Government’s repeated reliance on foreign conspiracy theories endangers democracy

Detailing the BJP and its Minister’s extensive track record of blaming legitimate dissent and democratic criticism against it on foreign conspiracies, VINEET BHALLA explains how perpetual reliance on this trope can undermine democratic ethos.


IN response to the explosive Pegasus Project revelations, Union Home Minister Amit Shah made a statement accusing the reports of being guided by vested interests meaning “to do whatever is possible and humiliate India at the world stage, peddle the same old narratives about our nation and derail India’s development trajectory.” He alleged that the report is “by the disrupters for the obstructers. Disrupters are global organisations that do not like India to progress. Obstructers are political players in India who do not want India to progress.”

Interestingly, nowhere in his statement does Shah question the veracity of the report.

Overused conspiracy of malevolent foreign hand

This is hardly the first time that the spectre of foreign conspiracy has been pulled up. Members of the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) have been openly pushing myriad conspiracy theories ever since their party won a majority in the Lok Sabha elections and formed the government in 2014.

During his speech in the Indian Parliament’s Lok Sabha or Lower House, on February 9, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi spoke about a ‘Foreign Destructive Ideology’ plaguing the country, and the need to protect ourselves from it. This seems to be in reference to the expression of support for the farmers protesting around Delhi and of concern about them being barricaded off and being denied the supply of water, internet and electricity, by a spate of international celebrities on social media platforms.

A day earlier, in election campaign speeches in West Bengal and Assam, Modi had repeatedly made the seemingly baseless allegation that there is an international conspiracy to defame India and spoil its image, by attacking India’s identity linked with tea and its tradition of yoga.

Earlier in February, the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, had in an unprecedented step, directly addressed these social media posts by private individuals by releasing a strongly worded statement that termed these comments a consequence of efforts by vested interest groups to “mobilize international support against India”.

Meanwhile, Indian External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar wrote on his Twitter account that India has the self-confidence to hold its own and push back against motivated campaigns targeting the country, and Shah posted on his Twitter page that no propaganda can deter India’s unity, stop it from attaining new heights or decide its fate and that India stands united to achieve progress.

The farmer’s movement itself has been denunciated by several BJP legislators, such as Union Minister Raosaheb Danve, as being driven by Pakistan and China.

Several BJP associates like its IT Chief Amit Malviya, national general secretary Dushyant Kumar Gautam, and Member of Parliament Jaskaur Meena, have falsely accused the protests of being staged by Khalistani sympathizers; this claim was also made by the Attorney General K.K. Venugopal before the Supreme Court of India.

Ridiculous claims

In October 2020, in the backdrop of the spontaneous outrage and protests over the horrifying gang rape and murder of a Dalit teenager and the terribly insensitive way in which the entire case was handled by the Uttar Pradesh (UP) State Government, its BJP Chief Minister Adityanath blamed opposition parties and “anti-national” elements with foreign funding for trying to destabilise the state. His government even began a probe into an alleged international conspiracy by foreigners to defame the government and foment caste violence.

In September 2020, Union Minister of State for Home Affairs Nityanand Rai offered the justification of “protecting national interests from foreign funds” in the Parliament for passing the Foreign Contribution Regulation (Amendment) Act, 2020 that severely curtails the funding of NGOs by foreign funds

In February 2020, when the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) movement was at its peak in different parts of the country, Modi, in a speech, described the protests as a conspiracy by the Indian National Congress (INC) and the Aam Aadmi Party to destroy national harmony and engage in “politics of hate”. Later that month, Surendra Singh, a BJP state legislator from UP, described the anti-CAA protests as a global conspiracy by Muslim countries to divide the country, and Giriraj Singh, a BJP Union Minister, accused Pakistan of conspiring to foment the anti-CAA protests in Delhi.

In September 2018, another Union Minister, BJP’s Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, had dismissed the INC’s questioning of the controversial Rafale jet fighter deal as part of an international conspiracy against India to defeat PM Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The then Union Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, too, had alleged that there was an “international dimension” to the INC’s “smear campaign”.

