The controversy began, as much else does today, on Twitter. On Tuesday, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi put out a tweet featuring a photo of him meeting Henry Kissinger along with some praise for the former American politician and diplomat.
Kissinger played a seminal role in shaping American foreign policy in the 1970s, first as National Security Advisor in the federal government and then as Secretary of State, the American equivalent of foreign minister. He was also the main driver of the American policy during the Bangladesh War of Liberation, when Washington supported Pakistan even as Islamabad conducted genocide in Bangladesh and later, went to war with India.
That Modi not only warmly met a man who did his level best to harm India and then proceeded to advertise it to the world is a good indicator of how much of Indian politics is now simply spectacle and, for the most part, completely denuded of any meaning.
‘Pakistan has been sustained entirely by you’
Throughout the 1971 crisis, first when Pakistan conducted genocide in its east wing and then when it faced a short, humiliating war with India, the United States not only supported Pakistan diplomatically, it also supplied it with arms. Research by academic Gary J Bass in his account of the Bangladesh War, The Blood Telegram, has shown that Kissinger was so intent on supplying Pakistan with arms that he was even ready to go up against the political opposition as well as bypass the US federal legislature.
One US legislator, Edmund Muskie was horrified that “American tanks, planes and guns have been used to help level unprotected cities and to kill an estimated 200,000 unarmed civilians” two months after Pakistan put its eastern wing under a military lockdown.
Delhi-Washington relations hit a nadir. In July 1971, when Kissinger visited India, India’s defence minister Jagjivan Ram was categorical: “Pakistan has been sustained entirely by you.”
Arms support, however, was not all. Kissinger proactively ranged the United States against India diplomatically. Meeting with Zhou Enlai, the Premier of China, in 1971, Kissinger “gradually warmed up to the idea of unleashing China against India”, writes Bass. And the United States did not stop at trying to involve China to check India. In 1971, a fleet of the United States Navy, including its largest aircraft carrier, entered the Bay of Bengal as a warning to India – a move widely seen as a threat to attack Calcutta city.
When Pakistan decided to launch a military crackdown in East Pakistan on March 26, 1971, the move soon escalated into what many have characterised as genocide. However, this was completely ignored by the United States, a policy that was led by Kissinger himself.
In the immediate aftermath of Pakistan beginning its offensive in its eastern wing, American diplomats in Dhaka itself sent a telegram to Washington characterising the Pakistan Army’s actions as “selective genocide”. Kissinger’s response to this was anger – at Archer Blood, the diplomat who had sent the telegram. In a conversation with the president, Kissinger called him a “maniac in Dacca” and soon cut short his stint in East Pakistan, recalling him to the United States.
Moreover, the information Kissinger ignored also contained multiple reports that the Pakistan Army had specifically targeted Hindus in East Pakistan. Blood’s telegram, for example, spoke of a specific campaign against “Bengalis and Hindus”. Speaking in the US federal legislature, Edward Kennedy highlighted how most of the refugees fleeing to India were Hindus. “The Nixon administration had ample evidence not just of the scale of the massacres, but also of their ethnic targeting of the Hindu minority,” wrote Bass.
Given the Bharatiya Janata Party’s positioning as a Hindu nationalist party as well as its recent plans to award Indian citizenship to Bangladeshi Hindus, Modi’s photo-op with Kissinger is doubly ironic. Not only did Kissinger’s amoral foreign policy in 1971 harm Indian interests, it led to catastrophe for the Hindus of Bangladesh.
Kissinger’s animus was not restricted to foreign policy. He seemed to harbour, writes Bass, a “starkly personal and emotional dislike of India and Indians”.
In a meeting with President Richard Nixon during the thick of Pakistan’s military crackdown, Kissinger called Indians “sons of bitches”. Another transcript of their conversation reflected Nixon expressing the wish that India suffered from a “mass famine”, while Kissinger stuck with calling Indians “bastards”.
Another recorded conversation has Kissinger characterise Indians as “the most aggressive goddamn people around” while also calling the Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi a “bitch”.
Clearly Kissinger’s ideology and career is ranged against everything Narendra Modi stands for, both as an Indian prime minister as well as a Hindu nationalist.
Of course, in the world of realpolitik politics and diplomacy, people of different ideologies often sit down together to try and achieve a hardnosed, utilitarian aim. But if they do, the meetings are either hushed up or an explanation is proffered for such an unusual move.
However, far from trying to hide he had met Kissinger, Modi enthusiastically tweeted out a photo of the meeting himself. Nor did he bother to explain if this incongruous meeting would lead to any utilitarian outcome for India’s foreign policy. At any rate, Kissinger is 96 and long retired so it is unlikely India gains much from forgetting past humiliations and courting him.
Politics as spectacle
Some explanation as to why Modi would do something so puzzling is found in an odd place: a 1985 book by American cultural critic Neil Postman. Called Amusing Ourselves to Death, the book describes a situation where television has reduced all public discourse in the United States, including politics, to spectacle and entertainment. Politicians are “less concerned with giving arguments than ‘giving-off’ impressions”, writes Postman describing the United States in the age of television.
Although more than three decades old, Postman has suddenly become relevant again in the wake of the election of Donald Trump. “The president of the United States emerged out of reality television, cable news, and caps-lock tweeting,” wrote American journalist Ezra Klein in 2018. Modern American politics confirms, Klein argues, “the world we live in is both the sort of dystopia Postman feared and worse than anything he dared predict”.
Postman’s thesis is also remarkably relevant to India since 2014, where using a combination of television and social media, Narendra Modi has managed to be succesful in politics using only spectacle. Politics in India today is almost never a battle of ideas but simply one palooza after the other.
The photo-op with Kissinger is a stark example given how odd it is that a Hindu nationalist Indian prime minster would be so pleased to meet him and broadcast the meeting to his millions of followers. But this isn’t an exception: politics-as-spectacle is Modi’s default mode.
Two recent examples that illustrate this are Modi’s highly publicised visit to the United States in September and his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping the month after. In both cases, Modi achieved little for India. However, his lack of foreign policy achievement did not matter. Simply the spectacle of him meeting Trump or Xi took up television space endlessly. News anchors minutely dissected what Modi and Xi ate, drank and wore. In case you missed the live news coverage of Xi’s visit, the Indian government even produced a 2-minute video summary of what Modi and the Chinese premier did, almost in the manner of a sports match highlights package. In the US, Modi’s address to Indian-origin Americans in Texas was beamed live by most news channels.
All of it was rather entertaining and managed to fill up hundreds of hours of TV coverage – but what had any of it to do with furthering Indian foreign policy?
End result: any actual debate and discussion is meaningless to the conduct of politics as long as it allows a spectacle in which Modi is beamed on TV and takes up airtime, in much the same manner as any entertainer – exactly as Neil Postman described it. The economy is tanking? Widespread corruption? Women’s safety taking a hit? Don’t bother – instead watch this wall-to-wall coverage of Mr Modi doing something.
This complete expulsion of any meaningful discussion and the primacy of image and event mean Modi could even tweet photos of him meeting a person who has grievously harmed India and that’s fine – as long as Modi met someone and that meeting was broadcast to the world.