“Beware of Modi”: How native insiders fuel Western media’s misreading of India

Many armed with degrees from foreign institutions and an unwavering belief in their superior insight, effortlessly dismiss the nuanced (many) realities of India.

The rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his sustained popularity in India and globally have consistently baffled and confounded many Western journalists, particularly those aligned with Leftist ideologies.

Simply put, the failure of these Left-leaning journalists to accurately comprehend and interpret Modi’s India stems from a combination of their own ideological bias, a lack of nuanced understanding of India’s socio-political landscape, a tendency to view global politics through a Western-centric lens, and use of native insiders who further help reinforce their bias.

In 2014, when the newly appointed Indian Prime Minister was on a historical official visit to Australia, I was on a study trip to India with some Australian journalism students. One day, while waiting in the studio lobby, we bumped into a famous journalist. With a mischievous glint in his eyes and an overconfident Gyaanpelwa (knowledge enforcer) tone, he issued a cryptic warning to the wide-eyed Australian students: “Beware of Modi!”

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I believe it is these individuals—the pseudo-intellectuals, echo-chamber critics and native insiders, also known as the ‘Khan market gang’—who, through their engagement with Western media, inadvertently bolster their own biases, leading to a skewed misrepresentation and interpretation of India.

For the uninitiated, native insiders as a term refers to those local individuals who are used by colonial or neocolonial powers to gather intelligence, interfere in governance, and often create or implement policies favourable to a particular political ideology or group. In independent India, native insiders, inheritors of the colonial legacy, often found themselves inadvertently reinforcing colonial tropes. This was largely done through bureaucratic structures, educational curricula, or cultural narratives propagated through media. The glorification of Leftist ideals while preserving an elitist hierarchy served to maintain the status quo, allowing colonial tropes to persist.

Even now, these native insiders are either members of the local elite or Western-educated or trained carrying forward the legacy of their ancestors. They act as self-appointed intermediaries between us and them often thinking that they are providing valuable interpretations and insights. Their collaboration is always perpetuated by the colonial or neocolonial agenda, reinforcing the power dynamics and ideological biases.

In a recent interview on Western media reporting about India, External Affairs Minister Dr S Jaishankar accepted that “there is an international Khan market gang as well.”

“These are people who are sort of linked to the entitled people out here. They are socially comfortable with them… So I think when the sales are down in the domestic Khan market, the international Khan market gang feels, I need to pep up these guys and give them support,”

he added.

Aided by such native insiders, socially comfortable whose historical legacy of creating mistrust and division within India is often hidden from inexperienced readers or audiences, Western media often reduce Modi’s political appeal to a binary narrative: a dangerous lurch towards authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism.

For example, many Western mainstream publications have frequently carried out opinion and editorial pieces portraying Modi as a divisive figure and condemning his policies without delving deeply into the complexities that resonate with the Indian voters.

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All this is often done citing the usual pseudo-intellectuals who have wielded significant influence over Western media perceptions of India and Modi. No wonder that it emerges as a one-sided narrative that fails to capture the complexities. One key area of contention has been Modi’s handling of religious minorities, particularly Muslims. While critics accuse him of fostering a climate of intolerance, supporters argue that his administration has focused on inclusive development for all.

Additionally, his economic policies, such as demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), have been hotly debated. While some see them as bold reforms, others criticise their implementation and impact on the economy. Furthermore, Modi’s foreign policy initiatives, including his approach to Pakistan and China, have been subject to scrutiny, with differing interpretations of their effectiveness. Despite these nuanced discussions within India, the portrayal in Western media often lacks this depth, reflecting the biases of native insiders who shape the narrative.

This ideological bias, one can easily argue, overlooks the broader context of Modi’s governance and the multifaceted reasons behind his ever-growing popularity. Modi’s image as a strong, decisive leader who champions economic development and national pride resonates with many Indians.

His government’s initiatives, such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (housing for all), Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission), and Ujjwala Yojana (providing free LPG connections), have had tangible impacts on the lives of millions, particularly in rural areas. Further, his focus on economic reforms, infrastructural projects, and initiatives like Make in India and Digital India have created a narrative of growth and self-reliance.

Additionally, Modi’s foreign policy, characterised by strong stances on issues like terrorism and border security, has bolstered his image as a protector of India’s sovereignty. However, Western media’s focus on issues like the abrogation of Article 370 in Kashmir often centres on human rights concerns without equally considering the Islamist extremism and national security arguments that find significant support within India. Similarly, in the case of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) coverage highlighted fears of discrimination against Muslims rather than paying attention to the perspectives of actual persecuted minorities from neighbouring countries.

Modi’s brand of nationalism and diplomacy, which blends pride in India’s ancient culture with a vision of a modern, powerful nation, is often misunderstood or dismissed by Western leftist commentators when viewed from the narrow lens of their ideology. This nationalism is not merely about Hindu majoritarianism but is also a response to historical grievances and a quest for Bharat’s international recognition and respect without harming any other nation’s sovereignty or interests. However, all this is not reflected in Western media’s coverage which is frequently selective and not sufficiently grounded in the realities of rural and small-town India, where a significant portion of Modi’s support base resides.

One must wonder, why India’s native insiders often seek validation from Western media through their anti-India views. They are mostly driven by a combination of perceived prestige, or loss of prestige under Modi, and the influence that Western-stamped narratives about India hold in global discourse. This desire for external affirmation often stems from a belief that Western endorsement can lend credibility and amplify their critiques on an international stage. However, the growing penetration of social media across India’s urban and rural centres has democratised information access, enabling the masses to scrutinise and challenge these views in real time. This increasingly questions the motives and legitimacy of these insiders’ perspectives, often exposing biases and prompting broader debates.

Yet, India’s native insiders, ever so over-confidently enlightened, sit comfortably on their dais of bias, dispensing their ‘wisdom’ in refined English, often peppering it with French loanwords, with a condescension upon subaltern natives only they can muster. Many armed with degrees from foreign institutions and an unwavering belief in their superior insight, effortlessly dismiss the nuanced (many) realities of India. With every op-ed, quote and panel discussion in Western media, they reinforce their echo chamber, delightfully indifferent, to the diverse voices and genuine aspirations of millions outside their socio-politically comfortable ivory towers.

Undoubtedly, many Western journalists perceive criticism of native insiders by the Indian masses as a sort of certificate of excellence to further push their own biases. They continue to rely on urban-centric, Western-educated or trained voices, which continuously results in a skewed understanding of the broader public sentiment in India.

In essence, the over-reliance on native insiders who are influenced by a heady mix of colonial legacy and leftist ideology, poses a considerable blind spot for many Western journalists, overshadowing the economic aspirations of India. They often miss the appeal of major policies to the average Indian voter, who prioritises tangible improvements in living standards through modernisation and actual social justice over abstract armchair ideological debates such as ‘the idea of India’ or ‘two Indias’.

In conclusion, to truly understand Modi’s India, Western media, particularly those with both open and closeted leftist inclinations, need to move beyond their ideological predispositions. These journalists must reflect on the complex and multifaceted nature of India’s socio-political landscape by first becoming informed commentators. Only by doing so can they truly engage with the socio-economic realities and aspirations of India, which stands as one of the world’s most vast, dynamic, and complex democracies.

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