In battle between pro and anti-Modi group of retired diplomats, ideology and politics trump objectivity

·13-min read

An interesting debate is unfolding in India on Narendra Modi's performance. Well, there's nothing new in that except the fact that this debate is playing out in a rarefied stratosphere involving India's former diplomats and civil servants. One set of retired bureaucrats, who call themselves 'Constitutional Conduct' group (CCG), in an open letter addressed to the prime minister on 20 May, 2021, accused him of grave wrongdoings and utter incompetence.

They claimed that the prime minister is eroding "Cabinet system of governance", "worsening federal relationships with the states", especially those ruled by the Opposition, failing to take "timely advice of expert committees" and showing no interest in "effective coordination with state governments". They claimed that this had "disastrous consequences for the poor and disadvantaged and now for the better off sections of society as well."

And these are just a few of their laundry list of grievances. They lay the blame of a devastating second wave in India entirely at Modi's door, blaming him of dropping the ball on vaccines and pussyfooting on the pandemic, indulging in wanton public meetings amid a national emergency, incurring "unnecessary expenditure on the Central Vista redevelopment project", letting Kumbh Mela go ahead €" that they claim has resulted in "horrifying spectacle of the rampant spread of the Covid virus across the rural hinterland of the country".

Alongside this 'open letter' by self-styled guardians of Indian Constitution, some superannuated diplomats have also been critical of the ruling dispensation. Former NSA Shivshankar Menon says that what has been "happening in the last few years is that we are turning inwards €" a sort of closing of the Indian mind, cutting off from the outside world."

Former foreign secretary Shyam Saran feels that Indian diplomats around the world are being tasked with "burnishing India's external image and bringing acclaim to its leader". He says the "insistence on weaving a fantasy while the world is crumbling around us is undermining whatever residual credibility is still left in our institutions of governance" and in a poetic flourish, adds that "our wounded spirits are more damaging than the countless bodies consigned to the flames or buried in Mother Earth."

Saran also accuses Modi of putting people at risk by holding election rallies, castigates the Election Commission for not canceling the polls and on another occasion, writes that "India's problem today is too little democracy rather than too much of it€¦ India needs to be more India and not mimic China."

The merit of these charges needs to be debated and we shall do so but at the outset, let it be acknowledged unequivocally that the everyone, including retired bureaucrats, have the right to criticize the government and air their opinion. Just because they served the government in some capacity or represented India in foreign lands does not mean that they need to hold their silence even after retirement. If anything, their superannuation frees them from any obligation or conflict of interest. They are breaking no omerta in speaking up, and this criticism should be taken in the right spirit.

This also applies to retired bureaucrats and ex-envoys on the other side of the ideological spectrum. A set of former ambassadors €" some from a group called Forum of Former Ambassadors of India (FOFA) €" have lent their signatures to a joint letter titled 'What critics of PM Modi's foreign policy are ignoring', published in Indian Express on June 3. The bylines include former foreign secretary Kanwal Sibal and former ambassadors Shyamala B Cowsik, Veena Sikri and Bhaswati Mukherjee. In a subsequent tweet, Sibal points out that "33 former ambassadors have signed (the) joint article€¦ that corrects wrong perspectives on Modi govt's foreign policy. Print edition carries only four names for space reasons."

The letter, that is essentially a rebuttal of the narrative propagated by the retired civil servants and diplomats mentioned above, points out that Modi critics are "disregarding clear continuities in key areas of foreign policy under the UPA and the NDA governments, and minimising external threats to India." The letter goes into great detail in issuing a point-by-point rebuttal of the charges brought against the Modi government and claims that the "driving force behind such relentless and unprecedented criticism of the Modi government is hostility towards the ruling party and towards PM Modi personally."

Amid this cut and thrust between retired bureaucrats and diplomats, The Print on Tuesday came up with a commentary on the issue where it was pointed out that FOFA has links with the RSS. The author asks: "Why does FOFA want to hide its association with the RSS? Last week's letter, in fact, makes no mention of the fact that FOFA has such a relationship with the ruling BJP's ideological mentor."

