On May 23, the Indian public’s electoral mandate will emerge. The shape of the next government may also become clear. That largely depends on the ruling BJP’s numbers. Logic dictates that the BJP may not repeat its 2014 performance, when it won almost every seat in key Hindi belt states, other than Bihar. Thus, the best-case scenario for the BJP is to not need support from outside its existing alliance partners.
The fate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Israeli friend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is instructive. Having again beaten Likud’s opponents, he stands checkmated by a notional ally, right-of-centre leader Avigdar Liberman, who won only five seats but subscribes to right-wing, secular values. Without him, Mr Netanyahu has 60 out of 120 members. But the ultra-orthodox group of 21 members opposes Mr Liberman because of his proposed amendment to the conscription law to make orthodox youth subject to military service. The Israeli President gave a final two weeks to Mr Netanyahu to present his coalition. It is imaginable that Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar could play a similar role in Mr Modi’s next coalition by stymieing BJP oddballs like Pragya Singh Thakur or an old ally like the Shiv Sena.
Meanwhile, the world has not waited for the tiresome Indian electoral process to be over. Balancing between the United States, Russia, China, Japan and the European Union has continued apace. The elections to the European Parliament will begin on May 23, the day of the Indian vote count, and end by May 26. It will be interesting how people vote in a post-Brexit, populism fed and anti-globalisation driven Europe. Traditional parties were arranged left or right of centre in the post-war period. The Economist calls the “European election pitting nationalists against pro-Europeans and established parties against insurgents of all stripes”.
Simultaneously, the trade war between the US and China, which seemed abating, has reignited. President Donald Trump has dug in by raising tariffs on $200 billion Chinese imports from 10 per cent to 25 per cent. New tariffs were also likely on remainder $225 billion worth of goods. The initial estimates are that immediately while the US GDP will suffer by about 0.31 per cent, the loss to the Chinese economy will be 1.22 per cent. In future, the effect will converge to 0.57 per cent for China and 0.49% for the US. But US farmers and consumers are already feeling the effect. According to one analyst, the US will have to choose between slowing China’s ascent and its sought-after geopolitical primacy and maximising prosperity at home. So far, and fortuitously for Japan and India, Mr Trump has chosen the first.
Japan has not merely relied on the US to manage China. It operationalised the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which Mr Trump had abandoned, with the 11 remaining members, making it a major economic grouping. If the US had joined it would have amounted to 40 per cent of global trade under the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Japan has also finalised a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU. On the other hand, Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has used the Sino-US spat to reach out to China, visiting it in October last year. He expects Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit Japan for the G-20 summit on June 28-29. China reduced its provocative military incursions in the East China Sea and near the Japanese-controlled Senkaku islands. Japan, like India, holds the cards on the Chinese-advocated Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), that is constructed around Asean and Asian nations. Japan is simultaneously wooing Mr Trump, inviting him to be the first visitor, starting May 25, to visit Japan after the accession of the new emperor.
Australia, the other member of the Quadrilateral, a grouping of four democracies of the Indo-Pacific (besides Australia, including India, Japan and the US), held parliamentary elections on May 18. The surprise winner has been the ruling Liberal alliance, which has kept challenger Labour out of play. Thus, Australia’s tense relations with China and support to a defiant military posture would persist.
Like Mr Abe, the next Indian Prime Minister will have to undertake subtle balancing between emerging poles consisting of the US on one side and China and Russia on the other. US secretary of state Mike Pompeo visited Russia to try and keep Russia from aligning too closely with China. Russian President Vladimir Putin understands this game and realises that the Trump administration is hampered in accommodating him strategically due to allegations of cosiness between Trump the candidate and Russians. Attempting to regain its pre-Soviet Union breakup influence, at least in its periphery and West Asia, Russia is playing spoilsport wherever US interests interpose. The latest example is in helping the regime in Venezuela survive popular protests despite US goading from the sidelines.
Unfortunately, the Modi government allowed itself to get mired in Pakistan-bashing for electoral purposes to divert attention from a mismanaged economy and social tensions caused by divisions of caste, faith and ethnicity. The US is treating the UN listing of Masood Azhar as major strategic help to India, realising it was useful for Mr Modi electorally. However, like the listing of Hafiz Saeed in 2008 after the 26/11 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, it is of symbolic value unless Pakistan honestly stops sponsoring jihadi groups. Otherwise there will be a short hiatus and resurrection of the same operatives in a new guise. It is good that the IMF’s conditions for the $6 billion facility include Pakistani action on terror funding.
The next Indian Prime Minister has to loosen the China-Pakistan alliance by a combination of rewards and punishments. Balakot is a one-off that will be difficult to repeat. But Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) does threaten Chinese investment in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). The Chinese economy is being impacted by US tariffs and thus even China has to rethink its position in Asia. If it seeks dominance by using surrogates like Pakistan and North Korea, or direct military action like occupying vast amounts of the South China Sea, then its course is uncertain. It can recalibrate its Asia policy and help create a harmonious new order. India needs a Prime Minister with historical sense, requisite knowledge and finesse to achieve this. Diplomacy can have theatrical moments, like US President Richard Nixon visiting Beijing, but it cannot be mere theatre sans strategic content or a convenient tool for winning elections.