For the Narendra Modi government, the calm in Kashmir is proof that the situation is being managed; it believes the death of 20 people in police firing since 5 August, when Article 370 was diluted to scrap the former state’s special status, is a price it can afford to pay despite growing criticism of human rights violations.
The Modi government also believes it can handle the sound and fury in the US regarding the citizenship protests in India – largely by ignoring it. It sees the noise over the CAA protests as a result of the polarised election around Donald Trump. In any case, a limited trade deal between India and the US is in the works.
And as for Pakistan, despite the mounting costs of “not talking” to its western neighbour when it is ready to keep open a dialogue with every other country in the world, Modi’s managers say New Delhi intends to stick with this policy until Islamabad takes action against the perpetrators of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai.
As India welcomes a new year, the foreign policy establishment is digging its heels into some recent challenges – 2019 can hardly be buried easily, but it can be managed.
If the economy picks up, PM Modi can return to his own boast of being a regional leader. If it doesn’t, things will have to change.
Biggest nightmare persists
Even if the pesky international media – from Al Jazeera to The New York Times to The Times of London – insists on publishing more bad news than good news about India, PM Modi’s managers believe they can stave off the worst because the world is hardly in a position to point fingers at India.
Even in noisy America, India’s most important foreign policy partner, Modi seems to be counting on Trump’s reelection, which will keep the focus on his own polarising personality – in the off chance that a Democrat wins, it is likely that PM Modi will pass off the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) as proof of India’s vibrant and democratic diversity.
But there is one overwhelming concern that continues to be the Modi government’s worst nightmare – the Indian economy. Any further downgrading by an international credit rating agency – like what Moody’s did last September when it pushed India’s rating from stable to negative – will destroy the already gloomy mood.
Some people believe that the worst is over and that green shoots will emerge soon; others point out that there are no short-term solutions. Certainly, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s “how to fix the economy” teaser on New Year’s Eve was a plea to the world to believe in the long-term idea of a prosperous India.
It’s not clear whether the world will bite. The worst cut in recent weeks has come from China’s Global Times, which headlined a recent article saying, ‘India’s GDP slowdown won’t soon be reversed.’
That’s the nub of the problem and it took PM Modi three years to understand that. If he had only read Deng Xiaoping, the leader who opened up China in 1980 and made it the manufacturer of the world while keeping tight control over politics, Modi might not have been so severely censured by the international media.
Make or break year
Certainly, Beijing remains a source of worry. Modi had hoped in 2018 that his informal summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping would keep the channels of communication open with a big neighbour. He continues to hope that his refusal to sign the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) will open the way for a revamped ‘Make in India’ programme.
That’s why 2020 is a make-or-break year for the Modi government. If he is able to pull off key investments that will help turn around the economy, he will be able to breathe easier. That is where foreign investors like Fairfax come in.
The realisation that Piyush Goyal’s Ministry of Commerce has to play much more cohesively with S. Jaishankar’s Ministry of External Affairs, especially in the pursuit of open trade policy, has also taken place. Trump’s US remains on top of the mind, which is why a limited trade deal is said to be in the works.
Learn an old lesson in New Year
PM Modi hopes he can both assuage and tempt Trump with reduced tariff, so that Trump can continue to focus on the bad boys in China and give Delhi a break. That is why the choice of the next ambassador to the US is also important.
With Harsh Shringla back from Washington as the next foreign secretary, several contenders are in the running – high commissioner to Sri Lanka Taranjit Sandhu, high commissioner to Singapore Jawed Ashraf, and MEA secretary T.S. Tirumurti, among others.
In 2020, Modi will have to renew focus on the neighbourhood. The relationship with Bangladesh is in a mess, ties with Nepal are strained, Bhutan has decided to extend a travel tax on Indian citizens, and Pakistan, India’s western neighbour, continues to be treated like a diplomatic leper.
India has long seen itself as the largest, biggest, richest, most powerful country in South Asia, but one which is willing to take smaller nations along. Perhaps that will be the PM’s biggest learning this year.
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