PM Narendra Modi, Congress party interim chief Sonia Gandhi (centre) and Union Minister Amit Shah (right) pay to the victims of 2001 Parliament attack | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
File photo of PM Narendra Modi and Home Minister Amit Shah | Photo: Praveen Jain | ThePrint
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A good part of India’s population has only known a benign external environment — with the United States, Europe, the Middle East, most of East Asia and Australia being favourably disposed towards India. Other than China and Pakistan, few countries have and create problems for us. Even with respect to these two countries, most of the world’s countries are inclined towards India’s position. Anyone who remembers India’s foreign relations in the 1970s, 1980s and the early 1990s, will find this state of affairs remarkable. We have never had it so good.

Unfortunately, some of it is unravelling and a lot of it is at risk. Due to a combination of the unprecedented economic slowdown and the policies pursued by the Narendra Modi government, India’s foreign relations in the coming years are likely to worsen.


Also read: India’s diversity should be kept as it is: New French Ambassador Emmanuel Lenain


Endangering ties with ‘best friend’

An immediate casualty in the current controversy over the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the impending National Register of Citizens (NRC) is the bilateral relationship with Bangladesh, one of India’s most important and well-disposed neighbours. For now, Dhaka has ignored the demonisation of its citizens by Indian political leaders and is sticking to the official line that these are India’s “internal affairs”, but it’s a matter of time before this position changes. Bangladesh’s foreign and home ministers have called off their visits to India and the country’s outgoing ambassador pointedly said that Bangladeshis “would rather swim in the ocean and reach Italy instead of coming to India.”

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who has been openly pro-India in word and deed since coming to power a decade ago, is bound to feel pressure from Bangladesh’s domestic politics to take a hard line. If she doesn’t, she might even lose power. Her political adversaries will only be too happy to play up the India bogey and walk into Beijing’s warm embrace. Even if such an extreme outcome does not come about, Bangladesh might well withhold security cooperation at a time when the Modi government has unsettled almost all eight northeastern states. All this without even considering the scenario where the Indian government decides to repatriate large numbers of people it considers “illegal immigrants”.

Worse, undermining Sheikh Hasina politically will make every regional political leader wary of going out on a limb for India. It’s not that there are large numbers of politicians in Sri Lanka, Nepal and the Maldives who advocate pro-India positions. Even the few who do are likely to be more cautious in the future. On the other hand, the region’s pro-China politicians know that Beijing has their backs covered.


Also read: CAB, NRC, Kashmir: Is Modi govt damaging India’s diplomatic standing for domestic politics?


On a wobbly tripod in US, Europe

India’s engagement with the United States and Europe has been driven by a tripod shared values, economic prospects and geopolitical considerations. In other words, a shared commitment to liberal democracy, India’s growing economy and its potential to act as a counter-weight to China makes New Delhi an attractive partner. It would be bad enough if one of the three legs became wobbly, but the relationship risks fraying if all three came apart.

The US administration may well ignore pressures from Congress and civil society groups on issues such as Kashmir, the CAA and the NRC if it sees New Delhi as a necessary economic partner prepared to stand up to Beijing. Yet, if the slowdown is prolonged and New Delhi dials back on free trade, then official attitudes in Washington can change quickly. Engaging even the best lobbyists won’t help then. Far more important is for the Modi government to get the tripod back into balance.

In contrast, ASEAN countries are mostly concerned about India’s economic trajectory, and to some extent on New Delhi being capable and willing to balance Beijing’s influence in their politics. Even without accounting for the current economic slowdown, India’s decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) means further economic engagement with East Asia is going to be harder. As I have written elsewhere, “It is presumptuous to expect countries and companies to be sympathetic to India’s political interests if they do not see an economic upside. Sheer momentum will allow Indian foreign policy to tide over a mild, short slowdown. If, however, we go into a deep, prolonged slump, we should expect a tough time in international relations.”


Also read: For Modi and Amit Shah, the word ‘Hindu’ is devoid of a moral compass. It’s just us vs them


Control the narrative

If the economic dimension becomes weaker, countries like Malaysia will find it less costly to raise Kashmir and NRC issues on various platforms. They are not paragons of liberal democratic virtue — and they don’t have to be. All they need is the power to make things difficult for us India and the readiness to use it.

