Why is Modi getting such bad international press?

Stunningly reckless decisions. A tsunami. Disastrous public health outcome. Preventable deaths. Covid hellA moment of reckoningOut of touch approach.

These are some of the descriptions that international media outlets – BBC, Washington Post, New York Times, Guardian, Time, EconomistDaily Mail, Global Times, Japan Times – have used for the Narendra Modi government’s handling of the unfolding Covid catastrophe in India. At their kindest they say Modi has neglected the situation, at their harshest they say he has aggravated it.

Is such criticism justified, or is this just a case of the foreign press tarnishing Modi’s reputation, as his supporters allege? What’s the evidence?

Most of the reports, analyses and, especially, editorials on India’s Covid situation which have appeared in the foreign media bluntly blame Modi for fueling the crisis and failing to manage it. And they back up their arguments and analyses with facts, generally gleaned from the ground.

Almost invariably, they bring up Modi’s address to the World Economic Forum early this year where he declared a victory against the virus. India, he said, had “saved humanity from a big disaster by containing corona effectively”. They also point out that Modi held massive election rallies in April even as infections spiked, and hold him responsible for not just allowing but encouraging people to attend the Kumbh Mela, which would become a superspreader event.

The BJP’s claim from around two months ago that India, under the “sensible” leadership of Modi, had contained pandemic effectively, and health minister Harsh Vardhan’s boast in March that India was in the “end game” of the pandemic are also frequently mentioned as a key context to the current situation. The country recorded 3,66,161 new Covid cases on Monday and the total death toll rose to 2,46,116, although these figures are widely suspected to be undercounts.

Instead of addressing the shortcomings pointed out by the foreign media, the Modi government is trying to “manage” coverage, in the process drawing more attention to it. S Jaishankar, the external affairs minister, last week told Indian diplomats to “counter the ‘one-sided’ narrative on international media” which said that the Modi government had “failed the country by their ‘incompetent’ handling of the second Covid wave”.

In response to a story published in the Australian that blamed Modi for leading India into a “viral apocalypse”, the Indian government issued a rebuttal, calling it a “baseless, malicious, and slanderous” article.

“The problem is that the government is always obsessed with image and fixing it, without addressing the core issues on the ground. This is having the direct opposite impact,” said Stanly Johny, international affairs editor of the Hindu. “The image they are trying to build out of shallowness, that won’t last long. The image is actually coming from their deeds, and can’t be separated from it.”

Sharp editorials

It’s proved difficult for the government to dismiss the international coverage as really just a smear campaign because the reports show the reality on the ground and most editorials are based on verifiable facts. Moreover, much of the coverage is driven by Indian journalists.

Here’s a sampler: a Guardian editorial blames the prime minister’s “overconfidence” for the disastrous Covid response, a Washington Post piece argues that his government invited the disastrous second wave with a series of stunningly reckless decisions which prioritised saving the prime minister’s image over protecting India, an article in the Economist blames Modi’s slowness for the catastrophe, Le Monde accuses his “lack of anticipation, arrogance, and demagoguery”, a Global Times article links the disaster to the rise of nationalism, Qatar Tribune writes how its “triumphalist mode” led the Modi government to misread the situation and then devise a callous response.

So, why has such coverage rankled the government and its followers?

“The problem is not so much what the western media is writing, but that over the last several years we have got used to the Indian media not writing stuff,” said Harini Calamur, a columnist. “It’s the nature of the media to criticise the government and they are doing so. Most of the people doing so are living in India.”

As for the Modi government seeking to manage the coverage, she suggested they study the “Streisand effect”. “If you’re going to go after an oped in a newspaper that nobody reads in India, and you are going to respond to it, you’re going to get more people interested in it than they would have been. Sometimes, the best thing to do when it comes to media criticism is to do nothing.”

But simply ignoring the coverage may not be easy for a government which greatly cares about its “international image”, especially when the coverage is as brutal as this piece in the Daily Mail. It notes how Modi is pushing ahead with the Central Vista project even when “30 million desperate citizens” in the capital are begging for oxygen and hospital beds. It refers to Modi as a “vainglorious man,” a “shameless demagogue” who is committing a “seemingly vengeful act” with an “almost messianic desire” to get the kind of recognition that MK Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru did. The piece, written by David Jones, however, contains a few unverified claims such as that claims Modi’s schoolteachers remember him as “unremarkable”.

What’s led to this criticism?

According to Johny, of the Hindu, while some international news outlets have been critical of Modi since the beginning, many had bought into his “Gujarat Model narrative” and hoped that he would change the country for the better, economically at least.

That general perception has now crumbled, Johny added. “I think international media are slowly waking up to reality. Indian media usually portrays Modi in a very favorable light, but look at India’s performance,” he said, pointing to the economy, unemployment, crony capitalism, and foreign policy. “All these are setbacks that were in front of us, and then Covid also came. Nobody is blaming Modi for the second wave because it is not in his control, but the question is how prepared you were.”

