PM Modi's rightward lurch won't win India any friends

PM Modi's rightward lurch won't win India any friends

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. (PTI photo)

By Mihir Sharma

For decades, Indian foreign policy has been moving slowly but methodically in a single direction: toward a greater embrace of the West. The days of non-alignment, when India believed it led the developing world in standing apart from either Cold War bloc, are over. Although successive governments in New Delhi have worked hard to avoid antagonizing Beijing, it has been taken for granted that India’s future lies in ever closer ties to other liberal democracies.

Equally, support for India’s rise has been one of the few subjects of bipartisan consensus in Washington. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have pushed for closer ties, even when New Delhi has appeared too suspicious or inefficient to respond. A fast-growing liberal democracy, open and transparent, and with the potential to balance China — what could go wrong?

A great deal is going wrong, as the visit of India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, to Washington recently revealed. Such visits are usually low key, but this one made headlines when Jaishankar reportedly cancelled a meeting with lawmakers because they refused to exclude Representative Pramila Jayapal, the progressive Democrat from Washington State, from the room. This somewhat unusual decision was presumably made because Jayapal has been a prominent critic of recent Indian policy in Kashmir.

This didn’t go down well on the Hill, or on the Democratic campaign trail. Primary voters, many assume, want their party’s nominees to present a more “moral” stand on foreign policy than in the past. Thus Senator Elizabeth Warren condemned India’s efforts to “silence” Jayapal, and tweeted that the U.S.-India partnership requires “shared respect for religious pluralism, democracy and human rights.” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg went further, criticizing India for recent political detentions and internet blackouts and warning that it “could threaten its longstanding democratic traditions.”

Jaishankar perhaps wanted to avoid airing India’s dirty laundry in Washington. But if that was the plan, it has backfired massively. India’s decision-making seems to be rooted in the past — a past when it was growing at 8 percent a year, its military was not being chronically underfunded, and it appeared to be steadily maturing as a liberal democracy instead of sliding into majoritarianism and repression. If there are now doubts being raised about its reliability as a long-term partner, the government’s actions must bear much of the blame.

Indian officials, meanwhile, seem to have forgotten the need for bipartisan outreach. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared with US President Donald Trump at a political rally in Houston, for example, he appeared to offer an endorsement (the Indian government denies that interpretation). And India’s ambassador to the US raised many eyebrows when he tweeted about meeting the former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, whom he called “the legendary ideologue and ‘Dharma’ warrior” and an “avid follower of the Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gita.” (The ambassador, who has since been promoted to lead India’s diplomatic service, later deleted the tweet and said “we meet everyone.”)

The Indian government is behaving less like its usual self and more like, say, Viktor Orban of Hungary or Trump himself in its happy embrace of the global right. It’s hard to see how such actions could conceivably keep India a bipartisan priority in Washington. Nor are they likely to succeed on their own terms. Trump’s trade adviser Peter Navarro has already signalled a harder line on Indian tariff policy. With the diplomatic finesse typical of a Trump appointee, he has called India “the maharajah of tariffs”; it’s highly unlikely that Trump, elected on a protectionist agenda, would go easy on India purely because of the public warmth in his relationship with Modi.

As the University of Chicago political scientist Paul Staniland argues, “If the bipartisan political values pillar of the US-India relationship weakens, it may focus American attention on bluntly transactional realpolitik and economic considerations even beyond the Trump administration.”

Frankly, this isn’t in India’s interest — we’ve never been able to manage transactional relationships, given that we simply don’t have enough to give away in return for everything we want. But India’s newly aggressive and openly right-wing international posture is also an honest reflection of its transformed domestic environment. Modi was re-elected earlier this year despite a stuttering economy because he fought one of the only election campaigns in India’s history squarely focused on foreign policy. His voters expect him to be as aggressive abroad as he is at home, and he is following through on that promise.

Perhaps forging alliances between democracies isn’t quite as easy as policymakers in both India and the U.S. have long assumed. What you gain on the swings of "shared values" you can lose on the roundabouts of "electoral calculations." If and when India returns to high growth, then perhaps all will be forgiven. But, till then, there will be less and less talk of India and America as "natural partners."

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