The new assertiveness in Indian foreign policy where risk-taking, according to External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar, is an inherent part, has taken a curious direction. This is now risking alienating India’s friends or at least a section of people with whom India enjoys all-round support, especially in the United States.
It seems like the arrogance with which the Narendra Modi government, egged by its core support base, dismisses critical views on its policies at home is now being carried into its foreign policy as well. This domestic political strategy of aggressively taking on critics has now been taken to other nations – global politicians and scholars who criticise Modi’s Kashmir policy or citizenship law are attacked on social media; overseas Indian communities are enlisted to protest against Modi’s detractors on foreign shores, including in front of foreign newspaper offices, or actively campaigning for conservative political parties, like in the case of the UK recently.
The snubbing of Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a vocal critic of India’s policy on Kashmir, by Foreign Minister Jaishankar is not likely to go down well in the US and has in fact already been condemned by Democrat presidential aspirants Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren as an effort to “silence” or “shut out” US lawmakers standing up for human rights. Jaishankar reasoned that the Kashmir resolution that Jayapal authored did not reflect a balanced view or fairly characterised what the Indian government was doing in Kashmir. “I have no interest in meeting her,” he had said.
The ‘Howdy, Modi!’ event, which was attended by both Republicans and Democrats, was seen as an endorsement of US President Donald Trump by PM Modi in front of thousands of Indian Americans at the NRG stadium in Houston, Texas, and the millions watching it on TV. With foreign influence in domestic political process in the US being a raging issue since Trump’s election, this Modi-Trump bonhomie will also be watched by the Democrats.
Concerns were also raised in the UK about BJP-affiliated groups backing the Conservatives in the recent prime ministerial elections, which created an impression that the BJP was backing Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party against Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party. Corbyn has been critical of India’s Kashmir policy.
Undoing its own hard work
Both Jayapal and Corbyn are wrong in their views on India’s position on Kashmir, with the latter driven by his need to keep his Pakistani vote bank happy. But it does not make sense for India to alienate an entire party because it will come to power some day and India will have to deal with it. It would certainly be prudent for the Modi government to engage with Labour Party leaders to bring them around to India’s point of view.
While India has the right to not allow interference in its domestic affairs by foreign powers, it will be unwise to snub critical voices. Surprisingly, this is reserved for a friend of India and not India’s primary adversary — China. The country that occupies the far eastern region of union territory of Ladakh (Aksai Chin) has repeatedly passed anti-India statements. It has been critical of the dilution of Article 370, which stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status.
For the first time in decades, Kashmir was discussed at a closed-door meeting of the UN Security Council at the behest of China. President Xi Jinping backing Pakistan, just two days before his informal summit with PM Modi in Mamallapuram on 11 October, said “The rights and wrongs of the situation in Kashmir are clear. China supports Pakistan in safeguarding its legitimate rights and hopes that the parties concerned can resolve the dispute through peaceful dialogue.”
India, however, still went ahead with the informal summit instead of calling it off. And as expected, the summit failed to make much headway in India and China’s relationship. In fact, on his way back, Xi made a brief stopover in Kathmandu to announce China as a guarantor of Nepal’s security. This decision clearly targeted India, which enjoys historical relations with the Himalayan country.
The Modi government is undoing the hard work on the foreign policy front put in during its first term and by his predecessors. Shared values of freedom, justice, human rights and commitment to the rule of law are critical elements of India’s convergence with its friends in the western world, with which it has forged critical strategic partnerships.
But now, there are voices that are questioning India’s commitment to those shared values. India’s soft power has taken a beating.
Countries friendly to India haven’t so far said anything adverse against Modi government’s recent policies.
This has made the Modi government conclude that the country’s stature, its importance in the global security architecture, and the rebalancing that is underway due to China’s rise have given India the heft to disregard opinions of friendly countries and make enemies out of political parties not currently in power. This is a huge risk the Modi government is taking.
Instead of focusing on economic development and undertaking reforms to attract manufacturing in India with the opportunity that the US-China trade war has presented, the Modi government has picked up multiple firefights both at home and abroad.
While India is yet to sign a trade agreement with the US, China and the US have already announced ‘phase one’ of their trade deal.
Modi’s huge mandate was expected to give him political elbow room to undertake transformational reforms to boost the flagging Indian economy. But he has used it to push the BJP’s political agenda, attracting protests in India and negative international reactions.
The Modi government will do well to rethink the current course in foreign policy and focus on the economy. Without a booming economy, both development and strategic goals are being compromised — especially at a time when China is steadily expanding its footprints, including in the Indian Ocean.
The author is editor of Defence Forum India. He is a commentator on defence and strategic affairs. He tweets @YusufDFI. Views are personal.