Pointing to the acute shortage of oxygen, ventilators, hospital beds, and a stuttering vaccination drive, he said, “This is what people are questioning Modi about and I think that’s a fair assessment. People are dying every day.”

Indeed, the foreign media have questioned the Modi government in a way that the domestic mainstream media hasn’t. “Why are you spending your time shutting down social media posts instead of dealing with the crisis?” Emily Maitlis asked a BJP spokesperson, Gopal Agarwal, on BBC. On The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, the host called out the Modi government for “taking their eyes off the ball” and holding massive election rallies while Covid cases soared.

“The way in which the Indian government has managed to construct an international image of itself is exceptional,” Francesca Recchia, editor and creative director of the Polis Project, told Newslaundry. “But with this Covid wave, human tragedies are taking place at an unprecedented scale. The combination of silence, negligence and fudging of data by the Indian government is just impossible not to address for the international press.”

Arati Jerath, a political commentator, noted that while Indian prime ministers have been criticised by the international media in the past, the current coverage was unusual in how personal it was. “It started by talking about mismanagement, bad administration, and the mistakes that Modi made. But now, they’re commenting on his personality flaws and that is very unusual,” she said. “They are talking about his personality, his arrogance, his hubris, his vanity. Attributing the mismanagement to certain flaws in his personality is a lot like the way the Western media used to criticise Donald Trump.”

Jerath attributed much of the negative press to the prime minister’s boasts earlier this year, about defeating Covid and being the world’s pharmacy. “The government has brought all this criticism on its head with its behavior, the boastful comments, the way they are trying to take on the world,” she said.

Will India be viewed differently now?

Happymon Jacob, who teaches international relations at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi, said the coverage wasn’t unprecedented, as the international media have always covered India extensively. “India is too important to fail, too important to ignore. What happens here has an impact on the international system and on every country in the world. Therefore, it will be reported,” he told Newslaundry, adding that positive and negative coverage were two sides of the same coin. “The West and the media looked at Modi as the man who was going to transform India. But over the last seven years, the western media has become disillusioned with the government. And now, with the biggest mistake of all, which is not preparing for covid and trying to shift blame, they’re just calling it out.”

Jacob argued that this sort of coverage by the international media wouldn’t make much difference to the “hard issues” of security and defense strategy, but the public opinion shaped by it could affect economic engagement and soft power.

“For economic engagement, the general positive mood is important. The coverage could also make a difference to how India is perceived abroad. Until now, India was seen as a huge success story. The public perceptions are going to change,” he said.

Is this language unique to Modi?

Modi’s supporters have alleged that the international media is using especially harsh language against Modi. This isn’t the case, argued Recchia. It only appears so because the media’s criticism of similar leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro has been sustained. “The media was constantly raising red flags about the problems and dark sides these leaders would bring about. An open criticism of Modi, however, has not been that consistent over time,” she said. “There has been a fairly eerie silence of the international media over the past actions of Modi. What is striking now is that all of a sudden, people are speaking out. People are not silent anymore.”

Indeed, Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic led to wide criticism, even ridicule. So has Bolsonaro’s. For example, the Guardian wrote last month, “The prospect of the rightwing extremist Jair Bolsonaro becoming Brazil’s president was always frightening. This was a man with a history of denigrating women, gay people and minorities, who praised authoritarianism and torture. The nightmare has proved even worse in reality.”

The editorial concluded that Bolsonaro’s departure as president would be welcome for not only Brazil but the planet as a whole.

The New York Times and the Washington Post have carried similarly scathing articles about the Brazilian leader, lambasting him for his “stunning incompetence” in handling the pandemic.

Shobhan Saxena, a foreign correspondent in Sao Paulo, who has reported on Brazil for Indian news platforms, argued that Modi’s premature declaration of victory against coronavirus and his holding of big election rallies put him in the same category as Bolsonaro.

“It’s difficult to recall an Indian prime minister who has received so much negative press in such a short span of time as Modi,” he said. “His image of being a strong, decisive leader is in tatters. Manmohan Singh faced a lot of criticism in the western media in 2012-14 for ‘policy paralysis’ but the level of criticism against Modi is definitely unprecedented. It’s very sharp criticism and the judgement is very clear: Modi is a failed leader who has led India to its biggest crisis since the Partition in 1947.”

Michael Kugelman, deputy director of the Asia programme at Wilson Center in Washington DC, said while the foreign press has always carried criticism of Modi, it’s intensified now because of the huge crisis. “You could argue that the kind of coverage the international media is giving the public health emergency is unprecedented, but then again the situation on the ground is unprecedented,” he said. “The Covid crisis in India is arguably the biggest international news story and it has been for quite some weeks. Some in India feel that Modi is being singled out unfairly but he’s not the only one. The intensity and frequency of the pieces criticising Modi is striking, but I think that’s a consequence of several things.”

Aside from the seriousness of the situation, he explained, India is receiving so much press because it’s an important country. “It is a country that everyone pays attention to because of its size, location, markets, strategic value, so it’s only natural there’s going to be a lot of press coverage, including of the person in charge.”

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