There seems to be no end to the crises that India is experiencing now, in both the domestic and foreign spheres. The rupee is in free fall, fuel prices are up and there is widespread joblessness. New data demonstrated yet again that demonetisation was a pointless exercise that cost lives, time and money. Narendra Modi’s popularity is dipping, according to opinion polls. The political climate is fraught, right-wing violence and hate speech against Muslims and other marginal groups continues; there’s widespread institutional decline and the ruling BJP is currently waging an offensive against liberal intellectuals and activists.
India’s international prospects are taking a beating while its public is focused on internal matters. Smaller neighbours are moving away from Delhi. Nepal is set to use Chinese ports to trade with other countries, ending its dependence on India. Beijing has said that is ready to work with Kathmandu to build an interconnectivity network across the Himalayas through railways, highways, aviation and communications. Sri Lanka is deeply in debt to China and the latter wants to build houses and roads in the country’s north and east. Meanwhile, Maldives continues to defy Delhi and invited the Pakistan army chief for a visit in April.
Dealing with US isolationism
The biggest foreign policy concern for the Modi government ought to be the relative drift in ties with the US. Both countries have had strong economic ties for years and share similar outlooks on China, but India now appears out of step with the America that Trump is fashioning. Trump is lurching the US towards isolationism, unsettling allies in Europe and Asia. He is imposing tariffs on Indian products, tightening norms for H1-B visas and stoking a form of white nationalism that makes India and Indian Americans uncomfortable. Both countries recently held ‘2+2’ talks involving their foreign and defence ministers but the asymmetry in outcomes has been questioned by Indian analysts.
These policy disagreements flow in part from fundamental differences in the way India and Trump conceive of global order. India wants open trade and freer immigration, Trump uses tariffs as policy instruments and wants to limit foreigners; he is stoking majoritarianism while India prefers an America at peace with multiculturalism.
The Trump administration and the broader anti-immigrant turn in the Western world represents a genuine crisis for the Indian middle class and elites who send their children abroad to compensate for failings of the education system and job market at home. Western governments are now fairly schizophrenic on immigration – they want foreign students to bring in money for their universities but seek to limit their pathway to residence under domestic political pressures.
These anti-foreigner populist trends are likely to outlast Trump and it is imperative that governments abroad prepare for an inward-looking age. Major powers like India should therefore invest in social stability, build intellectual depth and have nimble, expansive worldviews to develop networks and relationships that weather geopolitical shocks. Modi has taken the opposite approach. His party has fanned political instability at home and has a narrow chauvinistic ideology that alienates other powers in Asia. Instead of investing in English-language capacity and scientific temper on a war-footing to prepare the country for the global transformations in services and technology, the BJP is discouraging English, pushing Hindi (which is not the mother tongue of nearly half of India’s population), fostering anti-intellectualism, underfunding public education and promoting unscientific beliefs in the name of promoting tradition.
Decline in the neighbourhood, adrift in Eurasia
India not only needs to build capacity at home but has to seek out other sources of growth and power to balance a distracted America. Its best bet is in consolidating links across Asia, which will be the engine of the world economy in decades to come. Here too the Modi government record is patchy. India’s star in South Asia is waning, as noted. India is crucially adrift of transformations in the Eurasian landmass around it. The entire land area between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is now being integrated through roads, railways, bridges, airports, ports, pipelines, power lines and fibre optic cables. The proliferation of connections is, according to analysts like Bruno Macaes and Robert Kaplan, turning Eurasia into a unified space – in ways it never was during the Cold War. In Dawn of Eurasia: On the trail of the New World Order, Macaes says one of the reasons why the world needs to think about Eurasia as a unified space is because China increasingly sees world order in such terms – as demonstrated by the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) which invests in infrastructure projects in some 69 countries. China is committed to bridging the distance between Europe and Asia and other powers in the region including Russia, Turkey, Iran and the European Union are all invested in the growth of the region while aiming to maximise their own interests in it.
