Narendra Modi‘s personalised, authoritarian conduct of foreign affairs leaves both India and its neighbours short-changed

“The ‘Akhand Bharat’ idea does not jive with the concept of independent countries in cooperation, envisaged by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC)”. Photo shows Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the inaugural session of 18th SAARC Summit. | PTI
Narendra Modi’s personalised, authoritarian conduct of foreign affairs leaves both India and its neighbours short-changed

India is a humongous economic and geopolitical presence in South Asia. Yet, since Independence, it has maintained certain humility, in the knowledge that it houses some of the world’s largest pockets of poverty. It has been well-aware of its weaknesses in governance, and also that its smaller neighbours are ahead in of it many human development indices, including infant and maternal mortality rates.

However, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, there has been an abrupt shift towards adventurism. True, Mr. Modi had invited leaders from India’s South Asian neighbours to his inauguration in May 2014. However, in retrospect, that looks more like the darbar (court) of George V, with local potentates having been brought together to applaud the King Emperor.

As India becomes insular vis-à-vis its neighbours, it seems to forget that its neighbours are not going to compromise on their sovereignty. If ultra-nationalism gains ground in New Delhi, it will only escalate further in the neighbouring capitals — where the easy path to ultra-nationalism has always been through opportunistic anti-Indianism.

Aversion to South Asian regionalism

It is India that should be showing the self-confident path of soft nationalism, leading towards open borders and symbiotic economic growth. Before all else, this would benefit the densely peopled peripheral States in the country, in the arc from Rajasthan to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Assam.

However, India under Modi seems to want to go it alone, preferring standalone bilateral relationships with its neighbours to a South Asian regionalism — a concept which is still in its infancy. The ‘Akhand Bharat’ idea does not jive with the concept of independent countries in cooperation, envisaged by the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). Neither is it in consonance with the sub-regionalism promoted by the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC). The idea may be good for a centralised Indian polity run from New Delhi, but not for an India that seeks a federal devolution of powers.

It increasingly looks like India’s foreign policy is being run as a personal ‘public relations crusade’ by Narendra Modi. As he clocks his frequent flyer miles between Madison Square Garden, Wembley Stadium and other venues, basking in the adulation of some applauding Indian nationals, Non-Resident Indians (NRI)s and Western leaders keen to rope in India as a counterweight to China’s power, does Mr. Modi realise that the South Asian neighbourhood is getting increasingly dangerous?

In this regard, one person whose thinking was far ahead of his times was ex-Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral, who in 1997, had propounded a policy to manage relationships with India’s neighbours. What came to be known as the ‘Gujral Doctrine’ was a policy which sought friendship on the basis of sovereign equality and non-interference, with ‘non-reciprocal magnanimity’ towards the smaller countries such as Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka.

The doctrine drew ab initio scepticism from New Delhi’s national security establishment and today lies in the geopolitical dump. And yet, it was an earnest attempt to extricate India from ultra-nationalism and make regionalism work for peace and economic upliftment of people in the entire subcontinent. Indeed, the doctrine sought to reconcile our present reality of ‘nation states’ to the fluid and syncretic history of ‘South Asia’.

A newfound nationalism

But Gujral’s plan is anathema to the capital elites of the brand new nation-state, the kind of mandarins who revel in the newfound nationalism now being recharged in New Delhi. The think tanks, strategists and analysts, cheerleaders of the state when it comes to international affairs and unwilling to distinguish between next-door neighbours and the rest of the world, are more than willing to set the Gujral Doctrine adrift.

While the ‘Gujral doctrine’ was empathetic, the ‘Modi Doctrine’ is a mix of political calculations, a complete control over diplomacy by the Prime Minister, and an enthusiastic willingness to ‘front’ for the Western world. It is totally uncaring towards the sovereignties and sensibilities of the neighbouring countries and marked by a complete lack of historicity and economic foresight. Some of this may have to do with Mr. Modi’s previous tenures in State politics, which perhaps make him oblivious to what makes sovereign entities different, whatever their size.

Mr. Modi seems in a rush to fit South Asia into the narrative of the great destiny of ‘Akhand Bharat’, thought to have been truncated by the rise of nation-states. As I write this, Nepal is facing the brunt of Mr. Modi’s ire and being made a testing ground for the new doctrine.

