From Stockholm to London to Berlin and back to Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has had a full week, but it was his comments at the ‘Bharat ki Baat’ function in London on the margins of the Commonwealth that have overshadowed everything else, including his meeting with the Queen of England and Prince Charles.
Remember that Charles has been lobbying for India’s support to inherit his mother’s job as head of the 53-nation Commonwealth, even though the Queen is reluctant to step aside and give him the crown. She’s 92 and still going strong and shows no signs of handing over. Inaugurating the summit, though, the Queen said she would like her son to take over. The 70-year-old Charles has badly wanted the job and was in Delhi late last year wooing Indian officials in this regard. In London, a special exhibition event on the 5000-year-old connections in science and innovation as well as a ‘Living Bridges’ event was unveiled to wow the PM. Mr Modi was also only one of three leaders in the Commonwealth that the Queen met personally – the others were all in groups.
Modi ji gave in, at the Commonwealth Retreat in Windsor castle, although Indian officials put forward a caveat : Doesn’t mean that a British royal will head the group forever and ever, amen. For the time being, the deed is done.
So it was ‘Mann ki Baat’ going international that grabbed the eyeballs this week, not without a few hiccups. Seems a few Indian students from 19 UK universities had been told by ‘Bharat ki Baat’ organisers that they had confirmed places at the PM’s Q&A with Prasoon Joshi — but never heard back after they submitted their questions, mostly critical of the PM’s handling of events back home in India, including the BJP’s active prevention of investigating the gruesome rape and murder of the Kathua rape.
In the event, the PM did address comments about his silence on the matter, not referring directly to former PM Manmohan Singh’s criticism (as reported in the Indian Express) or the manner in which his partymen in J&K had behaved. He protested the “competitive reporting” on rapes “in my government versus yours.” But the PM forgot that he as well as his party leaders, in the wake of the Nirbhaya rape in December 2012, had talked about the lack of women’s safety during UPA rule.
Naturally, all the questions at the ‘Bharat ki Baat’ event were complimentary to the PM and Modi ji was often seen addressing himself in the third person. But the event, much smaller than its predecessor at the Wembley stadium in November 2015, also demonstrated the limits of using the Indian diaspora as an instrument of stoking nationalism in India. RSS leaders, Ram Madhav among them, have openly admitted that in the run up to the 2014 elections, the Indian diaspora in the UK and US were tasked with spreading the Modi Message to Indians back home – they were not only hugely successful, they also succeeded in raising a great deal of money for the election campaign.
But the promise of technology the PM is a cheerleader of, also cuts both ways. Indian students critical of the PM and his methods back home leveraged social media to get their message across – the PM’s visit to Britain was certainly a date to remember, but the fact remained that he or his delegation weren’t willing to answer uncomfortable questions. Prasoon Joshi’s gentle lobs to the PM didn’t help matters.
It was another question, asked by an elderly deaf and mute man that stole the limelight at the ‘Bharat ki Baat event, his eloquent hand gestures accompanying a friend : How did you, Modi ji, think about mounting surgical strikes against Pakistan?
India believes in peace.
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) April 19, 2018
India never occupied any other country through its history. Even Ram returned home from Lanka after defeating Ravan….But when one country makes an industry out of terrorism, killing innocent people and striking at them when they are defenceless (“peeth pe vaar karte hain”; “jab hamaare sainik so rahe the”), what did you expect Modi to do, the PM asked.
“Toh yeh Modi hai, usi bhasha main jawab dena jaanta hai. This is Modi. He knows how to answer these people in the same language. Do you think I should have kept quiet?” The hall exploded in bursts of applause.
“Should I not have my own tough response? Eenth ka jawaab pathar se? That is why I mounted surgical strikes. I am proud of my soldiers…The plan was fully implemented and before dawn, all of them returned.” The PM was in full form.
“I said call the Pakistan army before anyone else gets to know. We tried calling since 11 am and kept trying, but they were afraid of coming on the line…” the PM added. Ultimately, the Pakistanis picked up the phone an hour later. “Those exporting terrorism should now realize that India has changed,” the PM added.
In answer to another generic question on whether or not he gets tired working so hard for the country, the PM reiterated the three Principles of Chanakya : ‘Jab niti spasht ho, niyat saaf ho, iraade nek ho, sarvajan hitay sarvajan sukhay.’ (When your policies and principles and intentions are clear, then peace and happiness for your people becomes easy.)
Sure enough, within hours of landing at home in Delhi, the PM got his cabinet to clear the death penalty for child rapists. He was demonstrating that he was capable of dealing with criticism, head-on, and would not allow the Opposition an easy walkover.