India’s image has taken a battering in the last few months, not only in the United States and elsewhere in the West, but even in its own neighbourhood. Many friends and admirers of India are worried that the idea of India they have supported since the country’s Independence is changing and, in their view, not for the better.
At a time when New Delhi would like the world to root for a rising India, the country is in the news for things like attacks on students at various universities, including in the heart of Delhi. These images do not purport well for any country, let alone one that is recognised for its democratic credentials.
Modern India’s international prestige and standing have rested on it being viewed as an open, pluralist democracy, one that supports a multicultural, secular society. For most Indophiles around the world, India was the land of Mahatma Gandhi, whose non-violent struggle inspired millions, including South African leader Nelson Mandela and American civil rights activist and leader Martin Luther King Jr. Images of violence disrupts that visualisation of India for outsiders.
A model example for long
Around the world, there has always been a sense of wonder about the Indian example: a post-colonial country that was able to sustain democracy, avoid military rule, educate and feed its citizens, and protect its territory with little social strife. The model of citizens speaking different languages and professing many faiths but still being Indians has been a source of envy for developing nations.
India’s moral stature and image as a democracy are also the reason why most countries around the world have welcomed India playing a larger role not only in its region but in the global arena. Unlike the fears tied to the rise of Communist China, India’s economic success and potential for military power have been encouraged by countries around the world, including in Asia and the West.
India’s soft image built the perception that India would be a benign international power. That perception is now under threat as the reality of India is changing. A Hindu Rashtra, its appeal to India’s majority notwithstanding, is unlikely to attract the kind of universal awe that a non-communal, secular India has done over the last 70-plus years.
Religion in Constitution
The recent protests and demonstrations in various parts of India are tied to the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which was passed by the Indian Parliament in December 2019. The Act purportedly seeks to offer expedited citizenship to Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Jain, Parsi, and Christian minorities from three of India’s neighbours, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan.
While offering citizenship to persecuted minorities is a laudable act, there is widespread criticism of the fact that the CAA gratuitously lists every religion except Islam. The argument that the minorities fleeing India’s three neighbouring Muslim-majority countries belong to the listed religions remains unimpressive. A law that defined religious persecution and those seeking refuge on its account could easily have been adopted without naming all religions, except one.
Moreover, India’s citizenship is based on jus soli (citizenship by land of birth) and is religion-neutral. During the drafting of the Indian Constitution, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, his deputy and Home Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, and the draftsman of the Constitution, B.R. Ambedkar, had argued vehemently against the use of religion in defining citizenship. The CAA’s major flaw is that it introduces religion in that religion-neutral legal edifice.
Benefitting from democratic image
Unlike many developing countries that went through domestic turmoil and autocratic or military rule, India consistently remained a democracy. India’s first democratic election took place in 1952, just five years after Independence, with suffrage provided to all Indians. Since then, elections have been held at regular intervals and by all accounts, are deemed free and fair.
It was India’s democracy that brought the Narendra Modi government to power. But democracy is as much about the rights of minorities as it is about the authority of the majority. The impression that India is somehow trying to diminish the role and significance of its minorities does not sit well with admirers of Indian democracy abroad.
In the international arena, India’s image has been of a status quo power, a country that sought better ties with its neighbours, and aimed to be a responsible global player. India’s rivalry with China and its conflicts with Pakistan notwithstanding, the world has been unwilling to view India through the Chinese or Pakistani prism and the country has not been identified as having hegemonic ambitions.
In a world that looks askance at countries obtaining nuclear weapons, India is the rare example of a state that has been able to convince the international community, especially the United States, to recognise its nuclear status. The 2005 India-US civilian nuclear deal and India’s acceptance in the global nuclear regimes have been possible because India is viewed as a responsible global actor.
Save economy, foreign ties
Another attractive feature of India in recent years has been its economic potential. But now that the focus on economic growth has been replaced by the desire to socially redefine India, that attraction is fading. India’s growth rate has fallen to around 5 per cent from a high of 8-8.5 per cent in 2014.
Slower economic growth also means that the government lacks the resources to spend on military expansion and modernisation. At a time when China is expanding its military capabilities, and India’s friends would like New Delhi to play a bigger role internationally, India does not have the capacity or bandwidth to do so.
Domestic policy affects foreign relations whether one likes it or not and it is not enough to say that the currently contentious issues are India’s internal matters. The citizenship legislation, for example, has hurt relations with Bangladesh, which has had exceptionally good ties with India over the years.
Similarly, the protests in Assam around the citizenship issue led to the cancellation of a visit to India by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Japan is one of India’s closest friends, largest bilateral donor, as well as one of the top foreign investors in India. As protests continue, and the negative international press endures, there might be other external repercussions of India’s internal makeover.
Instead of allowing communal passion to interrupt India’s entry into the global major league, Indian leaders should reconsider their priorities. Instead of addressing real or perceived historical injustices, the focus of India’s government should be on boosting economic growth, building human capital, and strengthening military capability.
While trying to put minorities and neighbours in their place, the Modi government is preventing India from achieving its own place in the global order.
The author is a Research Fellow and Director, India Initiative at the Washington DC-based Hudson Institute. Her books include ‘Escaping India: Explaining Pakistan’s Foreign Policy’ (Routledge, 2011) and ‘From Chanakya to Modi: The Evolution of India’s Foreign Policy’ (Harper Collins, 2017). Views are personal.