headlines to keep their political pot boiling.
Post-script: The “foreign hand” has thrown up many conspiracy theories. Last year, Telangana chief minister K Chandrashekar 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.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal