The rushed termination of the Budget session in the Lok Sabha meant that there was no debate on the Demands for Grants 2020-21 for the Ministry of External Affairs. But such a discussion has been overdue in Parliament: the Lok Sabha has not discussed the MEA’s performance ever since the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014.
As the former chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, I have always proudly articulated our tradition that political differences stop at the water’s edge – that there isn’t a Congress foreign policy or a BJP foreign policy, only an Indian foreign policy. In these turbulent times as reflected in a world driven into isolationism, protectionism and ultra-nationalism, and further bedevilled by climate change, global terrorism and now the COVID-19 pandemic, we need a robust foreign policy that is capable of responding effectively to the state of the global order. Arguably, perhaps now more so than ever, how India presents itself and engages with the rest of the world on such challenges is of fundamental importance to all of us.
The MEA and External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar deserve congratulations for the manner in which they have reached out to our stranded citizens in COVID-19 hotspots such as China, Iran and Italy. I believe the gratitude of our nation is also owed to our diplomatic corps across the world, who have ensured that Indians in trouble are well-supported.
That being said, the rest of the Modi government’s foreign policy has been underwhelming. Even as Prime Minister Modi has been an energetic salesman abroad, his government has under-performed domestically, raising the question: how long can a salesman impress by the sheer force of oratory and cleverly designed international spectacles if the package he is selling is empty?
There is much to be said about failures and setbacks for India in its relations with its South Asian neighbours, especially Pakistan, and our continued tensions with China, the unsteady tenor of the India-US relationship despite well-publicised ‘bromances’ with the two American presidents that Modi has known, the setbacks with Russia, and the blow-hot-blow-cold affair with Japan. But if one had to pick a single issue that defines the current crisis in India’s foreign policy, it would be the larger crisis of credibility, which has put our foreign policy on the defensive as it struggles to explain the Modi regime’s domestic conduct to foreign friends and critics alike.
A fine example once
India, as I have often argued, needs to strike a balance between its hard power and soft power in its global posture. It is the latter that has been our bigger asset. After all, it is not the country with the bigger army or economy that wins world approval, but the country that tells the better story—and sadly, India’s story has become less attractive to the world.
After India launched far-reaching economic reforms in 1991, our stature in the world rose steadily. Thanks to farsighted leaders, we were recognised as a thriving democracy and an example to the world of how to manage diversity in a free and open society. Our enhanced economic clout and the size of our increasingly prosperous market added to our appeal. We were able to develop a ‘Rising India’ narrative that rested on the economy’s performance and potential, and on our success at managing our internal differences democratically and largely peacefully.
Rapid economic growth opened up new opportunities for cooperation with foreign countries: neighbours wanted to take advantage of their proximity, while major powers saw a useful partner worth courting. We effectively sold ourselves as the world’s fastest-growing free-market democracy; the contrast with China’s rise as an authoritarian state was implicit. The Indian system, many foreigners felt, was not only more attractive, but also worked just as well.
Global condemnation, undoing the good
Today, the Modi-Amit Shah government has derailed that narrative. Open up any reputable foreign publication (with ideological leanings either Right or Left) and you will inevitably find condemnation of this government’s actions in damning articles targeting economic and social developments in India. Particular attention has been paid to our actions in Jammu and Kashmir, with widespread criticism against the decision in New Delhi to place this region under clampdown, break up the state, impose an internet and communications blockade, detain mainstream political leaders and muzzle the press.
More recently, the Modi government’s actions, first with the passing of the communally tinged Citizenship (Amendment) Act (and the advocacy of a nationwide National Register of Citizens, or NRC, that could have disenfranchised Muslims) and then its unwillingness to find peaceful and constructive solutions to widespread protests that have spread across India, have also invited the opprobrium of the watching global community. Global concern reached a point of no-return when violence broke out in our nation’s capital Delhi, taking the lives of 53 citizens and reducing our law enforcement agencies to mute spectators.
Such events have not only been criticised by the Western media, but have embarrassed our friends in the neighbouring Muslim countries of Bangladesh and Afghanistan, shaken the confidence of foreign investors, antagonised influential members of the US Congress, and earned the government a chorus of disapproval from several world leaders. Many Muslim nations have been openly critical, summoning our ambassadors to demand explanations, and those well-disposed to India have been reduced to pleading privately, “Please don’t make it so hard for us to be your friends!”
For the first time in over 40 years, Kashmir was discussed in the United Nations Security Council. The bipartisan consensus on strong bilateral relations that has existed in the United States for 25 years, irrespective of the government in Delhi or Washington, has been broken.
Time to change behaviour
The world is understandably troubled by an India seen as increasingly bigoted and intolerant, one that is wilfully driving sectarian wedges between its people and is being overtaken by an intolerant majoritarianism that has no appeal to the world outside. In turn, instead of projecting the issues that matter to India and the world, our diplomats are spending all their time refuting allegations, clarifying outrageous statements and actions of BJP leaders, and defensively explaining our domestic policies to sceptical foreign governments.
As the formidable Manmohan Singh recently pointed out in a scathing summary of the state of Indian affairs, “India faces imminent danger from the trinity of social disharmony, economic slowdown and a global health epidemic. … I deeply worry that this potent combination of risks may not only rupture the soul of India but also diminish our global standing as an economic and democratic power in the world.” When an individual of the calibre and vision of Manmohan Singh chooses such words, surely it is in the interest of the ruling dispensation to listen.
I believe that as a nation India can project strength, leadership and a model to emulate in the world order – but only if it can remain open to the contention of ideas and interests domestically, unafraid of the prowess or products of the outside world, wedded to the democratic pluralism that is our country’s greatest strength, and determined to liberate and fulfil the creative energies of its people. It is a sad indictment that our own government’s actions have undermined the very record and values that have formed the foundation of the global admiration we have long enjoyed. If we want it back, the Modi government will have to change its behaviour at home before it can hope to win laurels abroad.
The author is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 19 books, both fiction and non-fiction. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor. Views are personal.
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