Mature democracies run as much by the letter of the law, as they do by the spirit of national interest.
Perhaps I am just old fashioned. Or, perhaps, the DNA of being a former diplomat still compels professional restraint in me. Or, perhaps, I have not made the transition to being a full-blooded politician. Whatever the reason, I do believe that when the Prime Minister, or the President, or the vice-president are on a state visit abroad, or are attending a multilateral event outside the country, the perennial slugfest of internal politics should momentarily be put on pause, or at the very least, not used to embarrass the dignitary who is, in that constitutional role, representing the country as a whole.
I say this, because on several occasions in the past — and most recently during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to London for the Commonwealth Summit — the Opposition did nothing to reduce, postpone or put on hold, the adrenaline rush of political acrimony directed against him. The result was that even as he was interacting with the leaders of other countries, or speaking at the summit, anyone who was watching the Indian electronic media, or monitoring social media, or reading about what was being said about him and his government in India by his political opponents, would have wondered whether he was worth talking to in the first place.
It is a matter of pride that India is a vibrant democracy. With the next parliamentary elections around the corner, and with the Karnataka elections imminent, it is but natural that the political atmosphere will be charged, and accusations and counter-accusations will fly fast and thick at the slightest provocation. It may also be true that many of the accusations of the Opposition are not off the mark, and that certain incidents in the country at this time, such as the horrific Unnao and Kathua rape incidents, where the role of some BJP leaders was shockingly deplorable, and the PM’s silence was disappointing to say the least, had outraged the entire country. It is but natural that some of the anger and hostility of this backdrop would cast a shadow when the PM was abroad, and could not be camouflaged merely by the pageantry of ceremonial pomp and sartorial elegance that is so visible when dignitaries go abroad.
But even so, it is hardly edifying when India publicly washes the dirty linen of its internal political acrimonies before a foreign audience. I believe Opposition leaders would be far more dignified — and, in the process, win far more public respect — if they said that so long as the PM is on a state visit abroad, and is speaking for India as a whole, there will be a temporary moratorium on the vicious slanging matches directed at him. Visits of this nature are but for a few days. Let the political attacks continue unabated until he leaves the shores of India, and let them resume the moment he returns. But, in the interim, some form of volitional restraint is perhaps desirable.
This advice applies to the PM himself. There have been instances in the past when he has brought up internal politics on foreign soil, especially when he is interacting with NRIs or the Indian community. This is equally undesirable, and — just like with the Opposition — he would win far more respect if he were to say that he would not like to speak of political differences at home. This feeling was voiced by a long-term ally of the BJP, the Shiv Sena. In the latest editorial of its mouthpiece Saamana, it asks the question: “Is it right for the PM to speak on rape cases in a foreign country? Why should a picture be painted of India as witnessing a rise in corruption and rape cases and as an unsafe country?” The editorial also mentions that PM Modi had made the same mistake by speaking about black money and corruption, and attacking the Opposition, when he was in Japan. Of course, this criticism, while valid, also begs the question that if the Opposition is so sensitive about the right projection of India’s image when the PM is abroad, is it prepared to also put in abeyance the virulence of its attacks on him during this period?
When Mr Modi was in London, there were some protests against him there. Peaceful protests are not uncommon by some sections among those living abroad when a head of state or government comes visiting. But surely no one can condone the fact that in London, some protestors tore down the Indian flag from an official flagpole for the Commonwealth Summit. According to reports, an Indian journalist was also attacked at London’s Parliament Square. It was entirely appropriate for our high commission to strongly protest against such behaviour. In a statement, the MEA said: “The UK side has regretted the incident, including at the highest level. The flag was immediately replaced. We expect action, including legal, against the persons involved in the incident and their instigators.”
A spokesperson of the UK foreign office said: “While people have the right to hold peaceful protests, we are disappointed by the action taken by a small minority in Parliament Square.” More importantly, the spokesperson reiterated: “The visit to the UK by Prime Minister Modi has strengthened our relationship with India and we look forward to working even more closely together on a number of important areas.” This is precisely the point. When a PM goes abroad he is there to discuss, at the highest level, issues that are vital to India’s interests, including economic interaction, investments, security, defence collaborations, technology, multilateral collaboration, and the fight against terror, apart from bilateral specific matters. His brief, and that of his political detractors in India, must be to ensure substantive gains in these matters, and not a continuation of the incessant linguistic vitriol that goes on at home.
Mature democracies run as much by the letter of the law, as they do by the spirit of national interest. When there is an enlightened combination of both letter and spirit, conventions emerge, of behaviour and custom, practice and restraints. It is time for all political parties to think of such conventions when India’s interests are being pursued abroad.