At the 75th anniversary year of the United Nations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressed the UN General Assembly on Saturday, 26 September. Modi’s speech touched three broad areas: the need for UN reform, India’s role in the world, and some of his government’s recent initiatives. Without naming the neighbour, he also took a jibe at China’s practice of debt-trap diplomacy. He delivered a measured speech calling for much-needed UN reforms, while also making a strong case for India’s greater inclusion in the “decision-making structures of the United Nations.” India has long pressed for reforming the UN, including the Security Council, and presented itself as a frontrunner. The Prime Minister reiterated this by highlighting the country’s strengths in terms of its democracy, population, diversity, and international initiatives including the International Solar Alliance and contributions to UN peacekeeping missions. However, India’s international image has recently suffered under Modi and to not lose its position as a strong democratic voice of the developing world, India will need to introspect and do some much-needed course correction.
While it is true that UN addresses are given by the highest representatives of the government in a highly diplomatic setting, a country’s image in the international fora is not only determined by such annual speeches. India has taken a hit on its long-established image of a plural and vibrant democracy because of domestic issues, policies, and rhetoric. Irrespective of how much the BJP and its supportive media condemn it, the international media’s outlook on the Prime Minister has changed over time. This change in outlook is not baseless. Modi and his party’s political rhetoric and policies have also changed for the worse over time and there has been a direct correlation between changing domestic actions and international perception. The initial days of “sabka sath sabka vikas” have long given way to polarising issues of Ram Mandir, Article 370, and CAA-NRC and this has caused a consequent shift in the perception of Modi from an energetic reformer to a majoritarian bigot. The revocation of Article 370 and the subsequent year-long utter humiliation of Jammu and Kashmir has been rightly noted by both Indian and foreign writers in the international media. The Prime Minister’s claims at the UN of laying optical fibre networks in lakhs of villages ring hollow when the reality of Kashmir’s communication blackout is considered. Similarly, the cruel irony is not lost when he talks about “vasudhaiva kutumbakam” while CAA-NRC provokes reasonable fears of leaving millions stateless. The crushing of dissent with help from nationalist rhetoric and a pliant media have also cast a growing shadow on India’s democratic credentials.
Modi’s speech can be rated highly in terms of the diplomatic communication it sought to achieve. It presented a vision of an atmanirbhar Bharat that could maintain its globalism at the same time. However, to be a global player, a voice of democracy, and a symbol of pluralism and tolerance, Modi’s India needs to change by magnitudes.