Indian social media was in uproar over the weekend. The latest enemy was not a Bollywood movie that offended prudish sensibilities, nor that trusted staple for outrage, Pakistan. Instead, right-wing supporters of the Modi government went after George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist and pro-democracy activist.
Speaking on the eve of the Munich Security Conference on February 16, Soros, as “the standard bearer for liberal democracy”, made wide-ranging comments on the state of democracy and freedom around the world. You can watch the 50-minute speech , but what got Indian knickers in a twist occurred at the 24-minute mark, when Soros said:
“Modi and business tycoon Adani are close allies. Their fate is intertwined. Adani Enterprises tried to raise funds in the stock market but failed. Adani is accused of stock manipulation and his stock collapsed like a house of cards. Modi is silent on the subject, but he will have to answer questions from foreign investors and in Parliament. This will significantly weaken Modi’s stranglehold on India’s federal government and open the door to push for much needed institutional reforms. I may be naive but I expect a democratic revival in India.”
About four minutes before, Soros had said India is a democracy but Modi “is no democrat; inciting violence against Muslims was an important factor in his meteoric rise”.
India’s thin-skinned, hypersensitive commentators responded at once.
ANI by union minister Smriti Irani, who said Soros (whom she described as an “economic war criminal”) had “declared his ill intention to intervene in democratic processes of India”.
External affairs minister S Jaishankar as “an old, rich, opinionated and dangerous man who still thinks that his views should determine how the entire world works”.
Ministers aside, the usual right-wing commentators like , and made the expected noises, ranging from Soros being “Hinduphobic” to his comments being “malicious propaganda”. Times Now’s Rahul Shivshankar managed to link Soros to the and Alt News cofounder .
At least Palki Sharma tried to move on from ad hominem attacks, choosing instead to catalogue Soros’s many sins. On her , she told viewers that Soros was responsible for numerous financial crises around the world, even almost bringing down the Bank of England (though one would think that would have endeared him to India).
But Sharma’s main charge against Soros was that he funds democratic movements around the world through his Open Society Foundation. He was a big donor to Barack Obama’s campaign and Hillary Clinton’s run for the US presidency. In Europe, he spent 4,00,000 pounds on anti-Brexit groups though he’d wanted Germany to leave the European Union a few years earlier.
The pattern is clear, Sharma proclaimed – Soros has apparently used his money to influence policy and politicians, undermine the sovereignty of countries, fund anti-national groups, and foment anti-national sentiment.
Perhaps of equal interest is what Sharma did not say. All wealthy people use their money to achieve the kind of society they hold dear. What does she think is the motive behind all those businessmen who spent on electoral bonds? At least Soros makes no secret of the politicians he donates to, which is more than can be said for India’s political funding.
The government can easily spin the narrative that India is doing fine. After all, didn’t we just order all those Boeing and Airbus planes? However, the difficulty with spinning that story is that Modi’s rock-solid administration is, for once, under a twin threat. First came the , then the deeply damaging revelations in the about the Adani group.
Now, even if we assume all charges against Soros are proven, it still does not explain the level of uproar and anger against his comments. Raising the spectre of a “foreign hand” seeking to influence domestic politics in India has been the staple of all governments that find themselves on shaky ground. But even so, there has to be another explanation for the extraordinarily loud, angry and coordinated response to Soros’s comments. Instead of a 250-word press release, it was all hands on deck to deal with what New Delhi sees as a major challenge to India’s foreign policy ambitions.
In a in the Guardian, the indefatigable Arundhati Roy spelt it out most clearly. Describing the Modi model as “violent Hindu nationalism underwritten by big business”, she pointed out that Modi and Gautam Adani have had a symbiotic relationship spanning decades, during which both benefited immensely.
“So the lotus blooms on, in a bog of blood and money,” she wrote. “And the truth most definitely shines like gold.”
The close nexus between politician and businessman has been obvious for some time. But rarely has it been so sharply thrown into relief as now. Rahul Gandhi raised the question in Parliament but his speech was from the official Lok Sabha record, allowing the prime minister to ignore it completely. By raising the same question and linking it to the quality of India’s democracy, Soros brought the issue back into the limelight in a forum where his remarks cannot be struck from the record.
The government is unable and unwilling to give a direct answer to questions regarding its involvement with the Adani empire. So, the only option is to raise decibel levels on social media, invoke a “foreign hand”, and revert, without any evidence whatsoever, to the tried and tested formula of blaming the anti-national brigades led and funded by George Soros.
And in doing so, the government has surprised no one.
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