As 2019 ends, it is time to review the Narendra Modi government’s diplomatic performance over the past year and the global geo-strategic scenario for 2020. In the first half of the year, the Modi government successfully shaped a national security narrative, using the Pulwama terror strike and India’s retaliatory air attack on Balakot to capture over 300 seats in the Lok Sabha elections.
The second half, however, has resulted in electoral and political setbacks. Starting with the abrogation of Article 370 on August 5 and the lockdown of Jammu and Kashmir, the BJP did poorly in two crucial state elections, despite brandishing its “strong” leadership. In Haryana, the BJP formed a government only by embracing a Jat party it had tried to electorally marginalise. In Maharashtra, it drew Prime Minister Modi into the fiasco of the midnight lifting of President’s Rule and the swearing-in of a BJP government that lacked a majority and fell swiftly. Ignoring the people who sought focus on the economy and development, the BJP leapt into amending the Citizenship Act to allow Indian citizenship for victims of religious persecution in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, except Muslims. Breaching the non-sectarian foundation of India’s Constitution, it triggered protests by students, incensed over the police barging into Jamia Millia Islamia without the sanction of university authorities and employing brute force. The trouble soon spread to many states and cities.
Naturally, global attention was drawn to the sectarian laws and draconian police repression of peaceful protests. The US state department, the UN and the Organisation of Islamic Conference began expressing their concern. External affairs minister S. Jaishankar undiplomatically boycotted a meeting with the US House Foreign Affairs Committee over the presence of Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, who had introduced a bill criticising the Kashmir lockdown. Senior Democrats, including presidential hopefuls like Elizabeth Warren, berated his move. India also countered the criticism by Turkey, Malaysia and Iran. Saudi Arabia and UAE, wooed assiduously by the Modi government, initially maintained silence, but it is believed the Saudis are now convening the OIC on Kashmir, perhaps in an attempt to appease Pakistan.
Against this background, India’s relations with China, the United States, Russia as well as India’s neighbours, Asean, the Islamic world and the European Union must be examined. The Modi government’s defenders argue that if China can conduct domestic affairs unmindful of global opinion, so should India. But India is not China and should not wish to be one by diminishing its democratic credentials. India presents Asia and the world an alternative between capitalist Western democracies, many becoming less liberal under right-wing leaders, and single-party and autocratic regimes like China and Russia. Universal values enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights and mirrored in the Indian Constitution are not Western. Deeply embedded in Indian culture and thought are humanitarian values, expressed by Buddha and Mahavira. The Bhakti movement, starting six centuries ago, reignited this spiritual renaissance. Guru Nanak, whose 550th birth anniversary fell in 2019, was an exact contemporary of Martin Luther, Christianity’s Protestant reformer. The US Congress is urging the Trump administration to berate the Chinese treatment of Uighurs. Both Houses have passed bills on protecting human rights in Hong Kong. If New Delhi alienates the Democrats, who control the House of Representatives, it not only breaks the bipartisan consensus in the US over India, but may lead to legislative action.
While the Indian government was embroiled in domestic politics and state elections, the geo-political environment has evolved. India and the US held the “2+2” meeting of their foreign and defence ministers in Washington. Pakistan was urged to clear its territory of terrorists. However, US-Pakistan ties are back on track after last September’s hiccup when military aid was cut by $300 million and the training of Pakistani officers suspended. President Trump needs an Afghan peace deal as he enters an election year. Afghan President Abdul Ghani has claimed victory in the presidential polls, but essentially both the Afghan government and India are out of the loop on the US exit plan. Thus, as the external affairs minister accepted in an interview, the India-US convergence, symbolised by the much-touted Indo-Pacific strategy, ends at India-Pakistan border.
Excessive closeness to the US and its allies in the Gulf like Saudi Arabia and the UAE carries costs in the post-US troop withdrawal scenario. Although Iran invited India to a regional security dialogue in Tehran on December 18, Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Iranian Supreme National Security Council, hinted Pakistan may be invited next. Also in attendance were Afghanistan, China, Russia, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan. Iran, China and Russia are also conducting a naval exercise in the Gulf, a first of a kind. Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe hosted Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and on December 21 spoke to US President Donald Trump over the phone during that visit, perhaps brokering a deal between the US and Iran. Thus, Indo-Iranian relations are not where Atal Behari Vajpayee left them in 2004.
Saudi Arabia too has started re-engaging Iran, which will remember the Indian “tilt” towards the UAE and Saudi Arabia.
The challenges in the immediate Saarc neighbourhood flow from Chinese assertiveness and Indian sectarian politics. In Sri Lanka, despite the Modi government’s outreach to new President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, he recently ruled out India getting a lease on Hambantota airport. He also denied any renegotiation with China over the port and adjoining land leased to China in lieu of debt repayment. Sri Lanka also gains a moral edge in dealing with its Tamil minority seeing India’s sectarian approach to Muslim illegal immigrants. In Maldives, the danger lurks of Saudi-fed Wahhabi influence creating anti-India feelings if the Indian government persists with its sectarian agenda. Any National Register of Citizens, that leads to mass internment of Muslims, mostly of Bangladeshi origin, would directly impact ties with Bangladesh. It will be wise to first forge an agreement with Dhaka on the modalities of identification and repatriation to minimise harassment and abuses.
Finally, the “Act East” policy of the government is undercut by two factors: unwillingness to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which now has 10 Asean members plus Australia, China, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand; and CAA which has destabilised the entire eastern tribal states and Assam. Japan PM Shinzo Abe’s visit to Guwahati, postponed due to the protests, was to showcase these states as the lynchpin for economic integration with Asean’s high-growth economies. The world cannot indefinitely ignore the majoritarian and sectarian domestic politics of the Modi government. Diplomacy can do damage control, but marketing of any product depends largely on its wholesomeness....