A Modi-fied Indian Foreign Policy
It’s been 15 months today since the election that shook the political landscape of India — Narendra Damodardas Modi, the Prime Ministerial candidate of the centre-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a huge mandate in the elections that culminated on 16th May 2014.
Being the leader of the first majority government in three decades, the expectations on the current government were sky high. The jury is still out, though, on whether the advent of Modi has led to more economic transformation and better administrative management, as had been promised — or to more communal polarisation and religious disharmony, as some had feared. Some say nothing has changed — while others are unabashed in their praise for Modi and his deliverance of “acche din” (Hindi; good days).
But it’s still early to say if anything major has happened on the domestic front — the changes that Modi promised to bring about require not just political will (which Modi seems to have in abundance) but also require important structural and bureaucratic changes that need time.
Criticism of the Prime Minister seem to be aplenty this time around — it had to be expected, given the unreal expectations on which the BJP rode to power last year. But there’s one important field where the voices against Modi have seemed to be the loudest, and for bad measure: that field is ‘diplomacy’.
To be honest, no one expected a homespun leader such as Modi — an ordinary tea seller, who went on to be the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy — to assert so much dominance on the foreign policy front, let alone consider it an important aspect of his tenure. Many considered he would start on an unfortunate political back-foot, thanks to being shunned by the United States and Europe for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots during his stint as the Chief Minister of the state. But he surprised his supporters and critics alike by putting Indian diplomacy right in the centre-stage.
What exactly has he done, anyway?
As C. Raja Mohan stated in his book ‘Modi’s World’ (2015):
“Taking full advantage of the extraordinary mandate, [Modi] warmed up to America, recast the approach to China and Pakistan, sustained the old friendship with Russia, deepened the strategic partnership with Japan and Australia, boosted India’s neighbourhood policy, wooed international business leaders and reconnected with the Indian diaspora.”
And this book was published in the early months of this year — the list goes on further if we consider the last few months.
As of now, Modi has visited the following countries: Australia, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Brazil, Canada, China, France, Fiji, Germany, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Mauritius, Mongolia, Myanmar, Nepal, Russia, Seychelles, Singapore, Sri Lanka, South Korea, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, United Arab Emirates, United States, Uzbekistan — since June last year.
From signing a historic territorial pact with Bangladesh, thus peacefully settling India’s longest land border dispute; to being the first Indian Prime Minister in around 35 years to visit the United Arab Emirates, Modi has covered tremendous political ground. An adherent of the ‘Gujral Doctrine’, Modi has given due importance to India’s neighbours too — for example, he invited all the SAARC (and Maldives) leaders to his swearing-in ceremony, chose Bhutan as his first foreign visit, and visited Nepal twice.
Not only that, he was also the first Prime Minister to invite US President Barack Obama to be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day on 26th January 2015, finding a breakthrough on the civilian nuclear deal, to promising to increase bilateral trade by five-folds between the two countries — while also promising Putin that Russia would remain the country’s top defence supplier.
If that’s not enough, Modi concluded several important deals with Australia, Japan, and even Turkmenistan, amongst others. If nothing else, the importance given to the foreign policy establishment under the current government is commendable.
But, why is diplomacy so important?
No seriously, what’s the big deal? Why should the Prime Minister of a country as big as India — one with so many internal problems spend so much time shaking hands with other foreign leaders, or signing pieces of paper? Shouldn’t the Prime Minister be cleaning the streets and alleviating poverty — what are we going to do if Danny Boyle decides to make a sequel to Slumdog Millionaire and realises that not much has changed?
