People of repute in India are leveraging international media to villify the policies of the Modi government. They are doing so to drive their domestic agenda against the Modi government.

By Amb Kanwal Sibal

The Modi government is under attack in influential international media by people of repute in India who ignore the consequences of this for the country’s image abroad. Playing politics at home is one thing, but playing politics abroad with a view to bringing pressure on the government internally is another. Deep seated prejudices against India in political, media and civil society circles in the West have always been a challenge for Indian diplomacy. These biases find sustenance and validity when people of standing in India score points against the Modi government in foreign publications that are influential in moulding western public opinion.

The lines of attack are that Prime Minister Modi has the same world view as Trump whose disdain for world order, international situations, and multilateral cooperation has been met with a shrug by Modi’s government, that he has accepted Trumpian terms of engagement, is transactional in foreign policy, believes in giving and taking favours instead of finding a common purpose and has resorted to ultra nationalism to compensate for his divisive domestic agenda. It is further claimed that on human rights and democracy Trump has given the Modi government a free pass, that Modi prioritises domestic politics in his handling of foreign policy issues, and that his international engagement focuses more on events and symbols than processes and outcomes. And, finally, that India has become soft on China, has not commented on China’s treatment of the Uighurs, the Hong Kong crackdown, militarisation of the South China Sea, China’s mishandling of COVID-19, with Modi concentrating on uncontroversial, win-win issues with China that will only encourage China’s hard line towards India.

Each bit of this criticism does not stand scrutiny. This kind of political point scoring has little to do with reality.

By equating him in various ways with Trump, the intention is to tarnish Prime Minister Modi’s image, with the calculation that all that Trump is reviled for domestically and internationally by liberal lobbies in general will wash off on Modi. Trump has defined US interests very narrowly, alienated his allies, rejected multilateralism, and repudiated signed pacts, including the Paris Climate and Iranian nuclear accords, besides scorning environmental concerns. He has walked out of international organisations such as UNESCO, WHO and the UN Human Rights Council.
PM Modi is not guilty of any of this. He supports multilateralism, with, at its centre, a more representative UN system in which India expects to play its due role. India, under him, has not quit any international organisation. India’s interests are being pursued on diverse platforms, including RIC, BRICS and SCO, as part of a broader attachment to multilateral functioning. Modi’s leadership of the International Solar Alliance and promotion of renewable energy at home is prompted by his environmental and climate change concerns. He has not repudiated any treaty, especially the Indus Waters treaty (IWT), despite Pakistan’s continuing grave provocations.

To say that Trump’s disdain for world order, international situations, and multilateral cooperation has been met with a shrug by Modi’s government absurdly suggests that India has the power to change Trump’s fundamental thinking on these issues anchored in his political base. How PM Modi could convince Trump not to disrupt the US-built world order and severely damage multilateralism to the consternation of its own allies is not clear. Why blame PM Modi for Trump’s disruptive agenda?

India has not rejected multilateralism in the subcontinent either, as is being claimed. If SAARC is not working it is because of Pakistan’s recalcitrance. It would be wrong to engage Pakistan through SAARC for the sake of multilateralism, as that would amount to delinking dialogue from terrorism under the cover of SAARC. India, as part of its multilateral approach, has focused on BIMSTEC instead, which is a better choice, as it also reinforces India’s Act East policy. India has also supported sub-regional cooperation within SAARC through the BBIN framework.
India’s commitment to multilateralism is also reflected in its approach to Southeast Asia. The India-ASEAN Dialogue continues, with the just concluded India-ASEAN meeting in Delhi at which External Affairs Minister Jaishankar argued for new ideas for a stronger India-ASEAN partnership in a post-Covid-19 world. India got all the ASEAN heads of government to be our R-Day chief guests collectively in 2018. Our participation in the ADMM Plus dialogue and the East Asia Summit continues.

