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India needs to embark on a course correction to restore international standing

E.D. Mathew

Rihanna; Greta Thunberg; Justin Trudeau; Meena Harris, the niece of US Vice President Kamala Harris. The list of international celebrities wading into the ongoing protest by Indian farmers against the Narendra Modi government is growing longer by the day. Inevitable as it was, India’s “democratic recession” in recent years is beginning to draw serious international concern. 

Instead of the customary pomp and pageantry, what the world witnessed on India’s Republic Day this year was unprecedented scenes of violence and mayhem in the capital city. The ugly scenes on the second most important day on India’s calendar after the Independence Day add to a series of developments that have besmirched India’s image both at home and abroad.  

India attracting international censure

Western countries insisting on human rights clauses in trade and investment deals with other countries used to be stories about tinpot dictatorships in Africa and Central Asia. A few weeks ago, however, when British MPs discussed the same issue in the House of Commons, the country in question was India, the largest democracy in the world. 

India attracting international censure over human rights and domestic policies is not very common. The new farm laws rushed through parliament without adequate discussion that farmers are currently protesting against, the unconstitutional ‘love-jihad’ laws in some states and the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act is among a spate of recent issues that have come under widespread criticism in India and beyond.

As its global image takes a beating, India also faces an external threat from China that has, since May last year, occupied over 600 square miles of Indian territory in Ladakh, which is now ruled directly from New Delhi after the government unceremoniously stripped Jammu and Kashmir of its special status in 2019. 

Against this background, the change of administration in Washington will loom large for India as Joe Biden sets out to repair the damage done to American democracy and its global image by Donald Trump and his followers. The debris left by the mob attack on Capitol Hill must have been cleared already but the potential for damage to democracy by right-wing populism will not be forgotten. After the recent drama in Washington, Biden will have no room for palling with populists and demagogues as he reasserts the importance of human rights and democracy to American foreign policy. 

For India, the perils of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s personality-driven approach to diplomacy and foreign policy have been laid bare with Biden’s election. Modi had set out his stall behind Trump with his impulsive “Ab ki baar, Trump sarkar” (This time it’s the turn of the Trump government) slogan during the Howdy Modi event in Houston. It was an unprecedented departure from the past as no other Indian prime minister had openly rooted for a candidate in an election in another country till then.  

Assumed charm, personal chemistry, and religious ideology have guided Modi’s foreign policy.  He is the first Indian leader to stray from the country’s foundational tenets of foreign policy, toeing the line of his party’s chauvinistic ideology of Hindutva, a cancerous fringe of Hinduism that is being made mainstream by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). From the dilution of India’s support to Palestine to the souring of relations with immediate neighbours, including the deadly border clashes with China, the pitfalls of aligning foreign policy with demagoguery are many.

As the Biden administration will outlast Modi’s current mandate, it will be interesting to watch what price India pays for his partisan support for Trump, combined with the BJP government’s many controversial decisions that have drawn international condemnation including from now Vice President Kamala Harris and other US Democrats.

Illiberal democracy

No other Indian government has attracted so much reproach over alleged human rights violations as well as illiberal domestic policies that have led to a marked rise in hate-laced communalism, bigotry, and Islamophobia. The country that once prided itself as the largest democracy in the world is touted today as the largest “illiberal democracy”, thanks to weakened democratic institutions, including the parliament, judiciary, and the media. Draconian laws such as the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act is used to suppress dissent and criticism of the government. Divisive majoritarianism has been equated with “national” interest. Critics of government policies are branded as the enemy within, anti-nationals and traitors.

On every imaginable index India has regressed in recent years. India slipped two places to 53rd position in the 2020 Democracy Index’s global ranking as a result of “democratic backsliding” by authorities and “crackdowns” on civil liberties. India ranks 142 on the global press freedom index 2020 (behind neighbours Nepal and Sri Lanka). 

In several BJP-ruled states, laws are being enacted, unchecked if not enabled by the central government, to criminalize inter-faith marriages, mainly aimed at preventing Muslim men from marrying Hindu women. Amnesty International was forced out of India while many other NGOs and civil society activists face unprecedented hurdles to their work. 

All these must be a concern for the Biden administration trying to quickly move America beyond the recent assault on democracy and the rule of law by Trump and his white supremacist followers.

Course correction 

Despite growing India-US ties for some years now, India’s biggest external threat currently- China’s aggression at the border – will be of less importance to the US than Beijing’s moves to establish hegemony in the South China Sea or any military adventure against Taiwan. Should there be a wider conflict with China, the US coming to India’s aid looks whimsical. India’s relations with Russia, once a close ally, have cooled off significantly, and having developed strategic relations with Beijing to counter the US and the NATO, Moscow too will not take India’s side in a China-Indian conflict.

At the moment India finds itself friendless in its neighbourhood with the exception of tiny Maldives and Bhutan. India’s much weaker economic clout in comparison to China’s, its controversial and polarising domestic policies, and the lack of dependability have all prompted the rest of its neighbours to embrace the Dragon, helping strengthen its “string of pearls” strategy.

The Quad alliance of India, US, Japan and Australia, mooted as a bulwark against Chinese expansionism in the region, is already on shaky grounds. It is a sobering fact that half of the Quad – Japan and Australia – and most of the other Asian countries unhesitatingly embraced the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the world’s biggest trading bloc which India has declined to join. Russia has unequivocally called out Quad as an “anti-China alliance.” Meanwhile, the US has threatened to impose sanctions on India over its impending purchase of Russia’s S-400 missile system.  

Globally, India’s major attraction has been its thriving secular democracy of a billion-plus people of varied faiths, traditions, and languages, besides the soft power of Bollywood, arts, and architecture. However, liberal secularism and democratic institutions have been severely dented in recent years as the BJP government relentlessly pushes its Hindutva agenda. Today India may be falling at odds with its Western partners in many aspects.

With China threatening, Russia ambivalent, friendless in the neighbourhood, and buddy Trump disgraced and gone, Modi badly needs to restore hard-nosed statecraft and strategic coherence to India’s foreign policy. The desecration in recent years of the values that make India a beacon of peaceful co-existence must be reversed and the current march to medievalism stopped. 

Today Modi has two options: Embark on a major course correction by restoring the multireligious, secular, and democratic ethos of the country. Or, embrace a Trumpian legacy.

(The author, a former spokesperson with the United Nations, is a political and diplomatic observer. The views are personal. He can be reached @edmathew on Twitter

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