PM Modi's incongruous speech at the UN

PM Modi's incongruous speech at the UN

Modi’s speech sounded like a poll rally speech

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the 76th Session of the UN General Assembly at United Nations headquarters in New York, on Saturday, September 25, 2021. Credit: AP Photo

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech at the 76th session of the United Nations General Assembly covered an array of subjects, ranging from India’s achievements in vaccine development to the Afghan crisis, the effectiveness of the UN, the need for a rules-based order on the seas, and extremism. In contrast to Pakistani PM Imran Khan naming India over a dozen times in his speech to the UNGA, Modi did not mention Pakistan or China by name.

However, he did target the two countries. Modi spoke about countries using “regressive thinking as a political tool,” a reference to Pakistan’s use of terror groups to further its foreign policy interests, and of countries using the crisis in Afghanistan to further their own selfish interests. Modi targeted China, too. For the UN to remain relevant, it must act as a reliable body, Modi said, referring to the WHO’s failure to act swiftly to contain Covid-19 before it became a pandemic and its reluctance to hold China to account for its role in the origin and spread of the pandemic.

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Modi’s speech at the UNGA was, however, filled with ironies. His sermonising on Pakistan’s support to extremism could well have applied to his own party, the BJP, also. Not only has his party, and ministers in his government and in BJP-ruled states fanned religious extremism and violence in India but also, they have repeatedly displayed an anti-scientific temper in their policies and actions. It is ironic that while he called on the world “to make science-based rational and progressive thinking the basis for progress,” he presides over a government that has encouraged “regressive thinking” at home.

So also, his reference to India as “the mother of all democracies” and his trumpeting of India’s diversity, perhaps a response to what he had to hear at the White House the previous day. The reality at home is that his government has been systematically acting to undermine democratic institutions, silence dissent and erase its pluralism. What his government has practised at home is quite at odds with what he preached to the world. Modi’s speech may have impressed his die-hard followers at home but his rhetoric is unlikely to cut much ice with critics at home and the international community by and large.

The aggressive manner and body language of Modi’s speech – the finger-wagging, the lecturing tone, for instance – and the trumpeting of his government’s achievements were incongruous for the occasion, as if he were addressing an election rally in UP, rather than standing at the UN podium. Sadly, his speech drew little interest; most seats in the UNGA room were empty.