Tantrums against the West: why we hate their criticism

I don’t think the Indian government’s response to the Washington Post article about Dr Manmohan Singh can be termed the subject of a major controversy. A controversy occurs when there are at least two conflicting points of view, both strongly expressed.

In this case, however, the debate has been predictably one-sided. The Indian government has complained. And all of us have said that the government has behaved stupidly and foolishly. So, no huge controversy about its response: just lots of condemnation.

Therefore, I won’t waste your time with the usual stuff about how the press has a right to pass judgements about politicians, how the Post piece is not particularly vicious or defamatory or about how India’s politicians need to learn how to take criticism. You already know all that.

My concern this week is slightly different. If you read the Post piece you will find – as its author, Simon Denyer has pointed out – that it is not more critical of the Prime Minister than the sorts of commentary that have appeared in the Indian press. It makes the usual points about how Manmohan Singh has gone from being seen as a beacon of integrity to being perceived as an ineffectual figure who has lost control of his government. All this has been said many times before by the Indian press. In fact, it is repeated several times a day by our local media.

Why then, has the PMO responded so strongly to the Washington Post article? Why did it get so agitated when Time magazine called the Prime Minister an under-achiever some weeks ago?

The answer has less to do with any desire to censor the press than with the Indian government’s double-standards when it comes to criticism. We are willing to take abuse from our own people. But when it comes from the West, we suddenly get all agitated and send off angry letters of protest.

This was as true of Singh’s predecessors as it is of his PMO. During A.B. Vajpayee’s time, a critical story headlined Asleep at the Wheel appeared in Time magazine. The story claimed that not only was Vajpayee ill but that he was incapable of functioning effectively as Prime Minister.

The story evoked such fury from the PMO that Manmohan Singh’s responses seem mild in comparison. The author of the piece, Alex Perry, was hauled in by the authorities for questioning on some dubious pretext. The Indian Ambassador to America flew from Washington to New York to meet with Time’s editors to ask that Perry be withdrawn from India. And eventually, the government let it be known that it would not take the matter much further only on the condition that Time shifted Perry to another country after a decent interval. (He was shifted eventually but I suspect this would have happened anyway.)

Why is it that Indian governments are so sensitive about criticism from the West? Perhaps the worst example of this occurred during Indira Gandhi’s time when BBC TV in the UK telecast a series of documentaries about India made by the French film director, Louis Malle. The documentaries were not at all political in nature and I thought they exhibited an empathy with India’s situation. But Mrs Gandhi flew into such a rage that the BBC correspondent was expelled from India and the Corporation’s office in Delhi was shut down.

My sense is that all educated Indians tend to over-estimate the views of the West. A movie may get rave reviews in India but a filmmaker will be much more delighted by a single flattering mention in a London paper. The actress Parveen Babi appeared on thousands of Indian magazine covers but when she died, a few years ago, the obituaries pointed out that she had once been on the cover of Time magazine.

Aamir Khan has been justly feted for Satyamev Jayate. But a cover story in a regional edition of Time magazine seems to have been noticed more than most of the mentions in the Indian media.

If we care so much about praise from the West, then it is entirely understandable that we should be so devastated by Western criticism. At some deep, sub-conscious level, educated Indian still believe that the only comments that really matter are those that come from White people.

In an era when the media are more globalised than ever before, this attitude seems curiously dated. The great thing about the Internet or about Twitter is that they recognise no national boundaries. I could be posting this piece from Sydney, Singapore or San Francisco and it would make no difference. You could be reading it in Delhi, Dubai or Dublin; location has become irrelevant.

But this was not always so. Many of us were brought up in an era that pre-dates the information age. We still divide media along the old national boundaries. We still take Indian media for granted and regard Western media with a disproportionate amount of respect. Manmohan Singh, A. B. Vajpayee and Indira Gandhi, all grew up in an age when memories of colonialism were still fresh and the West was our reference point.

Judging by the derision with which the PMO’s fury over the Washington Post article has been greeted by this generation of Indians, I suspect that the old prejudices are finally beginning to change. Those of us who understand the globalised nature of the information revolution do not make simplistic distinctions between Indian comment and Western views. We treat all criticism on merits and do not judge it on the basis of the nationality of the man or woman who authored it.

In our hearts, we know that to care so much more about the views of the West than of Indians belittles us as a nation. It suggests a lack of confidence in our own abilities and reveals our subliminal longing for Western approval.

So, what’s wrong with the PMO’s response is not merely that it is unjustified and silly. The problem is that Manmohan Singh and his men have made India seem under-confident, weak and small.

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