Why is India touchy about outside criticism?

  • 6 September 2012
  • From the section India
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India"s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)"s youth wing "Bharatiya Janata Yuva Morcha" activists wear masks of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, left, and Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi, right, as they protest a scandal over the government"s sale of coal fields without competitive bidding in New Delhi, India, Wednesday, Aug.29, 2012. Image copyright AP
Image caption Indian governments have become intolerant to criticism

Why is India so touchy about criticism by a foreigner?

The latest outburst comes from minister Ambika Soni, who is enraged by a piece by the Washington Post on Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

The piece, written by the newspaper's Delhi correspondent, said the prime minister, who helped set India on the path to prosperity, is now in danger of "going down in history as a failure". The paper said Mr Singh resembled a "dithering, ineffectual bureaucrat presiding over a deeply corrupt government".

Strong words, but nothing exceptional, really.

As his government lurches from one crisis to another, Mr Singh has borne the brunt of some trenchant media criticism at home and abroad in recent months.

Time magazine recently dubbed him The Underachiever, immersed in his "personal and political gloom". The Independent newspaper wondered whether the prime minister was a saviour or a "poodle" of the powerful Congress party president Sonia Gandhi. The Economist magazine called him an embattled prime minister.

All quite fair in the spirit of free speech.

What is shocking, many say, is Ms Soni's reaction to the Washington Post piece.

Ms Soni heads the rather curiously named information and broadcasting ministry - an Orwellian irony in the world's biggest democracy, many say - and was quoted as saying that the article was "unacceptable" and she would take up the issue with the government.

Ms Soni said the government had "apprehensions about a foreign daily publishing something baseless on our prime minister... This is what we call yellow journalism".

"We have done this thing earlier and they had apologised," Ms Soni said, hinting at extracting an apology from the Post. "If the Washington Post has written things like this against the prime minister, trust me I will oppose it strongly."

I don't think anybody asked her how she planned to extract an apology, especially after the Post correspondent ruled one out. Would the government move to rescind his work visa? Would it ban the publication of the newspaper in India? Nobody quite knows.

The government and the newspaper are now having a spat over attribution of some of the quotes about Mr Singh's performance in the article. Mr Singh's communications adviser Pankaj Pachauri, a former journalist of repute, has written to the Post, saying it was a "one-sided assessment" of the prime minister and added that "comment is free" in journalism.

Again, a fair remark.

But what is disturbing, many say, is the minister's outburst: it hints at a strong intolerance for criticism, especially if it comes from a foreigner. Local pundits and journalists excoriate Mr Singh and his government every night on India's TV news; and newspapers are no kinder.

Many critics say such intolerance to criticism is a dark legacy of a party, which suspended civil rights and imposed an emergency in the country in 1975. It was the darkest period in Indian democracy. Critics also suspect the democratic impulses of a party which has essentially been run by one family.

At another level, Ms Soni's discomfort raises uncomfortable questions about tolerance in India.

As analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, India's governments are becoming increasingly intolerant as they face more scrutiny from an exploding middle class and a vibrant and growing civil society. "When exposed, governments are still trying the idiom of old politics to respond: use state power to silence critics, personalise the issue, avoid institutional regeneration and hide behind a sense of injured virtue to defend the indefensible," he writes in the Indian Express newspaper.

Clearly, this is a battle between old politics and new realities. When will the government wake up?