Russian President Vladimir Putin must be looking enviously at China’s Great Firewall these days. While Russian information operations using social media influenced opinions and perhaps even elections in the West, that compliment has now been returned at home by blogger and political activist Alexei Navalny.
A YouTube video narrated by Navalny, titled “Putin’s Palace”, ratcheted up more than 100 million hits and kicked off a Russia-wide movement to oust Putin. The storm of protest across Russian cities – in what is perhaps the most wide-ranging challenge yet to Putin’s power – has led to 11,000 detentions so far. Indeed, the larger than life Navalny seems straight out of a 19th century Russian novel, whose characters could turn their lives into radical experiments in pursuit of an idea.
Navalny was treated by German doctors for Novichok poisoning, using a deadly nerve agent developed in Russia, after he became violently ill on a flight inside Russia. Investigative journalists at Bellingcat and Russian news site The Insider have implicated FSB agents for Navalny’s poisoning. In an act of extraordinary chutzpah Navalny took a plane back to Russia from Germany soon after he recovered from his induced coma, and was arrested immediately on landing at Moscow. But if someone thought it was a quixotic move on his part, he did have a plan up his sleeve – he had secretly filmed the video after his recovery, which was released to powerful effect as demonstrators across the country demand his release.
His slashing sarcasm in the video – where he unpacks the ways of Russia’s oligarchy and undertakes an investigation into what’s indicated to be Putin’s secret billion dollar palace on the Black Sea coast, with a great deal of detailing intended to establish who really owns it – may remind some of Russia’s great tradition of literary satire in figures such as Pushkin, Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin and Bulgakov, married with a form of investigative journalism adapted to the digital age. Could he succeed in toppling Putin and turning Russia towards greater democracy, where it would be more like Europe and less like China?
While that’s unlikely, the past two decades have seen black swan events of momentous geopolitical significance. Political upheaval cannot be entirely ruled out in a country where ordinary people are badly off in the midst of abundant natural and human resources, even as oligarchs and the super-rich live decadent lifestyles. Russian anxiety about east Europe’s “colour revolutions” reaching its doorstep explains its alignment with China against the West, and if a democratic revolution should arrive at the Kremlin it would be a geopolitical catastrophe for President Xi Jinping.
Given the warm history of India-Russia ties as well as the critical defence relationship in a fraught time for India on its borders, Delhi certainly can’t be expected to join the Western chorus calling for Navalny’s release. But beyond that, what’s at stake for India?
Just as the Soviet Union’s socialist model was influential in Nehru’s heyday the Putinist model – where unity is privileged over diversity and pluralism; space for civil society, including NGOs and media, is abridged; and dissent and disagreement come to be seen as reprehensibly ‘anti-national’ – is becoming influential in governing circles in India today. To cite just one instance of growing illiberalism, posting something on social media deemed ‘anti-national’ could debar one from getting a passport in Uttarakhand – while joining a protest could bar people from getting bank loans, government jobs and a host of services in Bihar.
The moral case for strengthening democracy is oft repeated and well known. In today’s evolving geopolitical context, however, democracy has strategic value as well. If China is a behemoth wearing down its neighbours till they accept a Pax Sinica it’s very difficult to take it on one-on-one, and a narrative that sees the contest with China as one over territory is an incomplete one. Democracy has to be part of the narrative too, binding together many countries as they seek to balance China. Indeed there’s a contradiction if one asks for a rule governed order regulating international relations, but can’t assure one at home.
This will mean, of course, that one’s own record will be under scrutiny. And it’s here that soft power matters. Delhi can complain, justifiably and correctly, that Rihanna, Greta Thunberg and assorted bleeding heart celebrities haven’t let their lack of knowledge about Indian farming come in the way of opining loudly about it; indeed that the amended farm laws take India in the direction of greater WTO compliance and environmental friendliness – issues that rich countries and their media frequently beat up on India for. The problem, though, is that once your soft power gets whittled down even righteous protestations fall on deaf ears. And India has let that happen through radical policies such as CAA-NRC, restrictions on interfaith marriage dictated by the ‘love jihad’ bogey, indiscriminate filing of sedition charges etc – not to mention communal riots and mob lynchings.
In a 21st century world of instantaneous communication and memes we all live in glass houses. Thus the American ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement finds answering echoes across the world; Navalny’s followers and Belarus protesters declare their affinity for each other; following Navalny’s daring feat, Belarus opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya is contemplating returning home from exile. ‘Vasudhaiva kutumbakam’ (‘the world is one family’) holds true here as well. Falling back on Indira Gandhi-era bromides about a ‘foreign hand’ is unlikely to reverse this fundamental 21st century condition.
As Navalny would argue, we should never underestimate soft power. Rather than relying on state power alone, Delhi must ensure it stays on the right side of history.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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