By Swapan Dasgupta
In an age where it is fashionable to be cynical or, to use its media euphemism, ‘critical’, good news is rarely headline new—unless it is a sporting triumph. In the hierarchy of values, national pride ranks pretty low among the chattering classes. As such, it comes as little or no surprise that the staggeringly rapid response of the Government of India to the earthquake devastation in neighbouring Nepal had a limited life cycle in the domestic media and was relegated to an incidental footnote in the international media.
The indifference of the international media conglomerates to India’s rapid and generous response to the suffering of a country with which it maintains a near-open border was understandable. Despite the growing realisation of India being among the fastest growing economies in the world and the rising attractions of both the Indian market and Indian capital, some old stereotypes refuse to die.
I happened to be in London when the earthquake happened and quite deliberately chose to be dependant on the local radio for information. Predictably, within a day, as the magnitude of the disaster became apparent, BBC broadcasters proclaimed in sepulchral tones that “aid agencies” were warning of an impending “humanitarian disaster” as supplies of food and drinking water ran out. Naturally, there was news of Britons, mainly adventure tourists and mountaineers, who were in Nepal. But not once—maybe I tuned in at all the wrong times—did I hear a mention of any significant Indian response to the disaster. That news I picked up from Indian websites and links in Twitter.
Maybe I am guilty of over-prickliness or even harbouring an unwarranted sense of victimhood. But I just can’t resist the impression that in the Western imagination, India can at best be a hapless recipient of charity from the rich countries. The idea that India can mount its own rescue operation and possess a well-oiled and purposeful disaster management machinery on permanent alert is still greeted with incredulous disbelief. At one time, this image of pathetic hopelessness was also tagged to China but, quite understandably, China has successfully made the leap into the prosperous zone. India remains bogged down in the old stereotype—the haunting image of the starving child with an empty plate that guilt tripped people into donating to the aid agencies as an act of Christian charity.
There are too many other pressing tasks in hand for India to attempt to consciously change international media perceptions. This is already happening in small doses in strategic sectors for the simple reason that money always talks. India, like China, is rising while the West is either stagnating or, as in the case of southern Europe, in a state of abject decline. With time, perceptions will also undergo a change.
The rescue operation mounted in Yemen to rescue nearly 10,000 Indians caught in the crossfire of a bewildering civil war was a spectacular achievement for which the Indian military, the Ministry of External Affairs and General V.K. Singh in particular deserved full credit. It was a difficult rescue act since it involved both negotiating and sometimes threatening threatening the way through hostile and unfamiliar terrain. I think the Narendra Modi deserved far more praise for conducting this rescue mission than what domestic pundits were prepared to concede. And certainly the Minister of State who was given the operational responsibility deserved much better than the abuse hurled at him by professional nitpickers.
After the Yemen and Nepal operations India has demonstrated a capacity to undertake responsibilities that were hitherto regarded as above its station. Much more than demonstrating professional competence and bravery, these missions have led to a transformation in the way the world—at least the more knowledgable sections—view India’s capabilities. The idea that a Government will go out of its way to ensure the safety and security of its citizens in difficulty overseas marks a wonderful departure from the indifference to ordinary citizens that was once the hallmark of Indian diplomacy. Yes, the process didn’t start with the Modi government—recall the earlier evacuation of Indian citizens from Lebanon and Libya. What Prime Minister Modi, leading from the front, has done is to institutionalise the process and inject it into the bloodstream of governance. India’s global image is undergoing a big shift and these two missions will strengthen the awareness of a new India. How the country’s interests can be promoted as a result of this perceptional upgrade is the challenge before Indian diplomacy.
The process should, ideally, have been complemented by other institutions of civil society. However, just as the international media has proved to be a laggard in detecting emerging trends, our domestic Fourth Estate is still engulfed by a perverse, post- national mindset of permanent negativism. Much of it has got to do with its visceral dislike of a Prime Minister who is contemptuous of all brokers. But it may also have a great deal to do with the fact that for the media’s fashionable ambassadors, flying the flag is a vulgarity best left to those who pray in temples and fail the test of uber cosmopolitanism. India, it is clear, will have to march ahead minus this lot.
Sunday Pioneer, May 3, 2015