India’s domestic politics playing out on the world stage

Authors: Tridivesh Singh Maini and Arko Dasgupta, New Delhi

Nationalist political posturing and decision-making seem to be yielding political dividends in India.

Both the major national parties, the Bharitiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress, have been trying to outdo each other’s jingoistic statements.This was illustrated after the beheading of an Indian soldier and the killing of another on the Pakistan border became national news in India — a political competition neither practical nor feasible in the long run.

One thing the likely prime ministerial candidates, Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, do share in common is a short-sighted understanding of foreign policy issues. Both are guilty of making rash statements during domestic election campaigns.

Narendra Modi has assiduously cultivated relationships with foreign governments in the West and in Asia, focusing especially on Asian economic giants — including leading delegations to China and Japan. He received accolades from overseas for his performance as chief minister — most notably from the United Kingdom and some of the United States media — after having been informally boycotted by the European Union for close to a decade for his perceived association with the deadly Gujarat riots. On vexed issues such as India–Pakistan relations, however, Modi has seldom moved beyond a standard rhetoric. While he is believed to enjoy a good rapport with sections of the business community in Karachi, and has made references to the possibility of a Gujarat–Sind interstate cooperation, his overall tenor vis-à-vis Islamabad has been bellicose. In order to keep his support base intact, he is not averse to making extreme decisions, such as the last minute exclusion of Pakistani delegates to the Vibrant Gujarat Summit and the refusal of the Gujarat Cricket Association — which Modi heads — to host the Women’s Cricket World Cup because of the participation of the Pakistani national team.

Beyond Pakistan, one has not heard much from Modi. With regard to the United States, it is interesting to note that while the chief minister relishes all the praise he receives from American businessmen, think-tanks and the Indian diaspora (a large chunk being Gujarati businessmen), he has never publicly supported New Delhi’s overtures to Washington. Whenever the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government has made initiatives in this direction, he has been quick to mock the prime minister. Commenting on the UPA’s decision to introduce foreign direct investment into the retail sector, Modi said that Singh only acted like a singham (lion) when under pressure from the US.

Rahul Gandhi of the Indian National Congress does not have a particularly outstanding world view either, if one were to go by his public statements.

In the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi spoke of how his grandmother, the late Indira Gandhi, was responsible for splitting Pakistan. Apart from this, seldom has he made any remarks on India’s relationship with its South Asian neighbours or, for that matter, with China or the United States. It is believed that as the newly appointed Congress vice president, he was very impressed by Bangladesh’s Human Development Index performance and even recently visited Dhaka to study their famous microfinance model. But he did not have much to say about India’s position on the global stage at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir, the ceremony that marked his ascension to the position of vice president in the Congress. It was Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who had to speak on India’s role in the region and the wider world at the occasion.

Both Narendra Modi’s and Rahul Gandhi’s seemingly limited interest in foreign policy issues is at best an insult to Indians who, after having waited for so long, are witnessing their country grow stronger on the world stage. India, at this important time in world politics, needs clear and focused leadership on matters of foreign policy. Both would do well to remember that prime ministers from their respective parties have in the past taken bold and visionary stands. It is time for Modi and Gandhi to do the same.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi-based columnist.

Arko Dasgupta is a postgraduate student at Jamia Millia Islamia, India.

This article first appeared here, in The Hindu