As far as the Middle East is concerned, Prime Minister Modi’s personal relationship with Crown Princes Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed of Abu Dhabi have helped India manage relations with the Arab states so far. This is likely to continue even if public opinion in those countries becomes less favourably disposed towards India.

All of this adds up to Indian diplomacy having to spend a lot of time, resources and political capital defending domestic policies. Negative headlines have already started appearing in foreign media on a regular basis. Once this narrative takes hold, foreign capitals will become less warm to India’s interests. That is why restabilising the tripod is necessary.

The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy. Views are personal.

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9 Comments Share Your Views

9 COMMENTS

  1. The writer is of the opinion that muslims are treated as first citizens in China and China welcomes muslims with open arms. And the Muslims of China are the happiest.

    • Nowhere the writer has mentioned about Moslems ! The BJP and its followers feed on the daily pabulum of repeating about Moslem bogey . Under no other PM or government had there ever been a daily discussion of Moslems as we have seen since 2014 and the days leading to 2014’s and 2019’s parliamentary elections . Once the BJP abandons raising the Moslem bogey the BJP will finds its pre-1989 level in Indian politics . Never in the modern times except during the days of partition India and wanton demolition of the bari Mosque,has social and political discussions have been only around Moslems. It is shameful that the PM and his colleagues do not think twice before demonising Moslems either subtly or brazenly. Moslems , like Hindus and other religionists have contributed immensely towards India’s development in all spheres right from the time of Moghals . Islam came to India long before the Moghals came and under Moghals India had reached its zenith in terms of prosperity in terms of richness and had trade surplus with the rest of the world only to be upset by the British rule against whose rule the BJP seems to have no qualms and does not even whimper and call themselves nationalists. Earlier neigbours , save Pakistan, used to respect us and today they stand upto the subtle minatory tone of India

  2. We are oblivious to the fact that there is the Spectre of fascism in amongst us.
    The failed demographic bulge and climate change will cause mass starvation for the poor and a very miserable existence For the middle class
    EVERYTHING IS NOT NORMAL, REPEAT AFTER ME EVERYTHING IS NOT NORMAL
    As the writer Arundatti Roy says “An accurate description runs the risk of sounding like hyperbole. And so, for the sake of credibility and good manners, we groom the creature that has sunk its teeth into us—we comb out its hair and wipe its dripping jaw to make it more personable in polite company”.
    Unless we confront ourselves with the truth the future of all of us will become our worst nightmare.

  3. if Modi govt’s adamant stand on citizenship will push India’s neighbours into China’s arms, it should also motivate anti India Muslims living in India illegally to move into China arms and enjoy the China’s hospitality there. If these Modi hater authors spend even a fraction of their time on constructive work, they would realise the real happiness of life. Today they are vomiting so much venom that even Cobra would feel cheated that sickular venom is more harmful Cobra’s venom.

  4. India has always been shy and reticent about projecting its interests and thinks too much about others opinions. While it is true that currently Indian economy is slowing, the stock market performance seems to indicate longer term bullishness. It is also true that India needs to grow economically for fulfilling its security and foreign policy ambitions. However, that does not mean that it does not address social issues that need to be addressed. The CAA is meant for refugees from neighbouring countries. It is not discriminatory based on religion. However, the NRC is not a good idea. Frankly, I don’t think a national NRC will get traction. But the CAA is fine. Though it needs to be handled carefully in the Northeast as it is more of an ethnic issue there than religious.

  5. Even without recent missteps, there is a case for a comprehensive reset to many of our important relationships. The gulf with China is unbridgeable. Although there is a hardening of western attitudes to China, few would any longer see India as a credible weight to counter its rise. A foreign policy / diplomatic posture where the diplomats do not seem to be in charge.

  6. China is moving the UNSC for a second discussion on Kashmir. Even the new French Ambassador is urging that diversity be preserved. A time for EAM to prove his mettle. Erudite talks to think tanks are not taking us very far.

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