Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Donald Trump. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • With Balakot, Abhinandan and A-SAT, it is more than evident now that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s interactions with global leaders have yielded rich dividends.

    The Indian voter is well aware of the need for solid foreign policy, and this may help the BJP.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi did not have much experience of foreign affairs when he took office in 2014; but he took a lot of interest in the area, and made several successful trips to a few countries, where he was received like a rock star, for example in Madison Square Garden in New York and in Wembley Stadium in London.

The visible visits diminished in the later years of his term, but it can be argued that there were clear benefits to India from his diplomatic efforts.

The question, however, is whether diplomacy will pay dividends where it counts – at the ballot box. Are people aware of what he has achieved? Will they give him credit for his achievements, while blaming him for his failures? Do people actually know – or even care – about his diplomatic feats? Conventional wisdom says it is bread-and-butter issues that win elections, to which there is some truth.

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However, let us consider where diplomacy has brought in dividends, and where it has not.

I was on a television programme in Malayalam discussing this very issue, and my interlocutor suggested that India’s foreign policy stance was a) not very effective, and b) in any case, nobody cared anyway. I disagree on both counts.

If the proof is in the pudding, India’s foes themselves believe that Prime Minister Modi will win on the strength of foreign policy: an article last week in China’s propaganda newspaper Global Times said so; so have Pakistani commentators, regarding the negative fallout of their Pulwama misadventure.

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Let us begin with the most recent events. The A-SAT (anti-satellite) launch by India was received with complete equanimity by the “big powers”, even the usually excitable China. Contrast the reception accorded to India’s gatecrashing into the exclusive club (US, Russia, China, and India) with the massive condemnation of India’s entry into the nuclear club in 1974 and then in 1998.

There were also very loud noises about China’s 2007 destruction of a satellite after several failures. We could have expected censure and outrage from the usual big powers, but the reaction ranged from muted (China) to outright congratulatory (US). This suggests a consensus that India has to be taken seriously as a power.

The fact that sanctions and technology denials (not to mention the manufactured Maldivian spy case) have not stopped Indian progress in space, computing, or missiles has not escaped the casual observer. Neither has India’s rapidly growing economy, now fifth globally in nominal gross domestic product (GDP).

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In little-noticed news, the Quad is also showing signs of life. Australia and India, which have eyed each other warily, are holding their biggest-ever naval exercise, Ausindex 2019, specifically focused on anti-submarine warfare.

Thus, there is movement on the “contain-China” alliance as well, which fits in with India’s long-term strategic interests.

Furthermore, the so-called “international reaction” in the case of the Pulwama terror attack and India’s Balakot pre-emptive strike was perhaps a little unexpected. While the usual suspects in the media, such as the New York Times, Economist, Financial Times, Guardian, et cetera thundered about “nuclear escalation” and loudly dismissed the Indian claim of a downed Pakistani F-16, the official reaction from the “big powers” was far more muted. In essence, it accepted India’s right to ‘hot pursuit’ and pre-emptive moves to deter would-be terrorist attacks.

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The Abhinandan Varthaman case was particularly striking. The fact that the Wing Commander was returned forthwith, unharmed, was not the original plan of the Pakistanis. They were eager to extract maximum benefits through bargaining. But they were told to let him go, apparently as the result of pressure from many parties, including the US and possibly even Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, who has been negotiating trade deals worth a reputed $100 billion with India.

The Pulwama massacre ended up being a fiasco for Pakistan, because the subsequent Balakot strike left their hitherto successful nuclear blackmail in tatters, and also showed that India could, with impunity, invade their air space and jam their Chinese-supplied radars. The likely loss of an F-16, with its pilot most probably killed, also hurt the Pakistanis’ amour-propre.

The reverberations from this are continuing. When China, as usual, sheltered Masood Azhar using a ‘technical hold’ in the 1267 subcommittee of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), other powers such as the US, France et cetera did a procedural manoeuvre (so far as I can tell, this is a rare thing) to move the entire 15-member SC to consider a fresh resolution on declaring him a “wanted terrorist”, thus forcing China to publicly use its veto. This level of resonance with India’s interests is unprecedented from the P5 permanent members of the UNSC.

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It is also relevant that India appears to be the strongest hold-out against China’s “One Belt One Road” (OBOR) or “Belt and Road Initiative” (BRI). Even the US sent representatives to their big bash in 2018, but India refused to kowtow, especially with Gwadar being militarised in Balochistan and the rest of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) riding roughshod over India’s claims in parts of Jammu and Kashmir, illegally occupied by Pakistan and China.

This irritates China no end. I don’t know how many have noticed that the official OBOR maps from China include Kolkata as part of their string of pearls, without even the courtesy of asking India! Chinese quasi-official media has hinted that they would be willing to give in on Masood Azhar (‘a small thing’) if India is willing to do a ‘big thing’: a euphemism for getting on board BRI.

None of this is going to happen. Despite the so-called ‘Wuhan spirit’, there has been no noticeable improvement in China’s attitude to India, which is characterised by contempt for an easily beguiled nation. That this ‘New India’ is not quite the easy mark it was in earlier years is evident now, although why India shies away from standing up to China more strongly is not clear.

