If India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not a campaigning for elections in India, then most possibly he will be found in a foreign country. He recently came back from Singapore and Maldives and now on a 5-day trip to Argentina. From 29 November to 3 December, Modi is in Buenos Aires to attend the G20 Summit. This trip is Modi’s 41st foreign trip as India’s Prime Minister covering 59 countries in six continents. Modi never misses any large summit meeting unless it is of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) or of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). As his Foreign Minister, Sushma Swaraj has been virtually reduced to being a Minister of Consular Affairs, Modi is the only one who has grabbed the limelight of all these ceremonial assemblies of foreign leaders.
Modi’s supporters usually project him as a global leader and boast that under his leadership, India’s stature has increased at the international power table. Modi also never misses an opportunity to hug a foreign leader. His staff also use all of their persuasive powers for him to get invited by the host country leaders to their private or holiday homes for photo ops.
Noted investigative journalist Bob Woodward’s latest book ‘Fear: Trump in the White House’ has exposed how Modi wanted to go to the presidential resort, Camp David to dine, but Trump had not approved that request. If it is true, then it shows the desperation of Modi to show off his personal bond with the world’s powerful leaders. This is a part of Modi’s media strategy to sell to the people of India that though this personal friendship he has enhanced the image of India abroad.
One can get a glimpse of how Modi is being seen by the wider world from a very unfortunate and condemnable Argentinian TV coverage of Modi’s arrival in Buenos Aires on 30 November. Argentina’s most-watched news channel Cronica TV used the headline “Apu arrives” displaying an image of the highly controversial Simpsons character Apu when Modi’s Air India One touched down for the G20 summit.
Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, the animation character of an Indian shopkeeper speaks on a heavy Indian accent. Though this portrayal should be criticised as somewhat racist, it is also important to introspect why a foreign TV channel would show India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this demeaning manner. Bilateral relations between Argentina and India is quite minimal but positive, so this cheap shot by Cronica TV has nothing to do with India, but most likely directed at Modi. If Modi is so popular, loved and respected abroad, why he will be belittled by a friendly host country media.
There is no doubt that Modi’s mask as a free-market enthusiast has fallen off and the world is increasingly seeing him as a serious threat against India’s adherence to democracy and commitment to secularism. It is almost impossible these days to find a good report or opinion piece on Modi in the international press. Modi is so obsessed with his image projection in the domestic media that he rarely indulges in foreign policy in his foreign visits. Modi is less interested in behind-the-table negotiation and bargaining, rather in his foreign visits, he emphasizes on perception and visuals directed at his home constituency.
Addressing his adoring Hindutva diaspora is almost a must to do in each of his foreign trips. These highly nationalistic diaspora events are good for Modi’s ego but bad for India’s image abroad and its foreign policy. However, it was impossible in this Modi’s foreign trip to get a sizeable diaspora crowd in Buenos Aires as not more than 3000 Indians live in that city. So, Modi had taken the help of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and his ‘Art of Living’ to assemble a sizeable crowd of locals in the name of a Yoga event to give a speech immediately after his ‘Apu’ welcome in Buenos Aires.
It is very surprising that India’s Prime Minister attended an event organized by a controversial Indian godman in a foreign country. It is impossible to imagine that Indian foreign office is not aware of controversies surrounding Ravi Shankar in Argentina. He is so controversial in Argentina that a condom manufacturer in 2012 had run a campaign ‘Tulipan – El arte de curtir’ of its product mocking him. The Argentinian chapter of Art of Living has been also investigated for tax evasion and money laundering. If Modi does not avoid of being seen in the company of a politically partisan and scandal-ridden Indian godman in a foreign country, it is not surprising why a the Argentinian media portrayed his arrival to their country in such a disparaging manner.
As if Modi’s attendance of the Ravi Shankar’s ‘Art of Living’ event in Buenos Aires was not bad enough, he was also the first one from the G-20 leaders seen meeting and shaking hands with Saudi Arabia’s controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. That image has brought condemnation from many, particularly human rights groups like Human Rights Watch. Moreover, when media was asking American President Donald Trump about his discussions with Saudi Crown Prince, Modi, who was standing there was seen to be laughing loudly in a mocking manner. While the rest of the world is furious with Saudi Crown Prince after the brutal killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Modi’s reckless actions have further undermined India’s global image as a responsible member of the international community.
In Asia, while the competition is increasingly becoming overt between the USA and Japan with China and Russia, India is trying desperately to stand on two boats. At this critical juncture, Narendra Modi’s ‘event management’ style whimsical foreign policy is pushing India to a very difficult situation. Indian media beating the drum of enhancement of India’s international image under Modi’s leadership is nothing but a hoax. If anything, India’s respect in the international community has taken a big hit due to Modi government’s use of foreign policy for getting an image makeover for Modi to serve its narrow political interest at home. While Cronica TV’s ‘Apu arrives’ is of very bad taste it also provides an insight into how Modi is really being seen by the rest of the world. Don’t forget that even Modi’s ‘friend’ Trump never misses an opportunity to lampoon Modi’s mannerism too.
(The writer is professor of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, Sweden. Ashok Swain can be reached via Twitter @ashoswai)