BBC saga illustrates that the West cares for its interests, not Indian democracy

18 February, 2023

The day the Income Tax Department began its survey of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s India offices in Delhi and Mumbai, the United States was headlining this year’s Aero India, a government-organised air show and aviation exhibition in Bengaluru, with its “impressive array of U.S. military platforms and personnel, significant representation from U.S. industry” which it deemed “signals commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.” In the words of Ambassador A Elizabeth Jones, chargé d’affaires of the US Mission to India, they see “India as an indispensable partner for a safer, more prosperous, more open, and freer Indo-Pacific region.”

That statement may have come prior to the tax survey on the BBC offices, but hours after the move had made global headlines, American president Joe Biden was no less effusive about the government that had unleashed the tax hounds on a respected broadcaster. “Together with Prime Minister Modi, I look forward to deepening our partnership even further as we continue to confront shared global challenges—creating a more secure and prosperous future for all of our citizens,” he said, without any hint of irony.

Biden could perhaps be excused as he was talking after the deal for 220 Boeing aircraft signed by Air India, but the US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price left little to doubt later in Washington DC. When asked for a comment on “tax investigators raiding the BBC office,” his reply was rather telling:

…what I’ll say more broadly is the general point that I’ve consistently made in this context but in the universal context as well: We support the importance of free press around the world. We continue to highlight the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of religion or belief as human rights that contribute to strengthening democracies around the world. It has strengthened this democracy here in this country; it has strengthened India’s democracy. These universal rights are the bedrock of democracies around the world.

The reporter followed up with another query on tying “those two strands together, the—talking about the importance of a free press, do you think that this action went against that spirit.” All Price could utter was, “I couldn’t say. I couldn’t say. We’re aware that these—we are aware of the fact of the searches, but I’m just not in a position to offer a judgement.” If instead of India, China or Russia were involved in a similar move against the BBC, would the US government still not be “in a position to offer a judgement”?

The US position is not born out of ignorance. A signed editorial that appeared in the New York Times a day before the raid had unequivocally stated that “the misuse of their powers to intimidate, censor, silence or punish independent news media is an alarming hallmark of populist and authoritarian leaders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has fallen squarely into this camp, and his actions to suppress freedom of the press are undermining India’s proud status as “the world’s largest democracy.””

The claim is backed by data as well. India now ranks 11th—with Pakistan ranked 10th—in the 2022 Global Impunity Index, compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists. In the Reporters sans Frontières’s annual press freedom index, the country is now down to 150, its lowest-ever position out of 180 countries. Putin’s Russia is at 155, and Modi seems to be in the company of authoritarians that Western leaders love to hate. Other indices such as the Economist Intelligence Unit, Freedom House and V-Dem corroborate these findings. For those residing in India, the evidence is on their television screens every single evening, courtesy of news channels—or in the timid, shallow, and evasive reportage of corporate-owned newspapers that asks no questions of the government.

As the tax authorities continued with their survey in the BBC office, journalists were happy to obediently regurgitate the spiel offered by the government on WhatsApp. The instruction that these allegations be attributed to sources was followed as dutifully as a trained pet obeys the master. An anchor at Adani-owned NDTV, Sanket Upadhyay, even claimed on Twitter that it was a press note, and he was doing his journalistic duty by reproducing it faithfully, firmly erasing any semblance of the faint line that may have existed between stenography and journalism previously.

Journalism may have metamorphosed into stenography in rest of India, but it has been almost deemed a crime in Jammu and Kashmir. In the erstwhile state—which since 2018 is ruled directly from Delhi and has no elected structure—foreign journalists have been barred from reporting from there. Local media stands stifled and journalists such as Fahad Shah, Aasif Sultan and Kamran Yousuf have been put behind bars under draconian laws. The authorities even stopped photojournalist Sanna Irshad Mattoo at the Delhi airport from traveling abroad to receive the Pulitzer Prize. On some counts, the situation in Kashmir is somewhat similar to, though not the same as, the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Tellingly, India had, last October, abstained from a UNHRC resolution on “holding a debate on the situation of human rights in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China.”

Despite all this, the West joins the chorus in hailing India as the world’s largest democracy, or as Modi prefers it—“mother of democracy.” While his claim of democracy being birthed in ancient India is highly dubious, India did become the world’s largest democracy in the modern era because of the Constitution it adopted in 1950. Jawaharlal Nehru, whom Modi loves to hate and slander, was the staunchest proponent of universal adult franchise at the time of India’s independence even as the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the organisation that fostered Modi, batted for Manusmriti—an ancient touchstone of Hindu caste laws—to inform the Constitution. When BJP spokespersons constantly refer to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency to justify their undemocratic actions, such as the move against the BBC, they provide a fair idea of the yardstick they wish to be judged by.

In an interconnected world, none of this is hidden from Western leaders, particularly the White House, which often frames the current geopolitical contest as one between democracy and autocracy. The hypocrisy of the US is not an issue here; it is working to look after its own interests. And currently, shorn of jargon, it is to have India as a geopolitical partner in its efforts to contain China. It seems to be an article of faith in Washington DC that New Delhi is ideally suited to join the fight against Beijing. After all, it has a longstanding border dispute with China, a country that threatens to bully and dominate India.

However, this unquestioned faith ignores a couple of simple questions. A former US diplomat recently told me that if India was unwilling to take on China to retrieve the territory it has lost control of since 2020, how can the US expect it to fight China for some other cause? The prevailing wisdom about India in Washington DC is hard to challenge, as is evident from the manner in which the vast difference in power between India and China is overlooked. The 2023 Lowy Institute Power Index gives India a comprehensive power score—the capacity of a country to shape its external environment—of 36.3 out of 100, while China’s score is nearly double, at 72.5. It barely trails the US, which registers a score of 80.7. In countering China, India’s strength will be its democratic and liberal values; else it will be playing the game of China’s choosing.

Headline numbers about India’s defence spending and procurement also make it a major prospective client for the American military-industrial complex. Even though no major deals have been signed since Modi became prime minister, the US side has not lost hope. American diplomats like Victoria Nuland and Kurt Campbell have publicly announced their desire to get India off its Russian dependency for military goods. However, the fact remains that India bought defence equipment worth $13 billion from Russia in the last five years and the current contracts amount to another $10 billion. From its basic rifle for soldiers, the AK-203, to the supersonic cruise missile, BrahMos, India continues to collaborate closely with Russia.

In the West, India is also seen as an attractive alternative for supply chain and production units trying to move away from China. This high-volume rhetoric, however, is neither backed by changes on the ground—Apple’s travails in manufacturing in India being a case in point—nor in an ideological belief in free trade. The Modi government has refused to join the trade pillar of Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity launched by the US in May 2022. It also pulled out of the giant Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement—a regional trading deal involving China, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand and ASEAN—and remains absent from the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership. 

Nevertheless, the West’s support for the Modi government seems steadfast. Those who reason that Western or international pressure will somehow keep the Modi government honest and compel it to change its ways on targeting minorities, eroding democratic values and curbing the freedom of expression are bound to be disappointed. In the contest between its interests and its self-professed values, the West has always chosen the former. When dealing with India, it is not going to be any different.

Close observers of South Asia will not be surprised by this behaviour. They have seen this movie earlier, during the Cold War, in the last century. To counter and defeat the Soviet Union, the US supported—and even promoted and hailed—authoritarian and bigoted regimes in Pakistan. How it went is known to all: the Soviet Union was defeated and the US won, but the real price was paid by the people of Pakistan. They were the real losers. Who will be the real losers in the emerging cold war between China and the US? Does that question even need an answer?