In economic diplomacy, India is committed to the role of the WTO in preserving a rules based global trading system. If the WTO is being weakened, it is not because of India’s actions. India’s decision to stay away from RCEP is not a rejection of multilateralism per se, as is being suggested. It can be argued that we finally opted out of RCEP because our demands to protect our legitimate interests were not met, especially vis a vis China. We have avoided getting into a China trap by countries that are already heavily invested in China, have economic dependency on it, and in the case of some key RCEP countries enjoy a trade surplus with that country.

PM Modi is cited as the best example of leaders who have accepted Trumpian terms of engagement, even more than Bolsonaro, Netanyahu and Mohammed bin Salman, to strengthen ties with the US. Bracketing Modi with these three highly controversial politicians with many political and personal flaws is being done to diminish his image. If the Trumpian terms of engagement are that trade relations must be revised in America’s favour, America’s external trade deficit has to be accepted as the central feature of bilateral ties, globalisation has to be looked at with suspicion, relationships have to be primarily transactional, etc., it can hardly be argued that Modi has yielded to them. He has resisted US pressure on trade issues which are still not settled (even on Harley Davidson’s duties have not been reduced to zero despite public hectoring by Trump). Despite the pending trade issues Modi got Trump to make his India visit. On relations with Russia, Modi has stood his ground, has gone ahead with the S-400 deal despite CAATSA (Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act). Modi has not been transactional with Trump, in the sense of making short term deals that compromise larger goals or principles.

There is no example of Modi making “deal making” central to his foreign policy and insisting on reciprocity. He has not been transactional in our relations with Nepal, despite serious provocations on its part (a meeting on reviewing India’s development projects in Nepal has just been held), Bhutan, Sri Lanka Maldives, or Mauritius. He has not been transactional with Myanmar or with other ASEAN countries, or with the Gulf countries and Russia. We are tough with Pakistan, but not transactional. We have now made Pakistani support for terrorism a core issue in our relations, unlike in the past when we were willing to compromise. Even with China, instead of being transactional, Modi has persisted with defining the principles of mutual engagement and finding some common ground despite serious differences.

India’s foreign policy is actually based on finding a “common purpose” with partners wherever possible. India’s ‘Neighbourhood First’ approach under Modi is aimed at fostering the “common purpose” of pursuing mutual benefit. Even Pakistan was offered opportunities but refused to abandon terrorism as an instrument of policy. Unlike Shri Manmohan Singh who did not visit neighbouring and other key countries bilaterally for years, Modi has made several visits to Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bhutan and Bangladesh, Indian Ocean islands like Seychelles, Fiji, Australia, and so on. With Bangladesh, the quality of our ties has been transformed. Modi has focused a lot on the Indian Ocean, with a particular focus on maritime security. He has tried to bring together the Indian Ocean Rim states. With France, strategic cooperation in the Indian Ocean has been intensified, especially on the eastern seaboard of Africa. He has paid considerable attention to key countries in Africa in order to broad base India’s political and economic interests there. He has achieved remarkable success in the forging close understandings with the Gulf monarchies, including in the security domain, and has protected well this vital Islamic flank of India. Ties with Israel have been fortified. He has promoted closer ties with Abe’s Japan. He has been careful about nurturing India-Russia ties. The list of achievements goes beyond the diaspora events.

US has now become India’s largest trading partner, defence cooperation with it has grown, and so have energy ties. The Indo-Pacific and the Quad concepts have been given more substance in a calibrated way. The importance of Indonesia in this context has been understood. With Australia ties have acquired a different dimension. To maintain strategic autonomy, India continues to participate in RIC, BRICS and SCO summits. Even with China, Modi has tried to stabilise ties by reaching some understanding with Xi Jinping through the two informal summits.

All this has been part of a process that has resulted in reasonably satisfactory outcomes. To raise the bar of outcomes unreasonably high in the case of the Modi government is to invite the question whether the previous Indian governments had achieved all that they had wanted with neighbours and others internationally. In reality, even the most powerful countries are not able to achieve what they plan for as outcomes, be it is the US, China, Japan, the EU, and others. In any case, outcomes cannot be unilaterally achieved. The role of other players cannot be ignored.
In sum, Modi’s search for common purpose is friendship with all without getting boxed in by competing international rivalries, position India as a positive force for peace and stability, strengthen global cooperation against terrorism, preserve a rules based international order, promote India as benign partner of smaller states, and so on.

