Analysts debate the stunning mandate Narendra Modi has got.Talk about the economic challenges of the country. Discuss the policy paralysis and financial deficits inherited from the UPA. Modi’s political challenges. How he is handling them or failing? What he has done or not done in first 100 days? But the debate has missed out the unprecedented challenge he still faces - to right the wrong imaging of him abroad and how he is doing it by deft and strategic geo-political moves.
Wrong image is easily created but to right it - especially vicious imaging in distant lands - is not easy. Wrong image robs a leader of legitimacy. For long, Modi has been a victim of intentional wrong imaging. Just compare the perception about Modi as he assumed office with how his equally or more popular predecessors, who had held offices for long, were perceived as they assumed office.
When Jawaharlal Nehru became the first Prime Minister of India, the whole nation idolised him and the world adored him. When Indira Gandhi won a massive mandate in 1971 the nation venerated her and the world admired her. And, even after being discarded in India for imposing the emergency and despised outside, when she won back in 1980, the nation accepted her and the world fell in line. The nation celebrated Rajeev Gandhi as ‘Mr Clean’ and the world was in awe of the 40- year-young baby-like Prime Minister. The people saw Atal Behari Vajpayee in the mould of Nehru and the world perceived him as a mature statesman. He ran the 24-party NDA coalition with such ease that won universal respect. All of them commanded respectable image within in the country and outside.
In comparison, Modi, with the demanding task of reviving the paralysed national economy in a highly integrated world on hand, has had a huge start-up deficit unlike his predecessors. That is wrong imaging of him abroad by his detractors to dent his legitimacy. See how Modi has begun strategically and is systematically undoing the damage they have done to him.
Save Indira Gandhi for a while after the Emergency, no Indian political leader had to face ceaseless hostility of the mainline media for over a decade like Modi did. The media in recent times has grown thousand times more powerful, equally less fair. The mighty media, aligned with the Opposition parties, powerful NGOs and even the intelligentsia, caricatured Modi as mass murderer of Muslims and hounded him, equating him even with Hitler. Even the judiciary dithered. Senior lawyers wouldn’t defend his government. The foreign media echoed its Indian cousin’s hate campaign against Modi and later multiplied the hate for Modi and fed the Indian political ecosystem. Parroting the media, the Left and ‘secular’ groups outside India networked as Coalition Against Genocide [CAG] and targeted Modi. They hit upon a brilliant strategy - to co-opt the US government against Modi. And succeeded.
On May 21, 2005, the CAG proudly claimed it got the US to deny visa to Modi, by charging that, under his leadership, Hindu nationalists killed 2,000 people, mostly Muslims. Was that true? Ten days earlier, on May 10, the anti-Modi UPA Government itself had told the Rajya Sabha that 254 Hindus and 790 Muslims were killed in the riots and police firing.
Years later, of course, the judiciary exonerated Modi. But, trusting the media’s version and CAG’s half-truths, the short-sighted US denied visa to Modi for violation of religious freedom - placing Modi in the company of Slobodan Milosevic, a war criminal, and an Indonesian Army General suspected of torture. From 2005 till Modi won the visa ban issue has legitimised the hate campaign against Modi. Even as late as July last year, 65 members of Indian Parliament appealed to Obama to deny visa to Modi. This showed how critical the US visa ban was for the hate campaign.
The hostility unleashed against Modi and legitimised by the US visa ban since 2005 re-manifested in the unprecedented campaign by the US media asking the Indian voters to defeat Modi in the 2014 elections. The Economist [April 5, 2014] wrote...there is much to admire [about Modi]. Despite that, this newspaper cannot bring itself to back Mr Modi for India’s highest office ... Ignoring the fact that the Supreme Court exonerated him, the magazine faulted Modi for refusing ‘to wear the Muslim skullcap’ and for not apologising ‘for the riots’.
Months earlier, [October 26, 2013] The New York Times accused Modi of being incendiary instead of apologising and wrote that his rise to power deeply troubled ‘Muslims and other minorities.’ On April 18, 2014, a blogger summed up: “This week the hate campaign in the US-British media against Mr. Modi reached feverish proportions. We were struck by the consistency of hate across the media spectrum from the NYT-WashPost echelon to the lower more rabid level of Vox & Foreign Policy magazine... And yet the people of India rejected these sermons and elected Modi massively.”
And this put the US in a fix. The US which cut Modi’s visa in 2005 was supreme global power. But after 2008 its power declined. More. The US National Intelligence Council report [December 2012] perceived India as a rising global power along with the US and China by 2030. The US could no more ignore India. In February 2014, just two months before elections, the US made its first move. US envoy Nancy Powell met Modi in Ahmedabad. Speculation was that the visa ban might be lifted. The US denied, promptly. Why? Earlier, in 2013, when the UK lifted the ban on Modi to travel to the UK, stiff opposition ensued, including a motion in Parliament to reinstate the ban! As two British nationals of Indian origin had died in Gujarat riots, some activists had even threatened legal action against Modi if he visited the UK. So it went beyond the power of even governments to undo the damage to Modi.
The CAG campaign would have burnt itself out like a lighted match. But the foolish action of the US connected the lighted match to a petrol refinery. Of course after Modi won, analyst Fareed Zakaria did call the US action ... foolish... But those who fooled the US into action quietly vanished. A dazed US still preferred to wait till Indian elections were over. With President Obama’s invite to Modi after he won, the issue of visa to him has become irrelevant. But for Modi that is just the beginning.
Even as Modi was on the campaign trail he must have been thinking where to begin to undo the damage to his legitimacy by the hate campaign.
Modi must have decided to right his wrong image where the damage is the gravest and most difficult to undo - namely outside India. His very first move, which shocked his detractors, outlined his strategy. He invited the Saarc leaders - the Heads of Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal and Pakistan - to his swearing in. He met each of them personally but on his terms. While he ensured that Nawas Sharif would not meet the press or Geelanis or utter the ‘K-word’, Modi spoke to him on terror and Mumbai case. By this master stroke he sealed the mouth of those who questioned his desire for good relations with neighbours. Then began a queue of high dignitary visitors from the US, China, New Zealand and Singapore.
In less than two months some seven top US officials - including Secretary of State, Defence Secretary and Commerce Secretary - landed in India. While other Prime Ministers would first visit super powers, Modi first visited smaller neighbours “Bhutan first and Nepal next.
Later, emphasising his Look East Policy, he went to Japan and stayed for a day more! He underpinned cultural and civilisational impulses to geo-political relations. Then came Chinese President Xi Jinping Visit to India.
Modi looked into Xi’s eyes and raised the border incursions of Chinese Army in Ladakh. Forbes magazine reported, - Modi asked Xi to get his troops away - Xi acquiesced.. In contrast, for the last 10 years, India had only bent and crawled before China. On reaching China, Xi took action against those who attempted to sabotage the Sino-Indian relations and also to promote his loyalists to top positions in the Army. Like with Sharif, with Xi also Modi had had his way.
And now he is going to US to a red-carpet welcome. The people of India have made the US bow to Modi. He has some 35 engagements to partake in three days - including addressing a rally of 20,000 people at Madison Square Garden. The event, which is completely sold out, is expected to draw the largest ever gathering for a foreign leader on US soil. A live-streaming of the rally will be viewed throughout the US and the world.
This is how Modi is righting his image intentionally distorted by his detractors. Through well-thought strategy he is cleansing the global ecosystem of the hate Modi effect, which he could never have done from India.