A simple answer: India is a country that aspires to be a global superpower, and yet is in denial as to how to go about it. The United States, for example, wasn’t considered a superpower when it was following an isolationist foreign policy. It was only when it came into the global foray; when it actively sought a role in the international arena that the world bowed to its order. Sitting within the confines of one’s own home and still affecting the rest of the world is a privilege only some countries can enjoy — and unfortunately, India isn’t one of them yet. For India to be one of them, it needs a Prime Minister that is ready to do the dirty work right now; to go to distant places and lengths in order to draft treaties and contracts that should have been negotiated (and ratified) earlier. Secondly, there’s no better time than now: Not only does Modi have the political will to negotiate treaties, but more importantly he has the means — a mandate —to ratify the same treaties; a luxury previous governments lacked. For example, during UPA II, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government had the political will to negotiate the Kashmir question with Pakistan, but the Congress leadership didn’t let him travel to the country. The fact that Congress didn’t have an outright majority meant it had to listen to the whims of its coalition colleagues — thus, PM Singh couldn’t travel to Colombo for the Commonwealth Summit thanks to Tamil Nadu vetoing the idea, nor could he do much about the territorial agreements with Dhaka — letting West Bengal strong-hand the central government. Luckily, Modi doesn’t face those problems.
Okay, that’s all well and good, but what about people’s perceptions of Modi — has anything really changed?
Many are wondering if the current government is working — if Modi has done enough, if anything, in the past year or so. The other day, I was having drinks in Pune with a couple of friends from Edinburgh, who mentioned how most of the Indians they had interacted with took a dim view of the current political situation in the country. Their verdict was that the Prime Minister had failed; that no change had come and the “acche din” the government had promised looked farther away considering Modi seemed to spend more time in Air India One than in 7 Race Course Road.
The fact that I study International Relations — and that I’m in India right now, has put me in the awkward spot of being bombarded with similar questions from everyone I’ve met: “So what do you think of Modi?”; “Beta, do you like his policies?”; “He cares more about visiting different places than about doing something for us, don’t you think?” — and the list goes on.
As mentioned before, the perceptions about Modi and the BJP are bound to fall even if the government fulfils all its manifesto promises — simply because the expectations have been unrealistically high. But to understand this situation, there’s something we need to understand about India (and its people):
If there’s anything that India has more than people (and dirt and poverty, if you ask Danny Boyle or the average Westerner), it is expectations. Right from the second a child enters a mother’s womb, society pins expectations on him/her: expectations of being an ideal child, an ideal student — and preferably an ideal engineer, doctor, or cricketer. It’s worse in the field of academia: it’s not enough to just get merit or distinction — it’s not coming first that matters, but beating others that does. “So what if you got 95.6%. Nitu Aunty’s Gauri got 95.68%. Shame on you!” — something you hear in every Indian household. Ours is a country that cares more about percentile than percentage. And this is the lens that the Prime Minister is seen through too — so unless he finds the cure to Cancer, secures India a UN Security Council permanent seat (with veto), solves India’s poverty problem, and wins ‘Britain’s Got Talent’, the population won’t be pleased.
Another thing we need to keep in mind is that Indian society today is extremely polarised. A cursory walk on the streets of ‘Twitter Nagar’ will show anyone that there are now only two people there: The first is the “bhakt” or “devotee”, and the other is the self-proclaimed “liberal”.
For the former, Modi is an incarnation of Vishnu (or any of the other 3 million Hindu Gods) — a messiah who can do nothing wrong, and who needs constant adulation. According to this guy, Modi is omniscient and omnipresent and everything he’s doing is above criticism — for some unknown higher purpose.
The latter is a cynic who blames Modi for everything — from the scripted death of one of Ekta Kapoor’s characters in a daily soap to Justin Bieber’s singing. He is the kind of person who’d cry foul over the government if a dog barked at night or if his wife put less sugar in his morning tea — a guy who’d blame Modi for the unclean streets, despite knowing that his servants join the rest of the society in throwing garbage on those very streets, and his son is accustomed to spitting his chewing gum on the road.
And that’s where the problem lies. It is through one of these lenses that a majority of the Indian population views Modi. There are few who sit down and debate the pros and cons. There are few that know that every government makes mistakes — but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t praise a government for the right steps it has taken. Yes, Modi has kept quiet on the communal issues that have plagued the country in the last year — but he has made due headway in other fronts; and if he deserves brickbats for the former, he also deserves a pat on the back for the latter.