The Kathua and Unnao rapes and killing have badly hit Narendra Modi’s strenuous effort at global image-building. But the problem of rising crimes against women is India’s skewed demographics.
Column in Business Standard, April 21, 2018
Outside the Palace of Westminster there was a storm of protestors. Inside Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in full cry in one of his well-orchestrated chat shows. The irony of this performance in London this week — titled Bharat Ki Baat, Sabke Saath — seems to have escaped him and his interlocutor, the party’s favoured adman-turned-censor board chief Prasoon Joshi. Some unintentional gems were thrown up. Answering a question on how he stayed fit, Mr Modi said, “For the last 20 years, I’ve been on a special diet. I take 20 kg or 30 kg of criticism daily. That’s the secret of my fitness.”
Unable to resist the spiel of his impoverished beginnings as a tea-seller, he said it was his habit to give up expensive gifts such as “silver swords” and “beautiful paintings”. “Wouldn’t anyone want to keep these in their homes? Not me. I auctioned them away and soon enough we had ~100 crore, with which we created a fund for the education of the girl child. That is my life, I have been so poor that these riches don’t affect me.”
Many political leaders are capable of cracking bad jokes and taking cheap shots but even by those slippery standards — from sheer brazenness to outright mendacity — some of Mr Modi’s flip remarks have all the subtlety of a slap in the face. The best offence being a good defence, it could only be extreme defensiveness, after the brutal reality of the Kathua and Unnao episodes, to talk of trading his pricey presents to raise funds for improving the lot of little girls. As for criticism, he must need a special protection of armour to face the outrage at home and universal condemnation abroad that the incidents have provoked, including from the IMF chief, who said she is “revolted” by the incidents.
After four years of relentless globe-trotting to build up his image as a world leader, Mr Modi’s reputation overseas has taken a severe beating. Gone are the days of his rock star appearances and rousing receptions at Madison Square Garden and Central Park in New York (“May the force be with you!”), wowing audiences at Wembley Stadium in London, bursting into a virtuoso display of drumming in Japan, and playing bhai bhai with the Australian prime minister Down Under. The days of tarting up the Sabarmati river front to host the Chinese premier, of organising whirlwind tours for the Israeli and Japanese PMs, dining with Ivanka Trump at Falaknuma Palace (the guests included a friendly robot called “Mitra”) and extending all-embracing welcomes that Rahul Gandhi calls “hugplomacy”, must seem a distant mirage.
There isn’t a media outlet or respected newspaper around the world that hasn’t expressed shock, horror and loathing at the blighted condition of women, especially young women, in India. The most-quoted statistic is that 40 per cent of rising crimes (rape, assault, kidnapping) against women involve underage girls. More disturbingly, a detailed fact-based report in The Washington Post this week gets to the demographic root of the growing attacks: There is an excess of 37 million males over females in India, a gap that is projected to become a chasm in the 17-29 male age-group in coming years. “The imbalance creates a surplus of bachelors and exacerbates human trafficking, both for brides and, possibly, prostitution. Officials attribute this to the advent of sex-selective technology in the last 30 years, which is now banned but still in widespread practice…With the increase in men has come a surge in sexual crime in India.”
It is not only that Mr Modi’s vaunted “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” campaign now lies in a shambles before the world; much of the anger exploding on Indian streets is directed against Mr Modi’s party members, affiliates and sympathisers for shielding the rapists and killers in Kathua and Unnao. These are the people who form the core of his Hindutva support base, showing, as the novelist Anuradha Roy points out in The Guardian, “that the slow sectarian poison released into the country’s bloodstream by its Hindu nationalists has reached full toxicity”. She quotes Tagore as foreseeing the rise malignant, home-grown nationalism. “Alien government in India is a chameleon,” he wrote. “Today it comes in the guise of an Englishman … the next day, without abating a jot of its virulence, it may take the shape of our own countrymen.”
Mr Modi’s responses in London this week are that of the ostrich that buries its head in the sand at the thought of an approaching maelstrom. On his government’s criticism by opposition parties, he said his problem was not with criticism. “To criticise, one has to research and find proper facts. Sadly, it does not happen now. What happens instead is allegations.”
To add to his troubles at home Mr Modi is in double trouble as he faces unprecedented flak abroad. He can’t seem to take it. Clearly, he is in the sinking sands.