This is intriguing. Ideological moorings should have nothing to do with the set of arguments and rebuttals on offer. When FOFA writes a letter refuting the charges leveled by the CCG or retired diplomats on government's performance, the focus should be on the merit of the arguments, not the political beliefs of the writers. The writers are under no obligation to reveal their ideological and political beliefs and to charge them with concealing that information is absurd.

Unless of course the effort is to invalidate the argument posited by FOFA members by pointing out their ideological bend. It can't be that bureaucrats and diplomats lose their cognitive abilities if they associate themselves with the Sangh. Also, if retired bureaucrats indulge in attacking elected governments through articles and letters, they should also accept the right of others to criticise their arguments. Criticism is not a one-way street.

The only point that can be made is that ideological moorings dictate political beliefs and opinions. This is a point worth taking and it applies as much to the IFS officers who are sympathetic to the RSS as to the group that attributes all of India's ills to the BJP and the RSS.

The point to note, therefore, is that criticism and defence of the Modi government is essentially a political exercise, and just by the virtue of being "critics", one side cannot claim moral superiority over the other or demand to be taken more seriously. The arguments of Menon or Saran should be subjected to the same scrutiny as Sibal or Mukherjee.

And this where the charges fail to pass muster. Most of the protestations and reproachment of the Modi government by the retired civil servants are airing of their political opinions unmoored from facts. These rhetorical exercises are also good examples of confirmation bias. The FOFA letter published in Indian Express does a good job of logically repudiating some rather wild charges, so I need not go into those. Let me point to some other ones where confirmation bias is apparent.

Former foreign secretary Saran goes at great lengths to castigate the prime minister for holding election rallies and allowing Kumbh Mela to go on. Saran asks, "Why did the Election Commission not suspend the elections forthwith and put the lives of the people ahead of polling? Why is it that despite the scale of the crisis having become dramatically manifest, the election show had to go on?"

There are two issues with this statement. First, the link between election rallies and Covid infection rate is not clear. Data that we have so far do not support the theory that election rallies were super-spreader events.

Economists Surjit Bhalla and Karan Bhasin pointed out in this Indian Express article published on April 22 that the "worst performing state is Maharashtra €" actual infections were 45 per cent higher (as of April 17) than predicted. Punjab reports the second-highest deviation €" 42 percent." Delhi, another state where there were no election rallies, had the "highest incidence of cases €" 49 per thousand population." They also point out that a "closer look at the Bihar elections (conducted between October and November 2020) supports the above result" They also point out that Kerala, which is touted to be among the best-performing states in managing the pandemic, had few BJP rallies unlike in West Bengal or Assam but Kerala's rate of incidence is next only to Delhi.

The second issue is while Kumbh Mela is rightly touted to be a super spreader event, Saran and his tribe never mentions the link between farmers' protests and rapid incidence of cases in places like Delhi. There is a causal link between the protests and the rate of incidence in Delhi, as pointed out by Bhalla and Bhasin.

Anecdotal evidence shows mask-less farmers protesting at the Delhi border are carrying the virus to their villages. The Print, citing police data, reports that "51 of the 88 Covid deaths in May were in villages where farmers actively participated in protests" and "in the 10 hotspot villages, farmers in seven regularly visited the protest sites at Delhi borders."

Swarajyamag has a data story, painstakingly pointing out the link between farmers' protests and the second wave. Venu Gopal Narayanan cites statistics to show that "the origins of the second wave lie in the heart of the so-called farmers' agitation, from early January 2021 onwards, in Chandigarh, where non-resident Indians arrived in droves from the United Kingdom, in selected districts of the Punjab and Haryana, and even in Delhi." https://swarajyamag.com/politics/data-story-did-the-farmers-protest-cause-the-second-wave-of-covid-19-in-india

To return to Saran who suffers from acts of omission while pointing out super spreader events in India, his comments on democracy leave one confused. On one hand Saran says "India needs to be more India and not mimic China. There may be a temptation to treat the current crisis as an opportunity to discard democracy altogether and to pursue a more ambitious authoritarian agenda€¦"

That's a good point, and a significant (if not the significant) marker of democracy is elections which Saran wants canceled amid a pandemic. One would have thought an "authoritarian" government would utilize the opportunity provided by a pandemic to devalue elections and discard it altogether to suit the authoritarian agenda, not conduct it despite the pandemic.

