New York and the world this week witnessed Modilateralism or a multilateralism that was driven largely by domestic interests and objectives. At the United Nations General Assembly, Prime Minister Narendra Modi displayed a shift in India’s approach to multilateralism by drawing a link between his government’s development agenda with global challenges like climate change, universal health coverage and issues like counterterrorism where the UN, not India, has fallen short.
India’s current multilateral impetus works from the ground up, leveraging strides made on domestic issues to demonstrate its credibility as a global stakeholder, neutralising calls that India should perforce contribute more. Also evident in this ‘Modilateral’ approach is the use of multilateral platforms to push for stronger rules in areas like counterterrorism where New Delhi requires the support of other countries to address the problem.
Strategic to tactical
PM Modi’s approach differs from how other Indian leaders have generally handled multilateralism. Early on, India championed causes like human rights and decolonisation for practical and moral reasons. As decades rolled, the nature of multilateral engagement changed, reflecting the times and India’s own position. From the early 1990s, Indian negotiators became strategic, looking to cut deals and make compromises when necessary.
Under Modi, the approach has turned more tactical, with New Delhi becoming sensitive to the reality that given India’s sheer size, her domestic policy achievements redound to the benefit of global governance. A focus on the domestic is, in itself, of global significance. Multilateral diplomacy then becomes a tool to emphasise and resolve problems like terrorism, tax havens and protectionism that restrain globalisation. Modi’s approach at UNGA this week reflects this thinking.
Climate change and India’s agenda
The agenda at the 74th UNGA session is dominated by one issue – climate change. The matter has been the subject of days of protests worldwide led by youth frustrated over inaction. A series of unpredictable climate events this summer – fires, floods, famines and heat waves – have generated a fresh impetus to reduce global carbon emissions.
Yet, palpable public exaltation around climate change that manifest through epic marches in global capitals is scotched by inhospitable political forces. There is a vacuum in climate leadership in western countries, which is exemplified by a disinterested United States, cooling global economy that places a premium on growth instead of mitigation, and regulatory rollback against climate change through the reversal of rules covering vehicular emissions, coal expansion and pipelines.
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When politics in western countries militate against concrete global climate progress, it is time to focus on domestic mitigation that could help the larger climate cause. India’s current climate policies serve as a lodestar here.
At the UNGA, Modi reaffirmed India’s commitment to fulfil its nationally determined contributions (NDC) as per the 2015 Paris climate agreement. The Modi government has instituted robust energy efficiency policies that ensure India’s emissions remain compatible with the Paris target of capping temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius despite plans to build more coal plants. Climate also featured in Modi’s meeting with Pacific Island nations for whom climate is the priority. Besides financial assistance, India’s focus on renewables and promises to share the technical expertise related to them provide an alternate pathway for island countries to combat climate change. India’s multilateral climate agenda springs out of domestic climate initiatives.
On health and security
Modi also addressed the UN high-level meeting on universal health coverage (UHC) that hopes to convince UN member states to develop affordable broad-based health policies. Here too, global health interests align with India’s own cause to boost domestic health coverage through the government’s Ayushman Bharat, the world’s largest healthcare initiative. Modi’s UHC endorsement reflects commitments made to augment domestic health coverage.
That India is willing to spend the necessary financial resources to build resilient health systems enhances global health security when risks to the latter continue to proliferate. New Delhi’s incentive to boost access to health, the affordability and the delivery system arises from a domestic purpose that aligns with current global health priorities, not vice versa. New Delhi looks poised to contribute to global health stability by insuring the welfare of its citizens who constitute a fifth of humanity.
On security, Modi joined several world leaders at the Leaders’ Dialogue on Strategic Responses to Terrorist and Violent Extremist Narratives, where he voiced India’s concerns on cross-border terrorism, in an oblique reference to Pakistan. Focusing on counter-terrorism enables India to project itself as a constrained rising power that must, occasionally, deploy harsh measures to neutralise cross-border threats. The forum allowed Modi to push for institutionalising counterterrorism cooperation multilaterally to ensure financing and arms are not used to propagate terror.
Building on the legacy
India’s ‘modilateral agenda’ this week was meant to highlight how New Delhi’s policies are helping address global challenges. But this focus deflects questions on whether India can and should contribute more to these challenges or if they cohere with what is required globally. Unlike his immediate predecessor Manmohan Singh, Modi’s multilateralist tendencies dispense with prosaic notions of internationalism that India can contribute toward; instead, Modi is keen to demonstrate India’s global importance as a country striving to better its economic trajectory.
This tactical multilateralism is also a legacy of three decades of India’s integration with the global economy that has given New Delhi multiple opportunities to shape international rules and causes that advance incumbent interests while bolstering its reputation as a partner keen to address pressing global challenges.
The author is Research Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. Views are personal.
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