What’s in Diplomats’ cables?

Most members of the Delhi-based foreign diplomatic corps, especially of neighbouring and major countries, would have followed the action-packed Karnataka political thriller with riveting attention. Bengaluru is on the global radar and Karnataka is one of India’s most progressive states; hence, it is natural for diplomats and foreign investors to seek to be aware of events that may impact on their interests in the state. Much more importantly, international observers would have generally kept an eye on this assembly election for its implications for the future of Prime Minister Narendra Modi-led BJP, whose government is about to complete four years of its five-year term.

There is little doubt that foreign diplomats in Delhi would continue to assess Modi as the dominant Indian political personality. No one is even remotely close to him in national popularity. His success in the 2014 Lok Sabha election had catapulted him into the small select group of truly influential world leaders. That international leaders were impressed by his political achievement was obvious from the manner they not only opened up to him but displayed personal warmth and camaraderie. It is certain that as Modi increased the BJP’s political footprint in India, foreign diplomats would have estimated his popularity as going up. With the opposition in disarray, they would have had little doubt that the Modi era would not be ending anytime soon.

The Delhi, Bihar and Punjab assembly elections revealed that Modi’s appeal could not enable the BJP to overcome all local factors, but they did not cast a shadow on his control over the national political scene. As the Lok Sabha polls were far away, they did not raise questions about its fate. Besides, the BJP’s grand victory in the Uttar Pradesh polls in 2017 indicated that the party remained strong in India’s politically most important state, where the party had won 71 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats in 2014.

Clearly, till autumn of last year, the impression was that Modi was unassailable. The international community continued to lavish attention on him as the powerful and enduring leader of India.

In the Gujarat Assembly election in December 2017, Modi had to pull out all stops to take the BJP to victory. It was only Modi who was able to reverse the strong anti-incumbency sentiment, although the party significantly suffered a decline of 16 seats.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has struck a personal relationship with Modi, visited India three months prior to the election. Modi hosted him in Ahmedabad. This was a clear signal from Japan, which has taken a strategic decision to upgrade bilateral ties, that it saw that the BJP would win the election and it saw no national challenge to Modi. Personal relationships always take a second position to cold strategic calculation.

The international community will note that Modi’s short and energetic campaign in Karnataka increased BJP’s strength from a low base to 104 seats. However, the BJP failed to win the state and post-election, the Congress swiftly out-manoeuvred it. Rahul Gandhi stooped to conquer and the Congress took the battle to the Supreme Court. How would diplomats have reported all this to their governments?

While they may have been fascinated by the twists and turns of the political drama, their reports would focus on election results and government-making. As the Supreme Court played a decisive legal role, its power in India’s public life would have been emphasised by them. The fact that the court, which has been somewhat divided, met at night to hear the Congress and JD(S) petition and then decisively brought forward the confidence vote and ordered that it be conducted in the national gaze cannot but enhance its global reputation.

Ultimately and obviously, for diplomats, the durability of national governments is important. It is still early for them to estimate BJP’s chances of retaining majority on its own in the next Lok Sabha polls. But, with the Karnataka election, the process of evaluation in foreign diplomatic missions in Delhi would have begun. Over the next months, the evaluation would change as the Modi government takes steps to push its agenda for electoral success in 2019, or earlier if elections are advanced. Its policies and actions would be closely monitored in this background.

The Karnataka poll results and government formation would have raised questions in the minds of foreign diplomats about the next general election. Had the BJP won a clear victory, it would have reinforced the view that Modi was unstoppable and assessments would have been made with that in mind.

If the BJP had succeeded in government formation, the view would have been that Modi, with the political savvy of his team, would have no difficulties in 2019 even if the BJP comes up a little short. Now, these views will not be taken for granted, although diplomats do know that there are fundamental differences between assembly elections and those to the Lok Sabha.

The Karnataka result will have no impact on the government’s engagements with other countries through this year and till general elections are called. The Modi government speaks and acts for India and foreign governments will interact with it on that basis. Nor will it impact on the warmth with which Modi is greeted on his foreign travels. There, he goes as a strong PM. However, foreign leaders do ask their diplomats if they will continue to interact with a counterpart through their term, especially if it is in its early part.

After the Karnataka results, diplomats are likely to tell their leaders that Modi retains his base and is matchless in election campaigning and will seek to showcase the economic and social reforms that his government has undertaken and that reforms will continue. At the same time, they will also point out that the opposition has begun sensing an opportunity to really combat him and not approach 2019 as a lost cause.

(The writer is former Secretary, Ministry of External Affairs)

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What’s in Diplomats’ cables?

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