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Opinion | BBC’s Modi Documentary: A Failed Propaganda At Best

By: Kanwal Sibal

Last Updated: January 23, 2023, 17:25 IST

New Delhi, India

The deep-seated anti-Modi bias of the BBC is reflected in the title given to its documentary on him — India: The Modi Question. (File photo/PTI)

The deep-seated anti-Modi bias of the BBC is reflected in the title given to its documentary on him — India: The Modi Question. (File photo/PTI)

What is the ‘Modi Question’ that the BBC has in mind? Nothing new has happened recently to raise this. Is it essentially that of growing political discomfort in some quarters in the West with India’s rise under a strong leader that will lead to an even greater power shift towards Asia?

The deep-seated anti-Modi bias of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is reflected in the title given to its documentary on him — India: The Modi Question. The connotations are all negative. It can mean that many questions are swirling around Narendra Modi; questions that need to be answered but have not yet been. It can imply that it is not clear what Modi represents; that issues about him are unsettled; and he embodies an enduring problem, including for India.

Modi has been the chief minister of Gujarat for 13 years and prime minister of India for 9 years. His thinking, priorities and ambitions at the political, social and economic levels are well known. He has been surrounded by controversies, both as the chief minister and even more so, on the national stage as the prime minister. Yet, public support for him has grown, and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under his leadership has become the principal political force in the country. Internally, he has brought about many social, financial and business-oriented reforms to benefit the poor as well as the corporate sector — national and international.

He has boldly tackled the festering issue of the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir, internally. This has taken the Kashmir issue out of any future India-Pakistan dialogue which, in turn, has been frozen unless Pakistan delivers on the terrorism issue. He is standing up to China without allowing channels of communication to break down. He is deepening the strategic ties with the US but is resisting its efforts to dilute our strategic ties with Russia. India is maintaining a neutral position on the Ukraine conflict, notwithstanding Western pressure. As part of creating more diplomatic space for India in international affairs, the government is using its G20 presidency to showcase the nation, and also to take the leadership of the Global South on issues of common concern. On climate change issues, Modi has forged a position which, by making progress in India’s transition to renewable energies, allows it to credibly press the advanced economies on making available finance and technology to achieve shared climate goals.

Modi is not defensive about being a devout Hindu or restoring the Hindu civilisational ethos of the country. At the same time, nothing in government policies is discriminatory towards minorities. His affirming of the Hindu heritage of India is projected by the Opposition as weakening the secular fabric of the country, but this is a debate centred around increasingly polarised domestic party politics. The controversy over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which has nothing to do with the status of Indian Muslims, is a product of the communal weaponisation of secular politics. This has fuelled a campaign against Modi and his government on minority issues and the backsliding of democracy. A nexus has developed between Opposition forces in India and lobbies in the West who promote minority rights and democracy as part of their ‘values-based’ agenda to give legitimacy to their right to interfere in the internal affairs of the non-Western world to maintain their global political hegemony.

So, what is the ‘Modi Question’ that the BBC has in mind? Nothing new has happened recently to raise this question. Why is the issue of Modi’s responsibility for the 2002 Gujarat riots being raised after 20 years? The public in Gujarat has not disowned him. The BJP has won all state elections in Gujarat since 2002. Why is the BBC flogging a dead horse, especially after the Special Investigation Team (SIT) set up by the Supreme Court in 2012 investigated the matter fully and the apex court has delivered a judgement in 2022 exonerating Modi of any guilt of complicity. Is it that the BJP’s massive electoral victory in Gujarat under Modi’s leadership has unnerved lobbies in India and abroad about the electoral scenario at the national level in 2024?

Is the ‘Modi Question’ essentially that of growing political discomfort in some quarters in the West with India’s rise under a strong leader that will lead to an even greater power shift towards Asia? Is there a concern that India would not be as manageable as before? Is it felt that some leverages should be developed to control India, destabilise its internal politics, exploit its social and religious fault lines, and create conditions — if possible — for a weak, coalition government to take over? Is undermining India’s credibility as a leader of the Global South by sullying its international image — as Western media, NGOs promoting human rights and democracy and some think tanks are currently doing — the goal?

