With over a week remaining before the Lok Sabha elections get under way, there is regrettably little discussion on policy differentials between the ruling BJP and the Opposition, particularly on diplomacy and foreign relations. Of course, the Congress leadership hosted a meal for the ambassadors of G-20 countries, but that was meant more for optics than substance.
The manifestos of political parties, when finalised, shall no doubt carry minutiae of domestic and foreign relations. Sadly, these are never available well in advance of an election to enable proper public debate and analysis. They normally constitute a wishlist of policy options rather than specific agenda points that the public can absorb and use for deciding their voting preference. Politicking has, however, been on for long. Some will say Prime Minister Narendra Modi never stopped campaigning since getting elected in 2014 as he took the battle to every state election, including quasi-state Delhi.
The BJP’s strategy is to steer the discourse towards national security, paranoia and the threat of terrorism. The main Opposition party, the Congress, on the other hand, is trying not to be baited by the BJP on those issues while it advances its universal income scheme Nyay and the idea of a tolerant and inclusive India. Ironically, the other Opposition parties, the BJP’s main antagonists in critical states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, etc, really have little to say about major policy differences between them and the BJP on the domestic and diplomatic front, despite the fact that most regional leaders have prime ministerial ambitions. What does this speak of a parliamentary election in the largest democracy of the world?
Thus, since the February 14 Pulwama attack on a CRPF convoy, the discourse has been driven by India-Pakistan relations, claims of a new doctrine of pre-emptive cross-border military action, and now, despite the electoral code of conduct, the anti-satellite missile test. The urgency to hold the test is unclear as there was no international treaty about to shut the door, as was happening with the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty in 1998, which forced the Indian nuclear tests. In any case, the capability of knocking out Low Earth Orbit (LOE) satellites had been developing for years and was perhaps demonstrable earlier and certainly after the election. But while India has been in this electoral bubble, oblivious of international developments, global events march on.
China has been India’s principal challenge for decades, but more brazenly treading on core Indian interests after the rise of President Xi Jinping. It shelters, equips and encourages Pakistan, including the Pakistan-based terrorists. It has lost ground in the Maldives but is intruding forcefully into Nepal, particularly by capturing influence over Buddhist holy places and thus controlling access to them by Tibetans. It has undertaken the next steps in post-Belt and Road Initiative despite its trade standoff with the United States. The Indian government, interestingly, has chosen a differentiated approach to China and Pakistan. The latter has been used to bolster the BJP’s muscular policy in dealing with India’s “enemies” and thus the locus of the BJP’s electoral strategy. China, on the other hand, has been handled with circumspection, despite China persisting with its hold on the listing of Masood Azhar by the UN’s 1267 Al Qaeda Sanctions Committee. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo reacted strongly to that by underlining Chinese hypocrisy towards Muslims in protecting terrorists abroad while interning millions of Uyghurs at home in “vocational training” camps. Unperturbed, China dug in to defend Pakistan while President Xi Jinping commenced a two-nation European visit to Italy and France, to see if Europe could be weaned away from the US.
In Italy, Mr Xi bagged the first G-7 member to endorse the BRI with a rather paltry $2.5 billion worth of promised deals. His visit to France was significant as France had a lead role in unsuccessfully getting UN Security Council to list Masood Azhar. President Emmanuel Macron, unlike fawning Italians, co-opted German Chancellor Angel Merkel and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker for a joint interaction to spell out that Europe was united in negotiating with China over trade and global governance. President Xi spelt out four principles on the second subject. He sought fairness and reasonableness to address what he called governance deficit. He endorsed the centrality of the UN and multilateralism. He felt joint efforts were needed to fulfil peace deficit. And finally, there was the development deficit to be addressed through UN and WTO reform. The Chinese vision is naturally selective as it approaches global governance to tweak parts of the existing order it finds unsuitable. UN reform for them does not include expansion of permanent category of UN Security Council members to include deserving members like India. WTO reform for them may include none or some of the core elements of reform debate like transparency, over-capacity, state subsidies or effective dispute settlement.
What would have been music to French ears was reiterated Chinese support for the Paris climate accord. The US National Security Council warned Italy against legitimising the BRI project of China. Separately, a spat broke out between Turkey and China over Turkish criticism of the mistreatment of Chinese Uyghurs. Four Turkish businessmen were arrested by China in what is by now familiar retaliatory Chinese actions. Obviously, China was more circumspect about taking similar action against US citizens after scathing remarks on the same subject by Washington.
But can a rising power like India afford an eight to 12-week hiatus while the ruling party expends its energy on distorting foreign policy imperatives for electoral advantage? The Kartarpur Corridor, which Narendra Modi had initially likened to the Berlin Wall falling, is now a diplomatic football as India objects to Khalistani supporters in the Pakistani delegation. Much as India may wish to pillory Pakistan, it is far from being intimidated or isolated. The US, Saudis and Emiratis would push it to appease India in a calibrated manner while retaining goodwill in Islamabad. Malaysian PM Mahathir Mohamed arrived in Pakistan to create a bridge to Asean, by promising a car factory and other investments. India boycotted Pakistan’s national day reception in New Delhi while sending a message of greetings from Mr Modi to Prime Minister Imran Khan. This dumb-charade-as-diplomacy will continue till the election results are out on May 23. Rising markets and the elite buzz favour a BJP victory or at least the largest party advantage. Till then South Block will, to use a cricketing phrase, keep blocking the ball.