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All of this, I suspect, is popular with the masses. The message that India is able to retaliate against Pakistan by shooting down their plane was welcome news to many Indians. The anger against China is also palpable: there have been calls to boycott Chinese goods in the wake of their stance on Masood Azhar, and also in view of the fact that possibly illegally subsidised Chinese goods are undercutting Indian producers.

It is likely that the strong stance against Pakistan will benefit the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) because there is nothing like a war to bring people together. And this war is far from over. Despite not having cut diplomatic relations with Pakistan, there have been no conciliatory statements from India, and Indian troops are massed where they could easily move — to the border.

It was pointed out to me that leaders who win wars (for example, Churchill for the UK in the Second World War, or Indira Gandhi after 1971) do not necessarily win the next election. But that only works for wars that have ended; ours with Pakistan has not ended.

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There are failures in foreign policy too. Consider lack of progress in the immediate neighbourhood. This is particularly regrettable considering that the Modi Doctrine seemed to be based on concentric circles radiating out from the Indian subcontinent. The biggest failures relate to Pakistan and then to other members of the regional forum, SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation).

That’s mostly because of deliberate Chinese policy. The “all-weather strategic friendship” between Pakistan and China, and the $65 billion that is allegedly being invested in the CPEC, plus transfers of weapons have made this dhritarashtra alinganam tighter. Pakistan is not much more than a Chinese colony these days (note stories about Imran Khan claiming that he had insufficient information about the brutal suppression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang, or about how Pakistani women are being trafficked to China to be concubines of rich men there).

Similarly, debt-trapped Sri Lanka has had to surrender its deep-water port of Hambantota to China (Pakistan’s port of Gwadar will almost certainly follow suit). The Maldives managed to extricate itself with difficulty from the clutches of a China-friendly ruler. Myanmar, Nepal and Bangladesh have all been to a greater or lesser extent enmeshed in the siren-song of Chinese cash today (never mind slavery tomorrow). Thus, India’s near-abroad is not exactly a big win.

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Furthermore, there is criticism that ties with the US have suffered since President Donald Trump won in 2016. I would argue that, on the contrary, things have improved vastly from the dark days of the brain-damaged Non-Aligned Movement, which was anyway a dud as far as India was concerned: note how those worthies handed India something like a 114-11 drubbing in the UN General Assembly vote on India’s help to the erstwhile East Pakistanis undergoing genocide in 1971.

It is specious to claim that under former president Barack Obama, India was on a better trajectory with the US. There was lip-service, and the famous “first official dinner to Manmohan Singh”, but that was just optics. In keeping with typical US Democratic Party practice, as with Bill Clinton, they flattered Indian egos, but without any substance.

Refreshingly, Trump is purely transactional and is looking for deals: we know exactly where we stand. So, it is not accurate to say relations with the US have deteriorated. Trump is like this to everyone. The US needs the Quad, and they are willing to support India to an extent.

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Thus, on average, India is doing much better in foreign policy under Prime Minister Modi; there is reason to believe that the credit for this, especially in the case of Balakot and the A-SAT, will rub off on him and help the BJP in the forthcoming election.

But there is an insidious, second-order effect: that of information warfare unleashed as part of foreign policy by others. As we have seen in the Mueller investigation against Trump, it is widely believed that countries interfere in each other’s elections. Even though it appears as though there isn’t much evidence about Russian involvement in the 2016 US elections, it is certain that entities such as the late lamented Cambridge Analytica (via Facebook) have unleashed information warfare techniques on voters.

There are agencies with an interest in Indian elections and the protection of their “embedded assets”. Much has been made of the interference of Chinese entities in academia and media in the US, Australia et cetera and there are professors and journalists who are obvious shills.

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The US #Deepstate has been suspected of various such shenanigans in India. It is widely believed, for instance, that the so-called ‘liberation struggle’ that upended the E M S Namboodiripad Communist government in Kerala in 1959 was a CIA operation with local compradors, at a time when they were obsessed with domino-theory scares, resulting in a small-scale version of the Mossadegh coup in Iran or the Allende coup in Chile.

There are other US actors, too: for instance, the evangelistic United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which has its own favourites in India.

On 1 April, Facebook did something drastic: it disabled 103 accounts it alleged were related to Inter Services Public Relations, that is Pakistan’s Deep State, which were involved in “coordinated, inauthentic behaviour” with 687 accounts (also disabled) of the IT Cell of the Indian National Congress. I repeat, “coordinated, inauthentic behaviour”. Is this foreign interference in Indian elections?

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There have been widespread allegations of systematic bias, shadow-banning, unauthorised muting, mass-blocking and other acts of bias targeted at supporters of the BJP. In addition to the endemic Modiphobia of journalists such as the FT and Economist representatives in India, these attacks are also second-order effects of others’ foreign policy, intended to keep India down.

Much as we may think foreign affairs are in the background in these elections, there are surprising ways in which it may have a lot of impact on who will be running India come May.

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