Earlier in that year, the Pune city police, in the then-BJP run state of Maharashtra, had charged the academics and activists arrested in the Bhima Koregaon case of being part of a grand Maoist conspiracy to assassinate PM Modi and overthrow the government using weapons procured from Russia and China; this claim has been repeated by BJP spokespersons.

Till date, the trial in the case is yet to commence, and the detainees have been languishing in jail for as long as over three years in some cases, with one of the co-accused, Father Stan Swamy, passing away in custody earlier this month due to contracting COVID-19 while imprisoned.

Also read: Stan Swamy’s death: Representative of the worst of our criminal justice system or portent of a new norm?

(Investigation by an American digital forensics analysis agency earlier this year revealed that the evidence of the conspiracy to assassinate Modi found in the computers of two of the accused, activist Rona Wilson, and lawyer Surendra Gadling, was planted using spyware. The Pegasus revelations have also uncovered that several of the accused and their close associated and family members were snooping targets.)

In 2017, BJP spokesperson Sambit Patra had said at a seminar organised by the Delhi BJP, in reference to the outrage over the increasing incidents of lynching of members from minority religious communities, that a conspiracy was being hatched against Hindus, PM Modi and the nation to gain political mileage in the name of intolerance and lynching incidents, due to the government’s regulation of foreign funding of NGOs.

In 2016, Modi had, while addressing a farmers’ rally in the state of Odisha, claimed that foreign-funded NGOs and black-marketeers were conspiring to defame him and destabilize the Union government for being regulated and held accountable.

The  BJP also regularly invokes the demonstrably false bogey of an international conspiracy behind propagating ‘love jihad’ (which has now been criminalised in UP by an ordinance, with several other BJP-ruled states promising to go the same route).

Also read: The Politics of Love Jihad and its Constitutional Validity

One would imagine that by going to the foreign conspiracy well so often, the BJP would eventually run it into the ground, turning it into a caricature. Contrarily, this has become so normalised that now the default strategy of anyone associated with or supporting the BJP to respond to criticism of the party’s policies is to question the critics’ motives and implicate them as actors in international machinations.

Clearly, this is the blueprint of the BJP’s preferred troubleshooting approach: when in crisis, deflect blame on an imaginary enemy conspiring against the government’s agenda, colour itself as a self-righteous, noble victim that is carrying out the hard work of ‘developing’ the nation, and offers scant, if any, basis for such claims. 

After all, despite repeated assertions over the years of international conspiracies against India and its Union Government, there has been no substantive investigation carried into these claims or evidence unearthed by any of India’s investigative agencies or by anyone in the BJP. We are neither told who these international powers conspiring against India are (Pakistan and China are routinely and vaguely mentioned since they are our perpetual ‘enemy’ states), nor why they’re conspiring against us, nor how they exactly plan to break up the country.

While nefarious and dangerous to our democratic ethos, this is neither novel nor original.

The reliance on the ‘foreign hand’ conspiracy by leaders in India and across the world 

The conspiracy theory of the ‘foreign hand’ has been a fixation through much of India’s political history, from former PM Indira Gandhi blaming it for the protest movement against her government that had sprung across the country between 1972 and 1975 in the lead-up to her declaration of the Emergency, and former PM Rajiv Gandhi faulting it for impeding India’s development, to the previous PM Dr. Manmohan Singh accusing NGOs funded by US and Scandinavian countries for fomenting the popular opposition to the setting up of a nuclear power plant in Koodankulam, Tamil Nadu, and to an INC Parliamentarian seeing a BJP-created politically-motivated conspiracy with foreign handlers behind the India Against Corruption movement of 2011.

This canard has also been a tool of choice of several contemporary authoritarian leaders across the world.

There are enough examples. Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan complaining about an international conspiracy to limit Turkey’s power and influence abroad and damage its economy.

