It is usually said that a confident person is never self conscious. I think the same can be applied to nations.
India is a developing nation. As it’s starting to play a bigger role on the world stage – demand for a seat in the UNSC; rejigging it’s foreign policies and playing a more active role in South East Asia and Africa; firming up strategic, political and economic relations with the Western economies and providing financial aid to many nations in the neighbourhood and beyond, there is a perceived shift in the image of India.
Its social indicators are improving but have some distance to cover to be comparable to the standards of advanced economies, its economic policies are being overhauled as new challenges come forth and its political class is been questioned. As the western world sees the rise of the country, it also sees its faults. While no nation is perfect, a constant media glare highlights the gaps as much as it lauds the country.
Traditionally, the English language media of USA and UK have played important roles in providing news and informing readers and audiences all over the world. They have also been opinion and image makers. Such is the deferential attitude allocated to such media that its reportage (albeit from a western prism) is seen as an all important truth. Its critical news stories are seen as a fall of a nation from the world stage, a dent to one’s carefully cultivated image. The reasons are simple – they set the agenda for the rest to follow, high social media penetration in the West means this information gets relayed many times, leading it to becoming an obvious truth.
Strikingly, no English language news organization from the East is as powerful that the flow of information may be reversed, that it would set an agenda for rest to follow, without accusations of misinformation. And therein lies India’s current problem and its government’s inability to digest criticism from an article in the Washington Post.
Yes the Prime Minister was criticized in unflattering terms. But as an Indian, I don’t disagree with the conclusions drawn by the article. Two of India’s leading magazines India Today and Outlook have come out with issues this week criticizing the government and the Prime Minister.
A good leader takes the criticism and learns from it and moves on, moves forward. The job of his media advisor should not be to, so ridiculously and childishly, to demand to post a reply in the comments section of the newspaper or complain via a letter. His job should be to not respond to the article at all.
There is no need for the Prime Minister’s office to leap up in defense. The American President was a lead story for a Time magazine article some time ago. There was an unflattering review of his policies, highlighting his failures. Did the American government’s PR machinery come out with a scathing reply? No. While I am not saying that America is the gold standard to everything, there are better ways in which PR disasters can be handled. I am sure Mr. Pachauri has better things to do than answer to any and every article written by Western media outlets.
The cardinal rule of strategic communication is to never give the opposition leverage, an upper hand. The second is to accept that in a time where there is online access to information and its multiplication through social media, information and opinions cannot be controlled.
Instead of responding and giving more fodder, a quiet introspection would have been better. It’s time India and its leaders accept that this not the time to be self-conscious about its image being tarnished (by just one article in a foreign newspaper), to imagine perceived slights, to be so sensitive to such criticism. It’s time for the Indian government to learn from this, have a better and stronger strategic communications system, a change in its economic policies, a leader who is assertive. I think 2014 will see the end of Manmohan Singh’s political career. He has about one and a half years left. He should make it count. That, instead, would be a fitting reply.