How domestic politics prioritises the Modi government’s relations with the US, Russia, China, Africa, Japan, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, neighbours such as Bangladesh, Myanmar, Maldives, or even Sri Lanka, is not clear. How does our membership of BRICS, SCO and the RIC forum give dividends in terms of domestic politics? Even on China, the Modi government has not been able to control the domestic narrative. It has taken care not to unleash an “ultranationalist” outrage against the Chinese aggression. Yes, our Pakistan policy has a strong internal political dimension, the reasons for which are rooted in partition, the Kashmir issue and the communal dimension in Indian society.

Modi has resorted to ultra nationalism to compensate for his divisive domestic agenda is a bizarre accusation. Ultra nationalism would mean being expansionist, aggressively self-focused, totally unwilling to make any compromise, ready for conflict, disregarding the legitimate rights of others, promoting xenophobia, determined to right perceived historical wrongs, stifling freedoms of the citizenry etc. Is India under Modi guilty of any of this?

How is Modi’s ultra nationalism being projected internationally? Are we being expansionist or seeking conflict? Are we claiming anyone’s territory? Are we building our armed forces to expand territorially? Are we, like the Chinese, seeking to recover territories bequeathed to us by our ancestors? Are we seeking to right historical wrongs? Do we have the intention to militarily back Indian communities abroad? Is putting Yoga on the international map an act of ultra nationalism? Is our effort to build on our historical civilisational ties with Southeast Asia an act of ultra nationalism or simply to legitimately leverage that dimension pragmatically to build on past contacts interrupted by colonialism? We have settled our boundary issues and maritime differences with Bangladesh amicably, something which an ultranationalist leadership would not have done. We would have reacted sharply to Nepal’s cartographic aggression and the insulting behaviour of the former Maldivian president. Is Modi promoting xenophobia?

Ultra nationalism embraces the entire polity and society of a state; a statement here or there, or the position taken on a particular issue, cannot be equated with ultra nationalism. In our democratic and diverse society, federal in nature, with checks and balances, political opposition and regional leaders, an active civil society, an independent judiciary, no chest-thumping political or street rallies across the country, inflammatory statements directed at foreigners, restrictions on free movement in and out of the country, how can India be called ultranationalist under Modi? If some of our statements and actions vis a vis Bangladesh and Nepal, timed to elections in our country is “ultra nationalism”, it is a case of deliberately using politically loaded terminology as a substitute for “fascism”.

To argue that in the area of human rights and democracy, Trump has given the Modi government a free pass suggests that India is guilty of breaches but has been spared. This is to invite interference in our internal affairs and morally accept that the US record on human rights and democracy is superior to that of India. If the bipartisan consensus on India is in danger because the Democrats want to target India on human rights and democracy when India has handled both in most difficult circumstances, so be it. India does not have to bend to the prejudices of India-baiters like Jayapal and Ro Khanna.

Modi’s “divisive domestic agenda” is a charge made by the opposition and is anchored in the persistent debate in India on genuine secularism versus vote bank politics. What one side sees as a divisive domestic agenda may be seen by others as an effort to make the country’s majority more coherent and less divided in the interest of a stronger India. In any case, this “divisive domestic agenda” is a code word for anti-Muslim policies. Yet, Modi has succeeded remarkably in deepening ties with conservative Gulf monarchies and has been honoured by them personally.
One could make a different point, which is that virtually all democracies exhibit “divisive domestic agendas”. The glaring US example aside, look at UK Prime Minister Johnson with Brexit, President Macron with the Yellow Shirts, Germany, which some years ago had to have a national unity government because of an electoral impasse, and today right wing sentiment is growing there and in Europe in general because of migration. Holland and Belgium have been without governments for months on end, Italy is constantly in the throes of divisive domestic politics; Spain has secessionist movements, and so on. Democracies, unlike, authoritarian countries, have open politics with opposition playing its role of promoting “political divisions”. Whether the “divisive domestic agenda” is a product of the policies of the BJP government or is a reaction to the policies of the previous governments is an open question.

