Donald Trump’s former National Security Advisor John Bolton, in his yet to be released book, has revealed how the US President had asked China to help him in his re-election bid. This, and other such revelations, are worrying, but not surprising. Trump is known to be willing to use the United States’ foreign policy heft for his personal political standing.
Though Prime Minister Narendra Modi is far subtler than Trump, he has essentially been doing the same: using foreign policy for personal political gains. Put simply, Modi’s foreign policy is Modi first, India second.
Modi on a trip of trips
When Modi first came to power in 2014, he surprised many by showing a keen interest in international relations. His frequent foreign trips were a source of political risk. But Modi had a narrative answer: the BJP, RSS and WhatsApp let everyone know that Modi was ‘raising India’s stature on the world stage’. We were told that the world had no respect for India before Modi arrived on the scene.
This narrative has been quite successful and is a key pillar of Brand Modi in winning elections. Recent events in Ladakh’s Galwan Valley tell us the cost India has to pay for Modi’s use of foreign policy for personal brand-building.
As soon as Modi became prime minister in 2014, we realised that we had chosen a marketing manager as our PM. He came up with slogans, acronyms, buzzwords, all the time. Everything was a campaign. Make in India, Swachh Bharat, Yoga Day, Digital India, Startup India, Standup India, Skill India and whatnot. Around 2015, a foreign diplomat in Delhi told me they were having an easy time dealing with the new government. “Whatever we want from India, we just have to find a way of fitting it into one of the Modi government’s campaigns. Put this in Digital India, put that in Startup India. And Indian diplomats and bureaucrats lap it up,” she said.
Modi is easy for foreign powers
Foreign powers know what Modi wants the most: feeding his personality cult. Modi has presented this as a strength to his voters, but it is in fact a weakness. Like a vain person you could please with a few compliments, Modi is easy for foreign powers. China has just shown that.
China fed Modi’s ego by giving him the photo-ops he wanted: in Ahmedabad, in Wuhan, in Mamallapuram. Modi and Xi Jinping have met 18 times since 2014 and the PM has visited China on five occasions. China used Modi’s narcissism to lull him into complacence, and then stabbed us in the back when we were at our weakest–in the middle of a pandemic and an economic downturn. China made Modi give up the maxim ‘trust, but verify’.
Modi likes to boast of his ‘personal friendship’ with foreign leaders. The PM has often spoken of how the Chinese traveller Hiuen Tsang stayed in Modi’s village in Vadnagar as well as in Xi Jinping’s village in China. Modi says Xi Jinping told him this, and even took him to his village in China, where he showed him an inscription of the name of Modi’s village.
— ANI (@ANI) October 8, 2017
Diplomacy is a game of give and take. If Modi’s personal brand building is the prime ask by the Indian side, then India’s national interests are bound to come lower down in the list of priorities.
Modi has told us in the past that the personal bond of friendship, fraternity and brotherhood (he used three Hindi synonyms) went beyond the ‘traditional’ notions of foreign relations. This personal relationship was “plus one” over ‘traditional’ foreign policy. What Modi thought was plus one ‘turned out’ to be ‘minus one’.
The dangerous inter-mingling
The inter-mingling of foreign policy and domestic politics has made the Modi government so tone-deaf to the intricacies of geo-politics that Home Minister Amit Shah stands up in Parliament to announce he intends to take Aksai Chin back from China. By contrast, Xi Jinping doesn’t announce he intends to capture the Galwan Valley.
Shah thought he was only addressing a domestic audience, and like Pakistan, China wouldn’t care beyond a statement. But we now know what happens when you make foreign relations a sub-sect of your domestic politics.
The Modi government’s cynical use of foreign policy and domestic politics has also resulted in India losing the South Asian influence to Chinese expansionism. The need to use Pakistan in BJP’s domestic politics has meant India gave up on any possibility of a nuanced engagement with Islamabad. The idea of ‘isolating’ Pakistan has resulted in India isolating itself as it gets encircled by Chinese allies. Nepal has fallen, how long will Bhutan last? And we’re anyway pushing Dhaka towards Beijing with Amit Shah’s need to win West Bengal by whipping up the fake narrative of ‘illegal Bangladeshi immigrants’.
We have seen this story play out even more distastefully in India’s dealings with the US. Both Modi and Trump have addressed stadium rallies aimed at bolstering each other’s political standing and electoral prospects. Modi went to the extent of making it look like he was endorsing Trump for his re-election. If Joe Biden wins the election later this year, the price for Modi’s obsession with Modi will have to be paid by at least a temporary awkwardness in India-US relations.
It is time for Modi to de-link his WhatsApp image factory from India’s foreign policy. There’s always Photoshop for the BJP WhatsApp groups.
The author is contributing editor to ThePrint. Views are personal.