Narendra Modi victim of India’s eternal image problem

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Raoof Mir is Assistant Professor of Media and Journalism at Alliance University, Bangalore, India. Ravi Chakraborty teaches philosophy of communication and technology at Alliance University.

The Washington summit between Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and US President Joe Biden last month aimed to clean the air and put the two nations on the path to rapprochement.

A shocking moment that was hard to miss came during the joint press conference with Modi, where Vice President Kamala Harris made clear the need to preserve internal democracy in both India and the United States.

Against the backdrop of growing international criticism of Modi’s democratic credentials, particularly Hindu nationalism and his handling of massive farmer protests, Harris’ remarks underscored New Delhi’s challenges in handling India’s position. abroad.

While it is hard to deny Modi’s popularity in India, he has failed to please the foreign press, which his supporters have called anti-Modi, anti-India or even anti-Hindu. .

But given how aware Modi is of his image as a leader, it’s curious how vulnerable he is to what we call India’s never-ending image problem, a story that begins with the former. Indian Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru.

In the years following India’s hard-won independence in 1947, Nehru faced a contentious relationship with Washington, where the American establishment distrusted Nehru’s socialist tendencies and was uncomfortable with his comfortable relationship with Communist China. Unflattering stereotypes of India as a country of snake charmers and bovine pedestrians flourished in secular American minds.

It was in this context that in 1951, Vijay Laxmi Pandit, then Ambassador of India to the United States, recruited Edward Bernays, the so-called “father of public relations” and nephew of Sigmund Freud, to restore the image of India.

To many Indians it was inconceivable that the socialist-leaning Nehru could have hired America’s No.1 publicist, while Bernays himself was dismayed to find out how the Indian government’s own image makers blamed the newspapers for them. New Delhi chess.

What is more remarkable, however, is that 70 years later, the state of India’s openness to the West is largely unchanged, with the story of the besieged democracy being mostly blamed on an international press. conspiratorial.

Edward Bernays, one credited with founding the PR profession, pictured at age 89 in March 1981. © Bettmann / Getty Images

But what Bernays found, and it remains true today, is that Washington had high hopes for India, sending economic aid and technical assistance to New Delhi to strengthen it as a bulwark of democracy. against China.

Fundamentally however, the bilateral relationship has remained uncomfortable and fraught with ambiguities such as India’s refusal to take sides in the Korean War, a position that has aroused particular aversion among the American public.

It is clear from Bernays’ memoirs that he sympathized with India and considered its promise as a democracy. He was not acting like a mercenary peddler of influence. In his dealings with intelligence officials and experts, Bernays was careful to achieve the best alignment between American and Indian interests.

Bernays was aware that creating goodwill for India in the United States was not just a favor for the Indian government. It would also make it easier for Indians living in the United States if they had the respect of the average American. Realistically, Bernays felt that was the most he could accomplish.

Strangely echoing the contemporary scenario, Kashmir was the breaking point in the relationship between Bernays and India. Unhappy with a New York Times editorial criticizing India’s Kashmir policy, then Indian Ambassador to the United Nations Arthur Lall broke into the newspaper’s offices in a thinly veiled intimidation attempt, prompting Bernays to resign in disapproval.

In his resignation letter, Bernays warned that India’s inability to accept that the American press was not an extension of government makes public relations management much more complex. Foreseeing in light of the current situation, Bernays told Nehru that this suspicion of the American press could harm its international relations in the future.

When then-US President Donald Trump visited India last year, there was new hope for a new intimacy between the two countries, with Modi finally reducing the distance Nehru had put between New Delhi and Washington.

The truth is more complex. As evidenced by his engagement with Bernays, Nehru was trying to forge closer ties with the United States And today, despite the obvious bonhomie between Trump and Modi, Biden’s own lukewarm disposition towards Modi shows that Washington and New Delhi remain distant from each other.

Modi’s claim when he started as Prime Minister was that a strong leader would go a long way in improving India’s image in the world. And when it comes to his national detractors, chastising them as “anti-Hindu, anti-India, anti-Modi” has certainly worked.

But this strategy has clearly not worked when it comes to foreign critics of India, and it remains unclear whether he understands the careful balance that is required between image management and actual development. foreign policy. The Bernays-Nehru episode has lessons for him.

The images that feverishly proliferate in the digital age can mislead us about popular leaders and the limits of their powers. But, as Bernays observed, the real world demands that popular leaders always have an interest in the substance behind their own image.

It would be incredulous to think that the father of public relations sincerely believed that propaganda didn’t always have to have a vulgar slant. Understanding the roots of India’s lingering image problems suggests that the right mix of cautious propaganda could actually advance global democracy by bringing India and the United States closer together.


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