The argument that in the past decade China, India, and the Philippines have seen the rise of authoritarian leaders, apart from the politically insidious way in which Modi has been bracketed with these leaders, suggests that before Xi Jinping China did not have authoritarian leaders and that it was not a single party system that did not permit any political opposition or dissent, and that the Philippines had a robust democracy like India. This is plainly ridiculous. The further argument that because these authoritarian leaders have been unable to deliver rapid growth and prosperity that their predecessors did, they have resorted to ultranationalist politics and personality cults, begs the question whether the truly remarkable rates of growth achieved by China prior to Xi Jinping were not under authoritarian leaders. The world economy has slowed down after the 2008 financial crisis. Japan has been stagnant economically for a long time. The rates of growth in Europe continue to be very low. Germany was facing an economic downturn even before the Wuhan virus. Italy has been in serious economic trouble. These countries are all democracies. Their economic woes are not because of authoritarian leaders. Until the Wuhan virus, the US economy was growing well. Besides the unsoundness of this argument, comparing Modi with Xi Jinping and Duterte as authoritarian leaders insults India’s democracy and its leader. Prime Minister Modi derives his authority not from ultra nationalist politics and a personality cult but from a massive democratic mandate, the biggest in the history of democratic elections anywhere.

The accusation that the Modi government is temporising on China should be judged in the context of joint statements issued during the high level visits exchanged with it in the past. The extent of concessions made to China and the political ground lost in recent years is astonishing.

When the Chinese PM visited India in 2005, the joint statement said that China-India relations having now acquired a global and strategic character, the two countries had agreed to establish a China – India Strategic and Cooperative Partnership for Peace and Prosperity. They agreed to broaden cooperation within the framework of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC), with the Indian side welcoming China’s attainment of observer status in it. The Indian side recalled that India was among the first countries to recognise that there is one China and that its one China policy has remained unaltered, and that it would continue to abide by this policy, a political kowtowing that the Chinese side condescendingly appreciated.

The joint statement issued when the Chinese PM visited India in 2010 had the following nuggets: Both sides agree that the relationship between India and China is of global and strategic significance. Each side considers the development of either side as a positive contribution to peace, stability and prosperity of Asia and the world. Both sides hold the view that they are not rivals or competitors but are partners for mutual benefit. They agree that there is enough space for them to grow together, and play their respective roles in the region and beyond; Strategic partnership between the two countries with a similar worldview is consistent with their roles as two major developing countries. The two sides agree to promote cooperation in the field of nuclear energy, consistent with their respective international commitments.

Prior to Le Keqiang’s visit the Depsang incident had occurred, and the then External Affairs Minister characterised it as an acne that can be cured with an ointment. In May 2013 while visiting China he announced that he would “love to live in Beijing” and that “On the problem on the LAC, both countries are on the same page” and that “we don’t have prickly issues of significant difference”. The joint statement on Premier Le Keqiang’s visit to India in May 2013 illustrated the unreal assumptions, confusion and wishful thinking behind our policy towards China even more dramatically. It talked of India and China setting an example of relations between big, neighbouring countries. It stated that both countries did not see each others as rivals or competitors. Where was the need to agree that in the Chinese path of development “fundamental human rights and rule of law are given their due place”? Worse, it said that the “two sides are committed to taking a positive view of and support each other’s friendship with other countries” and “support each other in enhancing friendly relations with their common neighbours for mutual benefit and win-win results”. This meant, absurdly, that we viewed positively and supported China’s relations with Pakistan, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Myanmar etc. Besides acknowledging China’s commitment to nonproliferation processes, we agreed to carry out bilateral cooperation in civil nuclear energy. This undercut our objections to Sino-Pak nuclear cooperation; if we were open to such cooperation ourselves, besides the fact that this ignored China’s opposition to our NSG membership. We even agreed to ‘further enhance bilateral cooperation in maritime security”, to “earnestly safeguard security of international sea-lanes and freedom of navigation”, implying that we did not view China’s maritime silk route as a threat.

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