“What is India's No. 2 foreign policy challenge?” asked Happymon Jacob of Jawaharlal Nehru University in his Feb 3 tweet. “No. 1 is Rihanna.” He was ridiculing the panicky response of the Indian government to the Barbadian singer’s retweet of a CNN story. “Why aren’t we talking about this?! #FarmersProtest” was all that she had written in reaction to the ongoing farmer protests in India. Later, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg tweeted her support for Indian farmers. The Indian government reacted as if it was under attack from a malicious foreign force. Its External Affairs Ministry said it was “unfortunate to see vested interest groups trying to enforce their agenda on these protests, and derail them.”
The Indian government didn’t stop there. It urged Bollywood superstars and famous cricketers to publicly denounce all such efforts to “divide India”. You could see this as exemplifying the Indian establishment’s lack of confidence. But that perhaps is not the whole story. Narendra Modi and the BJP came to power on the back of a polarizing religious agenda. Faced with a tanking economy and widespread protests, there was no easy way for Modi to wiggle out except, and once again, by inventing external enemies.
The message: Look, we are under the assault of foreign enemies and if we don’t unite behind our government, at stake will be no less than our sovereignty and national unity. If someone can pull up a conspiracy theory behind how Thunberg and other members of an international left cabal want to destabilize India, it’s a Bharat Ratna-worthy achievement in Modi’s India. Sadly, this whipping up of nationalism against external enemies, largely imagined, works everywhere, from the US, India to Nepal.
In Nepal, bereft of any other agenda, and feeling marginalized by the intelligentsia and other political actors, KP Oli has now cottoned to Hinduism to resurrect his political career. His repeated attempts to get into India’s good books rebuffed, he is now busy needling the Ayodhya-addicted BJP establishment by claiming his country’s ownership of Lord Ram. New Delhi either supports him or it will use the BJP’s own weapon, Hinduism, to further fan anti-India flames in Nepal. For the purpose Oli has amassed a sea of online trolls, again just like Modi. Notably, back in 2017, he had come to power after successfully demonizing India over the blockade.
Especially in today’s techno-space, it has become easy to subvert democracy. While government-sponsored trolls operate unhindered, its critics can be easily blocked and silenced. Indian leadership can’t digest a casual tweet of a foreign celebrity; Chinese leadership has to block any online mention of Tibet; and Nepali leaders expertly tweak the remarks of even remotely famous Indians as a direct attack on the country.
When important national issues are turned into personal wars, often by design, nothing short of complete demolition of the opponents will do. There is no middle ground online. Rihanna is completely innocent or a sworn enemy of India. Nepal will brook no compromise over Kalapani, all of which is indubitably ours. And, by the way, online space is certainly not for civic-minded folks. For their useless intellectualizing, they deserve to be blocked and hosed down.