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Modi’s base swamped with anti-American scepticism

Activists of Hindu Sena, a right-wing group, march in New Delhi on March 6, in support of Russia as the invasion of Ukraine continues. Picture: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Activists of Hindu Sena, a right-wing group, march in New Delhi on March 6, in support of Russia as the invasion of Ukraine continues. Picture: Anushree Fadnavis/Reuters

Published Apr 3, 2022


By Gerry Shih

Turn on a television in India this past month, and the arguments espoused by some of the country’s most popular media personalities follow a pattern: The US provoked Russia into attacking Ukraine.

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The Americans were possibly developing biological weapons in Ukraine. Joe Biden, the US president who fumbled the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, has no business criticising India over the war he sparked in Ukraine.

While the Russian invasion has galvanised public opinion against Russian President Vladimir Putin in many Western countries, it has had a strikingly different effect in India, reflecting a gulf between the US and the world’s largest democracy in how each public perceives the war, Russia and the West.

In recent weeks, some Indian English-language newspapers catering to wealthy urban liberals have carried editorials nudging Prime Minister Narendra Modi to take a tougher stance against Putin. But on mainstream talk shows and in pages of magazines popular with Modi’s right-wing base – a far larger audience – it has mostly been fire and fury directed towards the US, portrayed as the culprit and instigator of yet another international conflagration.

“The American media, the American establishment wants to conceal this: they don’t like this charge of having anything to do with biological weapons,” Arnab Goswami, the star anchor of India’s top-rated news channel, Republic TV, said early in March after Moscow and Washington exchanged accusations about bioweapons possibly being researched and used in Ukraine.

“But I don’t believe in the concept of Americans declaring themselves innocent, because the Americans are the ones who have a profound history of using the worst chemical weapons, on the most innocent people.”

Goswami recounted the US government’s record of dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and spraying the herbicide Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which devastated forests and caused birth defects.

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Meanwhile, in a studio east of Delhi, Rahul Shivshankar, Goswami’s competitor on the Times Now channel, wondered whether the West had happily “baited” Putin into launching a risky invasion and forced Russia to “do what it had to do”.

“Ukrainian residents are today facing the brunt, and the West is looking at all the fun,” Shivshankar said. In his monthly newspaper column, the TV star wrote that “the trigger for the war isn’t Putin”, but Nato’s encroachment into Russia’s sphere of influence.

The commentary does not necessarily reflect the policy of the Modi administration, which has generally sought to strengthen relations with the US and maintain a neutral position throughout the Ukraine conflict. Despite the West’s attempts to isolate Moscow, India has repeatedly abstained from condemning Russia, a decades-long weapons supplier, and continues to buy Russian oil.

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But the war in Ukraine has resurfaced an unmistakable strain of anti-American scepticism that has coursed for decades across India’s political spectrum. During the Cold War, India’s socialist leaders kept their distance from the West, which often sided with New Delhi’s enemies in international disputes and pushed India closer to the Soviet Union.

Today, it is often Modi’s supporters on the Indian right, including many Hindu nationalists, who grouse that the US is moralistic, fickle and prone to lecturing India about human rights and religious freedoms.

“The average Indian has been brought up on the diet that Russia is our friend,” said Manoj Joshi, a former journalist and adviser to India’s national security council. But the current media commentary, Joshi added, reflects the mood of a nation and a government that increasingly views itself as “a world power, like China, that can tell the US to get off”.

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In the past month, the Organiser – the mouthpiece of the Rashtriya Swayasevak Sangh, an influential Hindu nationalist organisation – has run pieces portraying Modi as a leader who held unique clout among the belligerents in the Ukraine crisis.

OpIndia, a website that is seen as close to the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has fumed about Western criticism of India buying Russian oil and speculated whether US requests for India to side with Ukraine were in fact a Western conspiracy to humiliate and demonise India.

The right-leaning Swarajya magazine has published articles criticising the hypocrisy of Western liberal democracies and the damaging effects of sanctions against ordinary Russians.

In a column, the Swarajya editor, Raghavan Jagannathan, argued that India should split from Washington and instead join hands with Russia, France, Germany and Japan in an alliance that could stand against both China and the US-British axis.

In an interview, Jagannathan said that the US, with its strain of evangelical Christianity, tended to look down on India and meddle in its affairs. “You never know when the US will spring a nasty surprise on you and start to look at you negatively, which is something the world’s only Hindu-majority country has to worry about,” he said.

“You have an Abrahamic past. There’s a strong binary of, ‘You’re right or wrong, you’re with us or against us’.” In 2017, a Pew Research poll found Indians held similarly favourable views of the US and Russia: 49% versus 47%.

In 2020, another Pew study found that 49% of Indians saw Russia positively, compared with a quarter of Japanese and Australians and 19% of Americans – three countries that, along with India, form the Quad partnership that Biden has prioritised as part of his Indo-Pacific strategy.

Some domestic polls have shown that most Indians approve of their government abstaining from criticising Russia. Manisha Pande, the executive editor and media critic at the website Newslaundry, said Indian TV anchors have long been critical of US foreign policy.

But the criticism has also become more pointed since the election of Biden, a Democrat who is seen as more vocal about India’s alleged human rights issues compared with former president Donald Trump. Steve Bannon, the former Trump adviser, has appeared on shows, including Shivshankar’s India Upfront, Pande noted, but prominent Democrats are less often seen.

The US government and media, Pande said, “are viewed as outside liberal forces that should mind their own business”. With the Ukraine war entering its second month, few Indian newspapers and mainstream commentators have bluntly questioned the government’s decision to refrain from condemning Russia, except Subramanian Swamy, a senior member of Modi’s BJP, who sometimes criticises his own party’s foreign policy.

This week, Swamy wrote an unusual op-ed in the Hindu newspaper condemning India’s neutrality as “tragic” and urging his government not to “crawl for the goodwill of Russia”.

Even if the Indian right felt a “growing resentment” about liberal American lecturing on everything from the government’s promotion of Hinduism to its Ukraine policy, it was India’s duty to side with the West, Swamy said in an interview.

“Whether we like the Russians or not, invading a sovereign nation in the 21st century in a 19th-century-style war is outrageous,” he said. Swamy’s op-ed was a rare voice at a time when sympathy for Russia has been widespread, even on shows that do not normally focus on international affairs.

This month on IndiaTV, a pro-government Hindi-language channel, the celebrity astrologer Acharya Indu Prakash presented an hour-long Ukraine special in which he predicted 96% good fortune for Biden and 99% for Putin.

The likelihood of nuclear war, he calculated, stood at 37%. After interpreting the divine probabilities, Prakash analysed the earthly politics at play. The invasion “was the last resort for Mr Putin, he was left with no options”, Prakash told viewers.

“Even now, attempts are being made to create this narrative that Putin is engaging in a bad war.” Putin was acting with restraint even in the face of Nato expansionism, Prakash said.

“Russia gave Ukraine warnings, Russia provided a safe humanitarian corridor for evacuation, Russia observed ceasefires and Russia tried its best to act with humanity,” he said. “This is what the movement of the planets say.”

* Shih is the India Bureau Chief for the Washington Post.

** This is an edited version of the article that appeared first in The Washington Post