North Korea shrugging off scrutiny of its atrocious human rights record by the United Nations as interference in its internal matters.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro fanning the enduring conspiracy theory in the South American nation of an international communist plot to destroy Brazil.

Russia’s President Vladimir Putin-led government using the pretext of foreign meddling to quell environmental and political protests.

Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s legal team claiming that a vast international conspiracy had fixed the last U.S. Presidential elections for the winning candidate, Joe Biden, the current U.S. President. (This was just one of the numerous conspiracy theories Trump floated before and during his presidential term).

Finally, Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte accusing independent human rights and media organisations of plotting to oust his government.

Show me an ultranationalist authoritarian leader, and I’ll show you a popular hoax about foreign powers trying to destabilize that leader’s government.

Ultranationalism relies on conspiracy theories about imaginary enemies

It is clear why this is such a frequently used rhetorical device. Ultranationalism, after all, hinges on a steady supply of alleged enemies to settle scores against, and a mythical emphasis on an organic unity between a charismatic leader and the nation.

When you paint your political opponent as an unpatriotic, foreign-sponsored bad faith actor out to destroy the nation, you don’t have to deal with substantive questions of policy raised by them. You end up distracting the public attention from the real issue at hand by putting up an alarmist scenario about the stability of the government and create a narrative debating the legitimacy of the opposition critique, rather than about your own policy failures.

In such a context, it becomes easy to implore citizens to rally and stand together against these amorphous evil foreign forces, to stop criticising the government and put up a united front because doing otherwise would be playing into the hands of these international agents of chaos, to put up with relatively minor material inconveniences in the face of a larger national existential threat, and adopt a uniform political ideology in support of the government (which is projected as equivalent to the nation). 

All these are empty words, of course, that dissolve at the merest of rational scrutiny. However, when repeatedly advanced by charismatic, popular leaders and echoed by an entirely pliant news media system, these claims start appearing credible to a large number of people in our post-truth world. Little wonder, then, that the BJP and Modi continue to enjoy massive popularity across the country, and keep stringing electoral victories in spite of a track record of costly policy failures.

Also read: Probe into larger conspiracy behind sexual harassment complaint against ex-CJI Gogoi closed

The hazard of the government perpetuating conspiracy theories

However, constant flooding of the political narrative with blatantly false conspiracy theories has deleterious consequences.

Dehumanizing your critics as agents of a shadowy anti-national international plot ends up legitimizing not only the dismissal of their legitimate grievances by the public but also punitive actions, including the threat of violence by non-State vigilante actors, against them. Polarized consumers of these conspiracy theories don’t just accept the silencing of these protestors as appropriate, but even as part of their duties as patriotic citizens.

We have already seen rumblings of the same in India over the past few years, be it the attempted shootings by armed young men at the anti-CAA protestors in Delhi last year, exhorted by BJP Ministers and leaders leading chants of ‘desh ke gadaaron ko, goli maaro saalo ko [shoot the bloody traitors of the country]’, or the recent stone-pelting by purported locals at the Singhu border of Delhi at protesting farmers.

Events from earlier this year at the Capitol Hill in Washington DC offer a chilling vision of how easily even a few hundred citizens fed on a constant drip of false conspiracy theories can upend fragile democratic institutions when, in their alternative realities, their supreme leader is wronged and their nation threatened.

With a ruling party leadership that seemingly sees every problem as a PR problem and doesn’t care about anything but the optics, India is headed down a perilous path.

The Union Government would be better served to focus on governance and the politics of progress that they ostensibly espouse, as opposed to image management. After all, the best, albeit most difficult way, of managing optics is to resolve popular grievances and keep citizens happy.

Rather than dismissing the Pegasus Project’s disturbing revelations, it should commit to initiating an independent probe to uncover the truth of the allegations.

(Vineet Bhalla is a Delhi-based lawyer and sub-editor with The Leaflet. This article is an updated version of a previous article written by him for The views expressed are personal.)