As external affairs minister S Jaishankar told ANI recently in an interview, "we are a democratic country, you don't stop elections in a place like India."

Saran's argument sound more like an inconsistent attempt at point-scoring.

Menon, another noted voice and an avid critic of the Modi government, accuses the current government of focusing more on "image management" and using "foreign policy for domestic political purposes." That's a curious charge. Ultimately, foreign policy is shaped by a nation's self-interest, not some utopic concept of global solidarity. Even at the height of globalization in the period that stretches from the 1990s to 2008 when the perils of a tightly integrated world economy became apparent, governments bargained that the economic benefits of globalization would more than compensate for its costs. The 2008 meltdown and the pandemic has challenged this notion and subsequently we see countries rushing to take greater control of their economies and supply chains, and rewiring their supply chains.

From Donald Trump's America First, we have now moved to Joe Biden's foreign policy that claims to put the interests of middle-class Americans at the front and center of policymaking.

Jake Sullivan, Biden's NSA and one of the chief proponents of this administration's foreign policy, had written for The Atlantic in 2019, "the US must define what counts as its 'economic interest,' looking beyond generic GDP growth in order to understand the impact of specific policies on corporations and communities. Who are the real winners and losers? Whose interests are we serving by putting diplomatic muscle into helping companies like Walmart open stores in India?"

Every country moves and shapes its foreign policy in consonance with its domestic purposes and the government of the day is obligated to prioritise the interests of the electorate instead of pursuing some 'higher ideal'. Menon's charge of image management suffers from a willful conflation of efforts that may be construed as empty rhetoric and a government reserving the right to hit back at insidious campaigns designed to malign India.

The drone images commissioned by western media of burning pyres will be called out as 'death porn', and that pushback from Indian citizens cannot be termed as "attempts at camouflage and fevered reactions to external criticism", as Saran writes in The Print.

It is not about "camouflaging" but showing a modicum of respect and dignity to the dead, a line that western media never crosses when it comes to its own travails.

As Brahma Chellaney, professor of Strategic Studies at the New Delhi-based Center for Policy Research, writes in Project Syndicate, "by directing their cameras to the burning pyres, Western media outlets are satisfying their audience's morbid fascination with the Hindu tradition of cremating the dead. Utterly ignored in this coverage is the fact that showing ghastly images of burning pyres is a grotesque and deeply disrespectful invasion of what is a very private affair in India."

Efforts countering these moves will be made and calling it "image management" is irrational.

Menon's other charge, that he is witnessing a "closing of the Indian mind, cutting off from the outside world" is prejudice above diligence. One example should suffice. The world's remarkable response at India's predicament during second wave, when countless nations big and small chipped in with resources, wouldn't have happened had it not been for India's sincere engagement with the world in securing global health, "from supplying hydroxychloroquine to more than 100 nations to providing 64 million doses of vaccines to more than 80 nations" and extending a helping hand to others during the first wave when the toll on India was relatively more manageable.

From Emmanuel Macron to Joe Biden, every world leader has acknowledged that their actions in helping India were reciprocal in nature, respecting the proactiveness that New Delhi had showed when it could.

It is nobody's case that the Centre and state governments did not make mistakes in handling the pandemic. As ORF president Samir Saran and Harsh Pant of King's College, London, point out, "Brand India is not based on a highly efficient state to begin with. The country has the capability of mobilising global resources, transporting huge tonnage of critical equipment and inputs for its own needs, and to build a global coalition that can provide assistance in times of need. At the same time, its inability to deliver last mile services to its individual citizens was glaringly obvious during the second wave and much is still needed on this count."

Slip-ups have happened. The ferocity of the second wave was underestimated. Instead of constructive criticism, however, the propensity to lay everything at the door of the prime minister reeks of prejudice and political partisanship.

That becomes clearer when we look at one of demands put forward by the CCG, that the government should "constitute an all-party committee at the central level to advise on and review all government decisions and monitor the control of the pandemic" €" essentially arguing in favour of a backdoor entry for those who have been rejected by the people in elections with unelected civil servants holding up the banner.

Former diplomats speak from an elevated podium. Recent criticisms put forward by them, however, are by and large polemical attacks driven by a strong dislike of the prime minister. They have every right to do so but these comments should then be construed as political, and not objective policy assessments.

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