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Article: A humbled Narendra Modi, a diminished global stature

ED Mathew

“When India speaks at global forums now, the whole world pays rapt attention,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi exulted during an election rally in Uttar Pradesh this May. Amidst raucous applause from the audience, the bravado continued: “When India takes decisions, the world tries to match its steps.”

In the 2014 and 2019 elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) focused on corruption, Hindu nationalism, and domestic and Pakistan-origin terrorism. This is the first time in India’s history that foreign policy has figured prominently in the campaign discourse. In speech after speech, Modi crowed about India’s status as the fastest-growing major developing economy in the world, how the nation overtook Britain to become the fifth-largest global economy, and how successfully India hosted the G20 summit last year, all of these under his leadership, of course! He even raked up the long-settled issue of the Sri Lankan island of Katchatheevu just for narrow political gain in Tamil Nadu.

When the results were announced on 4 June, Modi’s feet of clay were exposed as voters handed down the BJP a stunningly reduced parliamentary majority. A new era of coalition politics was ushered in — an uncharted territory for a leader who has often bragged of his ability to beat the Opposition single-handedly. The diminished mandate and dependence on coalition partners introduce new dynamics that could influence India’s foreign policy direction in the next five years.

Modi is believed to have made most of the crucial foreign policy decisions on his own without consulting his cabinet. Prominent among them was proclaiming solidarity with Israel within a few hours of the October 7 attack by Hamas. It took several days for an embarrassed Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) to come up with a more balanced statement.

To cement India’s status as a global leader, Modi will likely prioritise securing a permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). It will be interesting to see how the new government will leverage the UN’s upcoming ‘Summit of the Future’— dubbed as a historic opportunity to reform the global body —scheduled to take place in New York in September this year. However, given the geopolitical realities, including P-5 member China’s resistance to India’s rise, the UNSC permanent membership looks like a farfetched goal and will most likely remain beyond Modi’s reach.

China will remain the elephant in the room when it comes to foreign policy during Modi’s third term too. Modi, who boasts of his closeness to many world leaders, has failed to charm President Xi Jinping, who snubbed him by not attending the G20 meeting last year. Xi has also not personally congratulated Modi on his third-term victory so far.

China, meanwhile, is involved in extensive development of military infrastructure along the Himalayan border. Recent reports of China deploying advanced J-20 stealth fighter jets at Shigatse, only 150 kilometres from Sikkim, underscore the ongoing volatility. Opposition leaders have accused Modi of failing to deal with China seizing Indian territory through “salami slicing,” or incremental occupation of the border areas.

Diplomatic engagements will be crucial in managing the complex relationship with China. Underlying tensions and territorial disputes will require careful navigation to avoid escalation. Observers will be keenly watching whether there will be a meeting between Modi and Xi on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit in Kazakhstan’s capital Astana next month.

New Delhi will likely continue to promote “minilateral” arrangements with like-minded countries to advance its foreign policy and regional security objectives. The I2U2 (India, Israel, United States and United Arab Emirates), the Colombo Security Conclave (India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Mauritius), and the Quad (India, Japan, Australia and the U.S.) will most likely play significant roles in tackling regional challenges.

However, the Quad has come under a cloud lately with the U.S. forming the ‘Squad,’ replacing India with the Philippines. An additional “deterrence” angle has been added to the ‘Squad’ group given the rising tensions in the South-China Sea. It has been over a year since the Quad leaders met for a summit. With U.S. President Joe Biden snubbing Modi’s invitation to be the chief guest at India’s Republic Day in January, a planned Quad summit along the sidelines of the celebration had to be deferred. Another attempt to hold a summit before the beginning of the national elections on April 19 also fell apart for various reasons. Now no summit is likely before the U.S. elections are over in November.

Meanwhile, the plot to assassinate, Gurpatwant Singh Pannun, a U.S.-Canadian citizen and alleged Khalistani separatist, in New York, reportedly involving Indian intelligence agents, has strained India-U.S. ties. Additionally, India’s perceived alignment with Russia amid the Ukraine conflict and its long-term agreement with Iran regarding the Chabahar port have further complicated relations with the U.S.

India’s relations with Canada too have nosedived under Modi’s watch with the murder of Hardeep Singh Nijjar, a Canadian citizen and an alleged Khalistani separatist, in British Columbia, in June last year. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau accused the Indian government of being complicit in the assassination, which subsequently led to a serious diplomatic spat, inflicting considerable damage to ties between the two major democracies.

Relations with Pakistan also remain strained, and New Delhi will likely continue the current policy of limited engagement with Islamabad.

Despite Moscow’s close ties with Beijing, the historical and strategic partnership with Russia remains vital. Navigating this complex triad of relationships will require a delicate balance, ensuring that India’s interests are safeguarded while maintaining its strategic autonomy.

Meanwhile, Modi’s decade-long rule saw Indian democracy coming under severe strain. Illiberalism and religious bigotry have been on the rise, and the country’s global standing has taken a beating. According to the Opposition Congress party, the nation’s image has been damaged by the BJP government’s “intolerance of dissent and suppression of human rights.” Freedom House has downgraded India from “free” to “partly free” while Sweden’s V-Dem Institute has classified the country as an “electoral autocracy.” On the World Press Freedom Index, the “largest democracy in the world” now ranks 159 out of 180 countries.

Though the BJP has cornered most of the crucial ministries in the new government, including the MEA, the party’s dependence on coalition partners may lead to compromises. A humbled Modi at home will likely be more susceptible to international pressure during his third term. The made-up swagger with which he was walking on the world stage is gone forever.

ED Mathew is a former U.N. spokesperson. He posts @edmathew on X.

Source: The Wire

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