In the case of the United Kingdom (UK), additional factors at play would be the ethnic composition of many parliamentary constituencies, many of which have large Pakistan-origin Muslim minorities. Attacking Modi would help consolidate this vote further behind the Labour Party’s MPs in particular. Pro-Pakistani and anti-Indian lobbies which are behind the periodic demonstrations against our mission in London are countenanced by elements in the British establishment with historic sympathy for Pakistan and lack of affinity with India. The BBC is part of this establishment judging from the record of its reporting on India.

In the case of former Home and Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, his Blackburn constituency has 35 percent Muslims and only 0.2 percent Hindus. This would explain his interview with the BBC in which he recalls asking his High Commissioner in India to investigate the Gujarat riots and the damaging report sent to him about ethnic cleansing that pointed a finger at Modi himself. Why did he need to recall this when all this is two decades old? The matter has been widely discussed in India, the court system has been involved and the Supreme Court has passed a definitive judgment. This raises a question about the political honesty of a man who was fully complicit in building a false case for the invasion and destruction of Iraq.

One would have thought that after the furore in India about the BBC documentary, Jack Straw would stay away from the issue, but he has chosen to give an interview to the bitterly anti-Modi news portal The Wire, in which he confirms what he said to the BBC. He does not give the impression that in his mind, the Supreme Court judgement has closed the matter and reveals his electoral-driven hypocrisy by twice referring to the train fire at Godhra as an ‘accident.’ He also did not seem deterred by the condemnation of the documentary by the spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs and the allusion he made to a colonial mindset.

The ethnic cleansing of Hindus from Kashmir hasn’t disturbed either Jack Straw or the UK Foreign Office, which has shared with the BBC the old, discredited 2002 report from the country’s High Commissioner in India. It is not unlikely that parts of the British establishment are also unhappy with the manner in which India is rising and Pakistan is sinking. The attempt to balance the two in UK foreign policy is no longer practically possible and the UK’s urge to exert its diplomatic weight in favour of an India-Pakistan dialogue is being thwarted. An element of domestic UK politics can be suspected in producing this documentary, as the country is being led by an Indian-origin prime minister who is a practising Hindu to boot. A hit at Modi who is considered right-wing and anti-Muslim would be an indirect one at right-wing Rishi Sunak who has called for exposing the ethnic (Pakistani-origin) identity of grooming gangs in the UK.

The documentary has been banned by the Indian government which has also ordered YouTube and Twitter to not upload it. Some may argue that banning is a needlessly defensive step, given that the issue of the Gujarat riots has no traction anymore following the Supreme Court judgement. Moreover, letting it be aired would expose the malicious bias of the BBC towards Modi to the public at large. On the other hand, it can be argued that helping amplify the BBC propaganda by not banning the documentary only adds to the toxic debate in India over the Gujarat riots which hasn’t altogether ended, with the Opposition’s political and civil society elements reigniting it periodically to target the prime minister. The documentary is intended to keep alive a sense of victimhood amongst Indian Muslims which is already manifesting itself in the activities of some radical Muslim organisations, now banned.

One should not overlook the innuendo in the title India: The Modi Question that the BBC has given to the documentary. It recalls the historical “Jewish Question.” Hitler opted for a final solution to the Jewish Question. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in his most recent press conference that the West now wants Hitler-like to settle the Russian Question. Is the BBC and its supporters suggesting a somewhat similar answer to the Modi Question? Even if that may not be the case, the utter insensitivity of the title needs to be noted.

Kanwal Sibal is a former Indian Foreign Secretary. He was India’s Ambassador to Turkey, Egypt, France and Russia. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the stand of this publication.

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first published:January 23, 2023, 17:25 IST
last updated:January 23, 2023, 17:25 IST
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