India’s desire to be taken seriously as a major international player is legitimate. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s supporters are counting on him to secure the nation’s position as a global power. But his handling of domestic problems and relations with Pakistan and other neighbors raises questions about whether Modi is the man to put India irrevocably on the world map, writes Mumbai-born journalist and author Salil Tripathi, who is based in London.
Second mandate: Can Prime Minister Narendra Modi turn India into a global power? (Credit: AFP/Michael Kappeler/Pool)

When Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister of India in May 2014, among the guests at the ceremony was Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s prime minister at the time. After being re-elected with an increased majority following a marathon election in May this year, Modi’s swearing-in attracted several guests from abroad, including the leaders of Bangladesh, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, and the managing director of the International Monetary Fund. Conspicuously absent was Pakistan’s current prime minister, Imran Khan.

Khan’s absence was noteworthy. In February, an Indian-born Kashmiri extremist carried out one of the most audacious terror attacks, when he rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a convoy carrying Indian paramilitary forces in Kashmir, killing more than 40 soldiers, including himself. The Indian government immediately blamed Pakistan, even though the terrorist was born in the part of Kashmir under Indian control, and he had managed to transport explosives on a strategic road without being checked by any Indian security forces. Pakistan denied the charges. A few days later, Indian military aircraft entered Pakistani airspace and destroyed what it claimed was a terrorist camp – an assertion that Islamabad ridiculed. India also said it had shot down a Pakistani F-16. Pakistan, on the other hand, did bring down an Indian aircraft and, in a gesture of goodwill, returned the pilot back to India a few days later. At the end of the election campaign, India announced – quietly – that its own forces had probably shot down one of its helicopters, killing six men.

The jingoistic mood required that India claim it had “won” the encounter, and that Modi had given a fitting response to “Pakistani terrorism”. Indian propaganda even suggested that Pakistan returned the pilot to India because it was afraid of more brutal retaliation – an untested hypothesis. Pakistan did close down its airspace to flights going to India, adding to time and costs for airlines around the world, possibly contributing the last straw that broke the back of cash-strapped Jet Airways, the Indian carrier which stopped flying altogether soon after.

There is no avoiding the India-Pakistan context to Modi’s election victory. However much India might attempt to decouple itself from Pakistan and to assert its position in the global pecking order as an emerging power, the fact remains that so long as its relations with Pakistan remain fraught with cross-border terrorism and one-upmanship, it will remain a regional power, where its leadership trades insults and not goods and services with the country next door.

While several other neighbors from India’s obliged Modi with their presence at his oath-taking, India’s relations with them is precarious. Bangladesh has been cooperating with India in clamping down on extremist groups that have used the country as a sanctuary. Yet India has done Bangladesh no favors by continuing to demonize Bangladeshis who come to India as economic migrants.

There are no accurate estimates of the number of Bangladeshis in India, but it is likely to run in the millions. India is determined to send them home. In the runup to the elections, the president of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah (now India’s home minister), called immigrants “termites” that had to be gotten rid of. While India has not ratified the UN Refugee Convention of 1951, since the BJP came to power, its leadership has said that it would provide refuge to those persecuted in its neighborhood on religious grounds, singling out Hindus, Christians, Buddhists, and Sikhs but stating clearly that Muslims from the region would not be welcome. India is in the process of sending the 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar despite their well-founded fear of persecution.

Such actions are not signs of a mature regional power, let alone a global one.

While the two world leaders Modi feels closest to – Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu and Japan’s Shinzo Abe – were prompt in congratulating Modi on his electoral success, other messages were formal and followed protocol. Modi would love to impress upon Indians that India’s ties with the United States are close, but then Donald Trump is an unpredictable president. The day after Modi’s new cabinet was sworn in, the US revealed that it was removing India from its generalized system of preferences, which allows certain Indian exports to the US tariff-free. These include jewelry, garments, and certain auto parts. By removing the concessions, the US made Indian exports to the US more expensive. That this penalizes both India and the US is beside the point. The fact is that it makes it even harder for Modi to bridge the gap between Indians’ rising expectations and his ability to deliver.

As a leaked report from India’s statistical organization revealed, India’s economic growth has been jobless, and unemployment is at its highest in 45 years. Jobless youth can turn to crime, as many examples around the world show, and India has had more than its share of vigilante violence against religious minorities during Modi’s first term. An economically stressed India where restive youth turn to lawlessness would have difficulty getting the world to take it seriously as an emerging power.

