A major world event and a huge success — but only by the Indian media for their audience back home.
A new session of the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) is at once a protocol headache for the US State Department, a security nightmare for New York, and a glorious opportunity for grandstanding and high visibility posturing by the leaders of the world’s nations.
The 75th session of the UNGA in 2020 was washed out by the Covid pandemic. This year, though, the 76th UNGA afforded a chance for assorted leaders — Prime Ministers, Presidents, Emirs, Sheikhs — and assorted rulers to descend on America, to be seen, photographed, heard and video-taped, and to meet, if they could get an audience, with the new White House team of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.
For India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, it was a much awaited and long anticipated return to some semblance of a pre-Covid level frenetic globe-trotting, sans the tight embrace, bon-homie style that led to the term “hugplomacy”.
But how did it go for Team Modi?
Well, on the face of it, it is hard to see how it could have been anything other than a success given that the official press release that contained the PMO’s own statement before the trip made it clear that expectations were modest. It was to “review” the strategic partnership, “exchange” views with the US leadership, “take stock” with QUAD partners, “consolidate” relations with partners, and “address” the UN. In short, it was all a pro-forma process with no pre-defined outcomes.
The media reactions to the visit and its aftermath followed the usual playbook. Republic TV made it sound like Modi was the only foreign dignitary to speak at the UNGA. Zee News ran with silly stories of “Josh high in Washington,” and breathless accounts of a grand welcome home. Aaj Tak was keen to emphasise how this trip had many firsts. Times Now presented it as a pivotal geopolitical moment.
If these were the only news channels you watched you’d think this was it — the grand State Visit that was going to solve every world problem from climate change to China to poverty to international conflict.
But how did other players respond? And how did the media, especially sections of social media, view it all?
Even as the Indian Prime Minister’s brand new 4,500 Crore Rupees Air India One Boeing was taking off from Delhi, the voices of human rights and religious freedoms were telling the US President’s team the issues he should take up with his Indian counterpart. On 22 September in a 90-minute webinar, under the “Congressional briefings” banner chaired by John Prabhudoss (from the Federation of Indian American Christian Organisations), a call went out to the the White House and leaders of the US Congress to take the opportunity of the visit by Prime Minister Modi to impress upon him the need for the Indian Government to take urgent steps to protect human and civil rights and promote religious freedoms.
At the webinar, Nadine Maenza, Chair of the US Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), reminded the audience of the recommendation of the Commission in two annual reports to the US State Department to regard India as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) in relation to religious freedoms. She referred her audience to Prof Angana Chatterji’s report on the situation in Assam, entitled “BREAKING WORLDS: Religion, Law and Citizenship in Majoritarian India: The Story of Assam” — a report dated September 2, which was almost prescient in light of recent events in that troubled State.
Govind Acharya of Amnesty International USA, Angna Chatterji of UC Berkeley, and Harsh Mander, currently a Fellow at the Robert Bosch Academy, and John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch (a copy of his testimony is here) also spoke in the webinar.
The broad but pointed message of this panel to the US team was that it was incumbent upon the Biden White House to impress upon the Indian side that a strong and stable strategic partnership can only be sustained by respect for human rights; space for the democratic values of free speech, press freedoms, and the rule of law; and the promotion of religious freedoms of minorities.
The leader of the Farmers protest, Rakesh Tikait tweeted an “open letter” to President Biden to intercede with his Indian counterpart on behalf of the agitating farmers.
The meeting at the White House with Vice-President Kamala Harris invited social media attention for the VP’s pointed mention of the importance of democratic values in both countries.
“As democracies around the world are under threat, it is imperative that we defend democratic principles and institutions within our countries. We must strengthen democracy at home and it is incumbent upon us that we protect democracy in the best interest of our people,” she said. Note that the Biden-Harris White House took charge at a particularly traumatic time because of the attempted insurrection and the dramatically violent assault on the very heart of US democracy.
The Prime Minister's meeting with President Joe Biden was a relatively tame affair with the President jocularly praising, almost tongue-in-cheek, the Indian journalists for being “well-behaved”.
Some things do not change. Even in 2019, PM Modi’s visit was presented as a major world event and a huge success but only by the Indian media for their audience back home, but it barely registered as a footnote in the US media. Then too, as Shoaib Danyal put it, “jingoism took precedence over factual reporting about the UN session”. There was barely a mention of the Modi visit in the US media save a brief mention in the context of the QUAD meeting, much to the surprise of Aaj Tak anchor Anjana Om Kashyap who tried flicking through a selection of US papers on air to spot coverage of the Modi visit.
Indeed very few Indian media outlets, if any at all, took the trouble to research what the 76th UNGA was about, and what the stand was of the other world leaders who also addressed the General Assembly. A cursory search on Google would have led even a rookie journalist to a wealth of information about the agenda, background papers, and issues before the UN.
Instead they focused exclusively and breathlessly on the 20-minute long address by PM Modi on September 25. The speech itself was as might have been expected. It sounded like a robust and combative defense of the Indian Government’s record in office in the last seven years; set against a backdrop of statements about India as an ancient democratic civilisation that inherently valued diversity, individual freedom, development, trade, openness and peace.
There was the obligatory reference to terrorism, of course, and how a certain neighbour sought to rely on terrorism rather than development to further its political aims.
Speaking in Hindi with instantaneous translation by the UN team into several languages, Modi’s speech at the UN was not the eagerly anticipated address that Indian media channels would have you believe. It was left to social media and Twitter handles to point out the preponderance of vacant seats in the assembly Hall
In the final analysis, it depends very much on the newspaper you read or the TV news you watch to get a feel for how important or influential the Indian PM’s visit to the US was. Perhaps, the truth is somewhere between the breathless fawning coverage of the TV channels that are beholden to the Government for its largesse and the somewhat cynical view expressed in this tweet thread.
Such visits by the head of the country’s government to gatherings of major world leaders are important and necessary, even if not essential — because not to make the effort to travel and be seen would be an own goal. But part of the magic is to manage expectations, say the right things at the right time, but to do so in an understated manner that does not make the audience cynical. But perhaps the most important thing is to be accessible to the world’s press.
This visit to the United States was the 6th by Mr Modi. And while there were many ‘firsts’ that his supporters claimed for it, regrettably it was not the first foreign trip in which the Indian Prime Minister gave a press conference.