Two aspects of emerging Eurasia are of particular relevance to India. First, that Central Asia’s importance – as the region that connects Europe with China, South Asia and Russia, West Asia and the Caucasus with East Asia – is set to increase. Second, that the Arctic region may also increase in prominence over time. Macaes writes about the anticipation that global warming may transform the frozen Arctic waters into a sea route linking Europe and Asia which will be 7,400 kilometers shorter than the one going via Suez Canal. There may even be a “belt of large cities” in the Arctic region a few decades from now.
India is not a major player in the Eurasian game, at least looking north and westward, although it has an Act East policy which is making slow progress on connectivity with Southeast Asia. It needs stronger connections with Central Asia but they are limited because Pakistan’s territory lies in between – an obstacle that can in theory be overcome by participation in BRI. Delhi has, however, declined Beijing’s invitation because one of the BRI projects, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) that connects Xinjiang with Gwadar, runs through undivided Jammu and Kashmir. The Modi government objects to the lack of transparency in BRI projects as well but the key reason arguably is that involvement in BRI would involve a fundamental reset of India’s ties with Pakistan.
Indian governments have struggled to make headway on ties with Pakistan owing to differences over terrorism and the conflict in Jammu and Kashmir. But Modi and the BJP are particularly hamstrung about progress with Islamabad because anti-Pakistan and anti-Muslim posturing is crucial for rallying its Hindu chauvinist base in India. So there is now a situation where China is building connections all around India (including in Tibet) but the latter sees no incentive to cut through this encirclement and benefit from the emerging networks around it because the BJP has domestic political considerations to be mindful of. There is, in this case, a conflict between party and national interest and it appears that India’s long-term prospects are hostage to BJP’s anti-Muslim politics.
Wanting globalisation without Muslims
In addition to complicating ties with Pakistan, Modi’s anti-Muslim politics pose a reputational risk to India elsewhere and potentially limit the interests of its citizens in other Asian countries.
India is geographically located in what one may call a Muslim cultural zone that stretches from Turkey in the west, through West Asia, Iran and the Persian Gulf, Central Asia, China’s Xinjiang province, South Asia and Southeast Asian nations like Malaysia and Indonesia. And yet India often behaves as if it does not culturally belong in this region, with its political and bureaucratic elites focused mainly on Western nations while the ruling BJP generates negative impressions about the country in the Muslim world nearby, which is also important for the growth that India needs.
Analysts might contend that such cultural turns do not matter in international politics because relations between states and businesses are essentially instrumental in nature, as India’s good ties with Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman and others demonstrate. States are certainly instrumental and bilateral ties are mostly on autopilot but political agency does matter and social calculations do change with time. A government’s majoritarian outlook is bound to generate damaging perceptions about its citizens. Indians have hitherto been known abroad as peace-loving professionals, in part because India itself was known as a democracy that valued diversity and tolerance. If an Indian government now works actively to foster anti-Muslim sentiment within and gets a measure of domestic support for such policies, it will not take long for all Indian nationals to be tarred with unhelpful stereotypes. India will, as a result, be stuck with a reputation as an anti-Muslim country and that would amount to a radical reconstitution of how its citizens are perceived abroad. The BJP can scarcely afford to jeopardise whatever chances Indian citizens have in this scenario – particularly when China is already blitzing the region with its cash. Governments should be in the business of nurturing dispositions that expand their citizens contact with the world, not undercutting it.
To conclude, the Modi government is neither attentive to the decline of India’s democracy nor is it weighing the geopolitical cost of its extreme outlook. It is sowing instability and encouraging anti-intellectualism within. And aiming to cope with Western isolationism by steering clear of emerging geographic connections. If India had the stature and respect in Muslim countries now as it had in the days of Nehruvian non-Alignment, it might have managed to mitigate the effect of ventures like BRI. But today it has a problem in two realms: It cannot get too close to China for strategic reasons while the BJP’s cultural politics prevent an open reach out to Muslim nations in its neighbourhood. The result is self-induced isolation when India can least afford it.
The irony of all this is that Modi has travelled widely to signal his openness to the world. But he is governing in ways that is making India drop out of it.
Sushil Aaron writes commentary on India’s politics and international affairs. He tweets @SushilAaron.