There are also disturbing similarities between Mr. Modi’s personal style and that of Indira Gandhi, who too eschewed the collegial leadership of the party and the administration, and was not averse to adventurism, if it served to buttress her political career. This was reflected in the appropriation of Sikkim in 1975 and her repeated use of the self-serving ‘foreign hand’ trope. One wonders what would happen for South Asia policy if Mr. Modi’s losing streak continues in State elections beyond Delhi and Bihar.

Mr. Modi’s record thus far belies the thinking that autocrats, like Richard Nixon and Pervez Musharraf, tend to be more likely to reach out to adversaries than liberals. He mouths platitudes on ‘a common destiny’, but reneges on his cooperation the moment it seems to go against his personal agenda. It is true that Pakistan has been a recalcitrant member of the SAARC, but Mr. Modi’s response has been to disengage with it altogether. The relationship between the two nuclear weapon powers has seen a freeze, with no constructive engagement, not even Track Two dialogues.

The West, meanwhile, is cosying up to Mr. Modi in a bid to tap into India’s market and to prop up New Delhi as a bulwark against Beijing’s ambitions. A part and parcel of this is what looks suspiciously like an outsourcing of its South Asia policy to New Delhi — evident in the agreement between David Cameron and Mr. Modi last week that senior officials will hold annual dialogues to discuss South Asia, as if the region were functioning under the guardianship of India.

The lack of cross-border empathy seems to epitomise Mr. Modi’s mindset. He talks about connectivity among South Asian countries in highways, energy and telecom. He even wants to launch a SAARC satellite, a welcome idea, yet thinks nothing about blockading a country which is, by far, the friendliest of India’s neighbours and with which India has had an open border for decades. The entire machinery of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been activated to convince the world that this is not ‘a blockade’. To be unhappy with Kathmandu is one thing, to do something this drastic about it is quite another.

An exclusivist, know-it-all attitude

Just as Mr. Modi seems not to recognise the cross-cutting demography and complex history of India and ‘Indians’, there is an exclusionary, know-it-all attitude he displays towards India’s neighbours. Mr. Modi thought that a rousing speech in the Nepali Parliament and summons to a couple of former Nepal Prime Ministers to his Delhi darbar for private talks were enough for New Delhi to get what it wanted in the Constitution – a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ in the text of the Constitution and plains-only province(s) in the federal set-up. That was naive.

Nothing explains the demeanour and activism of Indian diplomats — acting like angry viceregal envoys to browbeat Kathmandu’s political leadership — than the fact that they have orders that cannot be second-guessed.

How does this evident desire to evolve as a patron rather than as a member of the South Asian comity sit in with New Delhi’s great power ambitions? Surely, New Delhi’s intelligentsia realises that a permanent seat in the Security Council cannot happen in this particular South Asian context, in the absence of a steady and optimal amity between the regional countries. The diplomats and academics at the think tanks surely realise this, but the Modi blunderbuss seems to have them cowed and cowering.

In contrast, Narendra Modi’s trajectory seems one with the intent to foist a patron-client relationship on India’s smaller neighbours, and if that requires misinformation and a challenge to international law and basic decency, so be it.

Meanwhile, India’s lack of empathy keeps it away from learning from the success stories of its smaller neigbours: like Bangladesh’s examples of service delivery and cyclone preparedness; Pakistan’s show resilience against sectarianism, political violence and impossible geopolitical odds; Sri Lanka’s fight against autocracy and its development indicators; and Nepal’s experiments with FM radio, local government and community forestry.

The ultra-nationalism within the small neighbouring countries tends to coagulate into anti-Indianism, but the civil society in each country tries constantly to shed this particular image. It does not help when New Delhi’s establishment speaks the language of jingoism and xenophobia; it is self-defeating and makes the region as a whole brittle and destruction-prone.

Foreign policy should not in this day and age be a foil for the political ambitions of individuals. More importantly, the goal of regional and international policies has to involve promotion of economic growth and prosperity for one’s own citizens. For this reason alone, Narendra Modi must adjust the sails of his policy on South Asia. Had he been with us, Gujral the sage would undoubtedly have suggested a pullback.

(Kanak Mani Dixit, a writer and journalist based in Kathmandu, is founding editor of the magazine Himal Southasian.)