Yet the perception in India is that this is the nation’s hour. Indians have long believed that their country is a major power and have felt slighted, perceiving that the world ignores India. China and India have populations of similar size and yet, despite India’s democracy, the world has kowtowed to China. One reason for that was that while internally turbulent, India has tended to keep its troubles within. Over the centuries, Chinese have emigrated in waves seeking to escape hardship, civil conflict and repression and creating a diaspora population significantly larger than that of non-resident Indians. When there has been a diplomatic confrontation between China and the rest of the world, the rest of the world has often blinked. India wants to be in a similar position, and believes that in Modi it has the leader who can make opponents blink.

But despite a quarter century of economic reforms and partial liberalization, and despite cosmetic changes which have made India appear to be a more open and competitive place to do business in in recent years, the country remains a difficult place in which to do business, compared to many countries in Asia. Furthermore, it keeps its domestic market closed to foreign investors. One of the complaints American companies have is that its vast Internet and e-commerce market has rules tweaked in favor of Indian companies. Trump’s annoyance, while self-serving, is not entirely unfounded.

The mistake many analysts abroad make is that they confuse Modi’s forays abroad to attract investment with a pro-business outlook. Modi loves certain capitalists, not capitalism necessarily. He understands and is brilliant at marketing. But he is not necessarily for free markets. To understand Modi one has to look at the early years of Suharto’s Indonesia and Mahathir Mohamad’s Malaysia – countries which progressed because well-connected businessmen prospered, at the expense of others, and foreign investors benefited only if they had the right “know-who” not “know-how”. Suharto’s Indonesia did develop in his early years, only to come crashing in 1997-98, and Mahathir survived the crisis largely because the crony capitalists around him had their excessive debts in ringgit, and not foreign currency.

Indian business is highly leveraged, and one of the challenges for Modi would be to ensure that there is no major banking crisis over the next few years. His disastrous decision to replace 86% of the country’s currency with fresh notes some two years ago, which depressed demand and impoverished many who were already poor, lost him credibility as a manager of the economy. The BJP has not been a fan of foreign investment. In the 1990s, when India pursued deregulation, the BJP’s slogan was “India is a country, not a market”. The BJP’s nationalism is not only religious (and that has had horrendous consequences for India’s minorities), but also economic.

If there is a silver lining amidst all this, it lies in the appointment of S Jaishankar as India’s foreign minister. Jaishankar has been a distinguished diplomat with a fine understanding of India’s foreign policy and has been an ambassador in major world capitals. Having been a diplomat all his life, he did not spoil his copybook by making shrill or harsh accusations against the opposition or Modi’s critics during the PM’s first term. He has stayed scrupulously non-partisan, and his presence can earn India some credibility internationally.

That is, if Modi lets him do his job. In his first government, Modi had converted the foreign minister Sushma Swaraj into a passport and visa officer, spending a large amount of time on Twitter, responding to heartfelt needs for Indian visas from Pakistanis requiring healthcare in India, or issuing passports to Indians abroad who were in distress. She traveled abroad but was rarely seen by Modi’s side on his many foreign trips. Her subordinates included a former military chief, Gen V K Singh, who spent time insulting journalists on Twitter (he has since been demoted), and a former editor, M J Akbar, who resigned after he was accused of sexual harassment by nearly two dozen women journalists, one of whom he is suing for defamation. Jaishankar will restore some dignity to the post but India’s premier diplomat could yet turn out to be a glorified passport officer.

India’s desire to be taken seriously as a major international player is legitimate. As the world’s second-largest country by population and one of the biggest economies by purchasing power parity, India cannot be ignored, and it would be foolish for any nation to do so. India held great promise when it gained Independence in 1947. Granting the right to vote to all, it aimed to build and sustain a functioning democracy. In 1974 and again in 1998, it tested a nuclear device to declare its arrival on the international stage. In the 1970s, it made its mark as a space power. When its economy opened in the early 1990s, it showed the world its software prowess. Indian prime ministers – notably Jawaharlal Nehru for his idealistic internationalism, Indira Gandhi for her shrewd realpolitik, and Manmohan Singh for his deft understanding of economics and balancing of coalition interests – have been respected internationally. Modi’s supporters resent that – they want to believe that their man has put India on the international map and, for them, 2014 was year zero. Perhaps.

With rising religious extremism, bigotry, and increasing tensions with Pakistan, Modi is indeed putting India on the world map, but not exactly for the reasons his supporters have intended. Indians deserve better.

Further Reading:

Mukhopadhyay, Nilanjan. (2013). Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times, Tranquebar Press.

Tharoor, Shashi. (2018). The Paradoxical Prime Minister, Aleph Book Company.

Tripathi, Salil. (2009). Offence: The Hindu Case, Seagull Books.