Indian patience

Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh ensured this waking giant’s journey to the west

Farrukh Khan Pitafi May 11, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Email him at


India is a big country. It is the world’s most populous nation. It has five thousand years of nearly unbroken cultural history. It has a rich literary tradition and a culture industry. It is also incredibly wealthy. Countries like these are supposed to be profound. They are also believed to be very patient. Their bureaucracies, both elected and unelected, are expected to exude great confidence, maturity, self-restraint, professionalism and intellectual excellence. Do not confuse arrogance with confidence. Good or bad, they are parallel qualities but not the same. Now tell me, have you come across any of these attributes in recent days? Arrogance, yes, but anything else? Okay.

India’s success story has many fathers, from the founding fathers to the framers of its constitution to the modernisers. PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh opened up its economy. Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh ensured this waking giant’s journey to the west. But did any of them ever imagine that with this much wealth and diplomatic muscle, the country would be ruled by a junta lacking uncharacteristically in imagination? Is it not the sole reason we have not seen any active example of the maturity and restraint we expect from such a country? As Modi’s magic fades, people are waking up to the question of how it all happened.

Let me be clear here. Waning of someone’s spell is not the same as the end of their term. Modi is still in power, and we do not know what is locked in the electronic voting machines until June 4. But something in the three phases held so far has pushed his buttons in such a way that it has shattered the myth of his passive-aggressive calm and left him looking vulnerable and human. I have chosen to call it a myth. If this triggers you, you can use aura instead. But every word that comes out of him now smells of desperation.

But wait a minute. I don’t think I have done a great job of qualifying the kind of policy that ensued from the change of guard ten years ago. The day results were delivered, I did notice an ominous change of behaviour among Indian media men and diplomats. I was watching Dr Prannoy Roy on NDTV when the exit poll results were announced. From his usual chatty self, he instantly transformed into an alarmed-looking pensive man. That was a dead giveaway, but this could be an outlier. Later, Modi would tighten his grip on the media, and we would feel the pinch in other countries, too. Ever wondered when the American press was going wild attacking Trump, why it refused to take notice of the excesses committed by the leader of the world’s most populous democracy? If you ask this question, I am sure you will be served some meaningless drivel like Americans being introverted or India not precisely capturing the Western imagination. But there must be a reason why the channels that cover international politics, like CNN and the BBC, chose not to focus on Modi’s consolidation phase between 2014 and 2020. The fact is that the Indian diaspora’s stock has rightfully appreciated in the past three decades, and it is deeply connected with its roots. But the Indian state never abused this precious resource this badly before Modi. While I am sure that there is no short supply of Modi bhakts around the world, I can tell you with confidence that an overwhelming majority of the diaspora will heave a sigh of relief when Modi leaves office. So, in short, an India-shaped blindspot was created in the popular imagination around the world only to be filled with unqualified praise for Modi by leaning hard on the diaspora. That veil is slipping, but I have learned the hard way never to right off Modi. It isn’t over till it’s over.

As pointed out, I lost interest in Indian politics once Modi assumed power. One reason is the dramatic shift I observed in the behaviour of Indian diplomats, whom I had learned to treat as friends. While in Dr Singh’s time, we could sit with them and poke fun at any South Asian politician, including their premier in the past, now one negative mention of Modi would harden their posture and tone. But then, in 2016, it all came thundering back when I closely followed the US elections. Because Trump was openly promising to ban Muslims from entering the US, he was being deified in the craven Indian media. But the story doesn’t end there.

When Trump had won, and he was holed up in his New York residence, we saw his business partners in India accompanied by the head of the Republican Hindu Coalition chief, Shalabh Kumar Shalli, trying to gatecrash with the uncanny grace of a walrus. Soon after meeting them, Trump summoned congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard and Nikki Haley. Haley got a job.

It would gradually surface that India had much to do with Trump’s shock victory. But even then, the American media has never mentioned this influence campaign. Blindspot again. In fact, so significant is the blindspot that it completely obscures the ongoing influence campaign, which may end up shaking the very moorings of American society. If Modi and Netanyahu survive their current trials, America may face another civil war. But let the media project it is Russia alone that is trying to uproot their system. Bless them!

Too much power, you see but very little depth. It is like you have installed a surly toddler’s head atop a giant. The impertinence, callousness, towering rage and an absolute lack of sense of humour would suggest as much. India has lived through ten years of great peril. The world, too. Remarkably, the media around the world can only find bandwidth to worry about Trump, Putin and Xi.

The question again is: how did it happen? How can India, which churns out some of the world’s brightest, settle for someone with so many issues and so little to offer? Fear? Populism? Money? This went on for ten years, remember? And hasn’t ended yet. You can always find ways to rationalise any of the above elements. Recently, I have heard intellectuals say that all of this is due to the Indian desire to decolonise their country. But every colonial or imperial rule could use such pretexts. No, the reason lies in the sheer opportunism of the South Asian elite. They made their bed, and now you are lying in it. If I take perverse pleasure in anything, it is in reporting this. If the tide is turning, why would this opportunist bunch stay with Modi? So, is Indian patience running out?

Published in The Express Tribune, May 11th, 2024.

Like Opinion & Editorial on Facebook, follow @ETOpEd on Twitter to receive all updates on all our daily pieces.



Replying to X

Comments are moderated and generally will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive.

For more information, please see our Comments FAQ