In the wake of a second electoral triumph for Modi, Humphrey Hawksley asks how India can address its internal shortcomings and forge a distinct role for itself on the Asian stage
The re-election success of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi comes at a unique time for his country because Western democracies are continuing their inward naval-gazing and the world stage is crying out for new players with bold ideas.
In his first term, Modi blazed an international trail through the sheer force of his personality and his showcasing of what a rising, outward-looking India could offer. In his second term, he will have to outline a distinctive Indian role for the Asian century, one which carries weight, voice and impact.
The question, therefore, is how can this massive, clumsy democracy grasp the moment? Where exactly does it want to position itself in the current rebalancing of global power, specifically within that newly unleashed vacuum between the West which authored the dominant world order and the rising autocracies that want to re-write it?
In some respects, Modi in 2019 is where India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, found himself in the years following independence from Britain in 1947. Back then, during those early stages of the Cold War and decolonisation, the global canvas was also being repainted.
A key issue of that era was about allegiance to either the American or Soviet camp, from which India chose the status of non-alignment. Today’s issue should not be about alignment to a greater power, but about which countries wish to align themselves to India.
Like Nehru, Modi is convinced that his nation is destined to command a great place on the world stage. It now has an opening it cannot afford to miss, and there are three areas in which India needs to make its mark over the next five years.
Globally it can take a lead on a range of issues such as climate change, conflict resolution andUnited Nations reform. Regionally, India can galvanise a third way in the Indo-Pacific which has become a live theatre of Sino-American tension. Closer to home, in South Asia, it can recast its reputation for heavy-handed diplomacy and haphazard policies and try again to build a working trust with its neighbours.
On the surface, this list might appear as a series of impossible longings. That does not mean some goals cannot be achieved. In his first five years, Modi got off to a good start, showing particular skill in balancing competing foreign interests.
He has reinforced India’s relationship with the United States, while bringing a delicate détente to the China relationship and joining the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation made up of South and Central Asian states and heavily influenced by Beijing. At the same time, he has kept away from Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and strengthened ties with China’s main Asian rival, Japan, and with smaller countries like Vietnam, the front-line antagonist against Beijing in the South China Sea dispute.
In order to define a distinctive Asian path that is neither overly reliant on Beijing or Washington, Modi’s work with like-minded governments will have to intensify in the near-future.
In recent years, it has become clear that the rise of China is only part of the story because Asia itself, finding its feet as a cohesive region with a shared future,is now a global force to be reckoned with. The continent wants to play by its own rules, not those laid down by hegemonic powers. India is well-placed to lead by example through its history of non-alignment and strong track record of guarding its independence, regardless of the consequences.
‘No Asian nation, not even United States allies, will do anything for the US that isn’t first and foremost in its own interest,’ argues Indo-American global strategy adviser Parag Khanna in his book the The Future is Asian. ‘It is as if Asians are saying “Asia first”.’
China has become dominant mainly because it had a big idea. There is nothing to stop India balancing China with a big idea of its own and, eventually, there is nothing to stop the region from combining those ideas into something that speaks for all of Asia.
This is a foreign policy long game for the Indo-Pacific, but it cannot even be played seriously until India corrects its uneven relationships with its close neighbours and its challenges at home.
India’s patchy record in South Asia is not confined to the insoluble hostilities with Pakistan. Over many decades, it has failed to convince its other neighbours that despite its overwhelming size, they can design a road map to advance all their interests.
In his first term, Modi had a degree of success in this area. Sri Lanka and the Maldives both held elections that favoured Delhi over Beijing, although that could change next time round. Madagascar, Mauritius and the Seychelles are now all welcoming India as a stabilising presence, and relations have strengthened with Myanmar and Bangladesh, with which Modi has resolved long-standing border issues.
He has also kept eyes on Moscow’s growing alliance with Beijing to ensure it does not jeopardise Delhi’s long-standing friendship that dates back to the 1971 Indian-Soviet Friendship and Cooperation Treaty.
Over the decades, however, India’s haphazard and often boorish diplomacy has weakened its regional grip so that countries like Sri Lanka and Nepal became ripe for exploitation as soon as Beijing began implementing its strategy of expansion.
China’s investment in Nepal, for example, now dwarfs India’s by ten to one. There is little wonder that Beijing’s influence is tightening and no reason for it except neglect by Delhi.
To make ground-breaking progress in its foreign policy, India will need to address festering internal challenges such as corruption, forced labour and the perception that extreme Hindu nationalism is going too far.
‘The limitations of India’s foreign policy are linked intimately to its weaknesses at home,’ argues Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. ‘The government will have to accelerate economic reforms, strengthen institutions and protect internal cohesion.’
These are the sores that put India’s foreign policy at most risk of foundering. Modi’s first term has been stained by accusations that he is alienating the Muslim community, promoting his Hindu base and weakening institutions. If he continues along this path, hostilities with Pakistan will inevitably increase, as will restlessness among Indian Muslims, all of which creates a recipe for China to exploit.
If he addresses these issues head on and is able to bring his electoral base with him, Modi could set India on the path to becoming the world power that he has long envisaged.