Does public or world opinion matter when national interest is at stake? Time those peddling an anti-Bharat narrative in the western media since the passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) were told off in no uncertain terms. The more persistent the efforts to defame the country abroad, the more severe the blowback at home. The apogee of left-liberal sponsored fatuity is the singular and laughable decision of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHRC) to implead itself as amicus curiae to help the Supreme Court adjudicate the Constitutional validity of the “anti-Muslim” CAA. Among the 47 members of the human rights council is Pakistan, the hub of Islamic terror. Gauging the credibility of this body is thus easy enough. Even the US had quit the body in 2018 calling it a “cesspool of political bias”. Should the Narendra Modi regime accord it more importance than is due?
However, dealing with the nuisance of uninformed and viciously biased public opinion drummed up through disinformation campaigns is the government’s responsibility which it cannot shirk. There is an urgent need for serious rethinking on the miscalculation over Shaheen Bagh. Put bluntly, the Delhi riots would never have happened had the traffic disrupting gathering of anti-nationals been broken up within a fortnight of its commencement. There are two basic reasons why the authorities shied away from using force. First, the misimpression that the supposedly anti-CAA protestors would be hoist in their own petard when Delhi voters exercised their franchise in the February 8 state poll. The voters instead plumbed for the long-term freebies promised by the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). Fear of public opinion, both local and global, in case of a crackdown also acted as a depressant for tough action.
Today’s bitter reality is that Shaheen Bagh still festers on the sidelines despite a bloody riot with even the Supreme Court reluctant to act. This has called into question the government’s political will. Never before in the last six years has the Modi regime seemed as weak and irresolute. All because it exaggerated the value of public opinion over direct action. Not for nothing did Churchill have contempt for it: “There is no such thing as public opinion. There is only published opinion.”
Regardless of the premium placed on public opinion as a policy-making tool, the hard fact is that is cannot guarantee the protection of vital interests which have a bearing on nationhood. Which alone explains the popularity of acknowledged authoritarians like Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and his counterpart Bashar al-Assad in war-torn Syria. This, despite their mutual hostility. Erdogan is at loggerheads with Assad over Turkish interests in Syria, and may well end up a loser, but it does not seem to have significantly affected his popularity at home, much less his control over the levers of power.
The secret of Erdogan’s popularity lies in his persona which an article in the Guardian summed up best: “[He] is the most baffling politician to emerge in the 96-year history of Turkey. He is polarizing and popular, autocratic and fatherly, calculating and listless… It has taken him 16 years to forge what he calls ‘the new Turkey’, an economically self-reliant country…”
The promise of stability is the sole mantra which has also enabled Assad to cling on to power in a country ravaged by a multipronged and protracted civil war in since 2011. More than 400,000 people have been killed in the conflict and 11 million rendered homeless. This, when none in the US-led sixty nation axis comprising NATO, Israel and Saudi Arabia ever had any direct interest in Syria apart from fighting ISIS presence, something US President Donald Trump admitted while announcing a phased withdrawal of American forces in 2018.
That Assad still managed to survive shows the extent of popular support he enjoys. The Alawite sect of Islam to which he belongs represents barely 15 per cent of the Syrian populace, the rest being predominantly Sunni. In fact, the Syrian army is almost wholly Sunni. Support for Assad, however, is just as pronounced among Christians, Druze, and other minor Islamic sects like the Ismailis or Kurds. On paper, he has always been the most secular choice but disparaged by the western powers which chose to side with hardline Islamists like the Saudis, Turks, and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Foreign public opinion engendered by the media failed to oust him.
The reasons are far not far to seek. It is not as if Assad is admired, much less loved. An ophthalmologist by profession, he is as power-thirsty as any dictator. Only the long spell of political stability his Ba’athist regime represents has helped him cling on. The Syrian regional branch of the Arab Socialist Ba’ath Party has been in power since 1963. Power changed hands twice before Bashar’s father, Hafez al-Assad, assumed control in 2000 in a coup d’etat.
Having experienced his long rule, and the subsequent devastation post 9/11 in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya, it is only natural that most Syrians thought it safer to remain under the rule of his Assad Jr rather than that of any other untried and untested ruler. And the US, with its record of leaving nations in the lurch once its immediate interest was secured, was never deemed worthy of trust.
The British Labor Party’s shadow foreign secretary, Ellen Thornberry, told Prospect magazine in May 2018: “There is an argument that if [Assad] had been as overwhelmingly unpopular as the rebels told the West at the outset, then he wouldn’t be there. I think there has been a depth and a breadth of support for Assad that has been underestimated.”
Nagging doubts on the reliability of public opinion have persisted since the nineteenth century. The British ambassador to the United States, James Bryce, had pointedly observed:
Public opinion, mostly media-driven, needs to be seen in perspective. While it can legitimately influence governments in formulating economic policy, it cannot be allowed to impinge on matters concerning a nation’s long-term security and survival. Criteria for citizenship lies at the heart of Bharat’s existence. Heed the perspicacity of Oswald Spengler’s words in his majestic two-volume opus, Decline of the West (1918-22): “The press today is an army with carefully organized weapons, the journalists its officers, the readers its soldiers. The reader neither knows nor is supposed to know the purposes for which he is used and the role he is to play.”
One of the reasons why Modi gets a bad press in the western media is the failure of his media managers to cultivate the fundamentalist Christian lobby which is also at the receiving end of the liberal establishment. Most leading TV channels and newspapers, especially in the US, are run by its cheerleaders. With the result that the church in India is as big an enemy of the Modi regime as champions of mosque interests. Keeping the church on the right side would have helped, but that too would have entailed a cost: going easy on conversions.
Modi and Shah thus have no option but to steamroll their way on CAA. State governments that refuse to comply with an Act of Parliament ought to be dismissed and a precedent set. Nothing less will work.