Prime Minister Narendra Modi reaffirmed the absence of “dil ki doori” between his government and 14 Kashmiri mainstream leaders at his first meeting with them after Aug-ust 2019, when his government had revoked Jammu and Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and downgraded and divided the state into two Union territories. Questions naturally arise about what lies behind this softening of the Modi government’s approach, far removed from the demonising of tr-aditional political parties over the past two years.
While the foreign policy of any democracy gets impacted by its domestic politics, it is more so with this Indian government. After Mr Modi’s convincing re-election in 2019, the government decided to pursue its core agenda with vigour. The Jammu and Kashmir decision was taken in August 2019, followed in December by the Citizenship Ame-ndment Act’s passage, creating discriminatory, religion-based and nation-specific exceptions for refugees to gain Indian citizenship. In February 2020, US President Donald Trump visited India on a highly calibrated visit to massage his ego. To avoid appearing partisan, such visits are not usually sch-eduled when the incumbent faces re-election in nine months. Prime Minister Modi had in the preceding years personally cultivated relations with the rulers of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, besides of course the United States.
Thus, when implementing its majoritarian BJP agenda domestically, the government calculated that Pakistan’s protests over J&K’s rejig could be contained without too much diplomatic damage. Similarly, the friendly government of Ban-gladesh could be appeased to ensure that it ignored the rhetoric of senior BJP leaders dubbing illegal immigrants as “pests”. The US under President Trump was also expected to downplay the issue, as he demonstrated by ignoring the communal incidents in New Delhi on the last day of his visit in February 2020.
However, the US as well as its Gulf allies Saudi Arabia and UAE had been closely watching developments in South Asia. The escalation of tensions after the Pulwama terror attack and India’s airs-trike on Balakot in Paki-stan, followed by Paki-stan’s retaliatory strike and dogfight resulting in the capture of an IAF pilot, saw the behind-the-scenes role played by these three nations. The fact that the Indian pilot was handed back almost immediately, giving a fillip to Mr Modi’s popularity just two months before the Lok Sabha election, earned these three nati-ons goodwill and possible leverage in India-Paki-stan affairs. C-Voter pol-ling data found that bet-ween January 1 and Mar-ch 7 the net approval rating of the Modi government rose from 32 per cent to 62 per cent. While some of the bump came after the Budget, the real spike was after Balakot. The popularity of Rahul Gan-dhi fell from 23.3 per cent to 8.2 per cent, while that of Mr Modi rose from 32.4 per cent to 63.2 per cent.
However, the BJP’s assessment about the international reaction to its domestic agenda getting easily manged came up against unforeseen factors. First, the outbreak of Covid-19, beginning soon after Mr Trump’s India visit, distracted India and even affected India’s ima-ge abroad after the poor handling of its second wave. Second, China prot-ested strongly after the J&K changes, claiming that India could not alter the status quo unilaterally as China was a party to the dispute. Thus, India should have been alert to Chinese mischief at the Line of Actual Control (LAC), especially as China had quickly managed to contain the epidemic. Instead of showing contrition for letting the virus escape and cause a global health and economic crisis, China chose to push its People’s Liberation Army at multiple points in Eastern Ladakh up to its claim lines, upsetting the status quo. While it has agreed to a mutual withdrawal in the Pangong Tso and Kailash Hills sectors, its intrusions remain in Depsang Plains, Gogra and Hot Springs, etc.
The third unforeseen factor was the defeat of President Donald Trump in November 2020. After Joe Biden assumed the presidency, India realised that his Democratic Par-ty’s left wing had evangelistic interest in human rights and freedom of faith and expression. Ironically, two Indian-origin members of Congress, Pramila Jayapal and Ro Khanna, are among the strongest critics of the BJP majoritarian agenda, including its draconian Kashmir policy. President Biden too strongly advocated an alliance of dem-ocracies to counter the challenge from the strategic convergence of Russia and China. It was because of this that at the recent G-7 summit in Cornwall, four democracies were invited as “guests” — Australia, India, South Korea and South Africa.
Critics would say US foreign policy rests on pragmatic considerations, oft-en ignoring its own advocated values of democracy and human rights. How-ever, the times have cha-nged, and Cold War arguments may now be inapplicable, particularly after Mr Trump’s attempt at undermining US democracy itself. Moreover, China presents a different challenge from the one the former Soviet Union held. It posits a hugely successful model resting on restricted political and personal freedoms in exchange for prosperity, material growth and economic security. To challenge its lure, liberal democracies are being compelled to argue the relevance of their own model. Thus, the US and other Western democracies cannot ignore the continued debasement of liberal democracy in Asia, and certainly in India as they look towards this country as a role model.
The PM’s session with the Kashmiri political leaders is a recognition that the government’s Kashmir policy has yielded poor results at home and abroad. The restoration of Article 370 seems unlikely as its revocation has been a core BJP demand and which has popular support. That leaves delimitation, elections and statehood. Views on their sequencing differ, but the road to statehood is clear. This clears the path for a calibrated resumption of normal relations with Pakistan. Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan in an interview has sought “civilised relations” with India. He also interestingly argues that even Pakistan doesn’t want the Taliban to continue its onslaught in Afghanistan to depose the government as a civil war will only have more refugees streaming into an already economically challenged Pakistan. The national security advisers of India and Pakistan will both be at the coming Shanghai Cooperation Organisation meeting. Hopefully, the Indian government has realised that its Pakistan policy should be delinked from electoral considerations and strategically its Kashmir policy has only deepened Sino-Pakistan relations. If Pakistan too realises that terror is a dangerous instrument to wield against India as it begets global condemnation, besides singeing the user, the region might actually stand to gain.
The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh....