More hype than substance

In 2023, the government’s foreign affairs fell short of the widely propagated “Vishwaguru” myth, displaying mediocrity.

Published : Dec 28, 2023 12:00 IST - 14 MINS READ

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Rajghat on the final day of the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 10, 2023. 

Prime Minister Narendra Modi with US President Joe Biden and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak at Rajghat on the final day of the G20 summit in New Delhi on September 10, 2023.  | Photo Credit: PTI

An assessment of the Union government’s dealings with the world in 2023 can only be undertaken after a prior operation. As with its other works, the record of its global interactions is so slathered with hype that the substance cannot be got at without scraping aside the garnish.

We can begin with the G20 summit, which was the government’s showpiece event of the current year and will surely be a prime feature of the BJP’s campaign for the Lok Sabha election in 2024. Even before India assumed the presidency of this forum on December 1, 2022, the step was projected as tantamount to an enthronement. The world was said to have acknowledged India’s entry into the top ranks of the community of nations. Yes! It could be taken as a marker in India’s onward march from where it was on August 15, 1947, to where it hopes to be in the not-too-distant future. But India has so many more substantial, self-produced achievements that it need not depend on a rotational elevation to feel the mojo. (India’s was after all the 17th presidency, which it took over from Indonesia and has now handed on to Brazil, and such bracketing does not put India in the top echelon.)

Illumination at Qutab Minar as part of  G20 summit.

Illumination at Qutab Minar as part of G20 summit. | Photo Credit: SUSHIL KUMAR VERMA

No other nation has probably treated presidency-related conferences on specific subjects the way India did. In justification of the hosting of a gathering on green energy in one city or on pandemic control in another, the government has claimed that it had two objectives.

Firstly, to make world leaders and other influential people aware of Indian regions other than the national capital. Secondly, to make its 1.4 billion population aware that they were part of global efforts to attain mighty goals. Both objectives are laudable no doubt, but are the impressions created not much more than fleeting to warrant the efforts and costs involved?

In the years to come, the inclusion of the African Union as a member of this forum may feature as a substantive move made at this summit. India certainly did not miss the opportunity to reposition itself as the champion of the Global South. To reassert that India stood alongside Africa, Latin America, and the rest of Asia was necessary as it had neglected that role in its three-decade flirtation with the affluent. The operative word here is “neglected” as this championship of the South was not taken on in 2022 but was an important element of India’s foreign policy from the time the country gained the wherewithal to have one.

Also Read | How the Global South seized the spotlight at G20 summit in New Delhi

For a few days as the conference was peaking, much was made of the manner in which India cracked the whip and got everyone to agree on language pertaining to the Ukraine crisis. It was creditable that India reiterated its principles and pushed through a corrective to the US-dictated formulation of the Bali summit. However, does anyone other than the mandarins who drafted it remember the language of the resolution and has its crafting stopped any of the entities directly involved from acting as they like?

Much ado about ‘boldness’

From the time the Ukraine war broke out in February 2022, there has been much talk about the “boldness” demonstrated by the government by its refusal to take sides. What other choice did India have when it is so dependent on Russia and Ukraine for military hardware and on the US for a host of other transactions? Apart from that, such adherence to the middle path is nothing new. It is classic non-alignment.

At the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Rafah in the Gaza Strip on December 19, 2023.

At the site of an Israeli strike on a house in Rafah in the Gaza Strip on December 19, 2023. | Photo Credit: IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/REUTERS

Amidst all the current preening, what is forgotten is that practising non-alignment, beginning in the 1950s up to the 1990s, was far more difficult and took a great deal more courage. India was much weaker economically and militarily; ties of trade and investment across the East-West divide were almost non-existent; risks of crises spiralling out of control were therefore higher; space for India to manoeuvre to avoid falling foul of both sides was very limited; and the country was far more vulnerable to the West’s pulls and pressures to join their side. When all these conditions do not factor in as they did before, only a high degree of forgetfulness can allow India to boast of its bravery today.

It is also mystifying that the country’s current resilience should be presented as something that has miraculously sprung up from nothing. Mystifying because the self-reliance is the outcome of an accrual in real strength. Perhaps those who keep harping on India’s imminent emergence as the world’s third largest economy want the focus to be solely on the march that began in mid-2014. They do not want to dwell on the near 25 years of solid growth that not merely laid the platform but transformed India from a very middle-level power into something more. (It could also be said that the foundational work put in since 1947, with all the trials and errors, also had something to do with that transformation though such a view is very unfashionable these days.)

“There was a time when India’s small and medium enterprises were producing the buckets and screws it needed. Now everything, including nail cutters and puja lamps, seems to come from China. ”

Perhaps India’s greatest weakness before 2014 was that it had not found a voice to match its swiftly built strength. (Much like a growth-spurt-afflicted adolescent with a strained larynx.) Since 2014, of course, there has been no dearth of decibels, but what about the conviction to back it? While many in the country do not subscribe to its nuclear weapons policy, they will grudgingly agree that the Indira Gandhi, A.B. Vajpayee, and Manmohan Singh governments did demonstrate strength in conducting Pokhran I and II and arm-wrestling the US into a compromise.

What has happened to the six nuclear power plants or the cosier relationship with the Nuclear Suppliers Group or the follow-up deals with other uranium-rich countries that were promised? The only gain from the “strategic partnership of this century” has been the integration into the Quad forum. Even the government does not seem sure that this is such a great development, given the one-step-forward, one-step-back dance it has been performing on this front.

East Asia (the Western Pacific and the South China Sea) is clearly the priority area for the other three in the Quad group. They want India in for whatever it can contribute to policing (if necessary, choking) China’s trade routes through the Indian Ocean. What does India get in return? Some noises of concern and disapproval when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) transgresses against it. Japan, Australia, and the US (with the UK as a silent partner of sorts) have probably decided that they do not need to do more since India is not sure about its course of action either.

The second phase of Malabar naval exercise, a joint exercise of the Quad comprising India, US, Japan and Australia, in the Northern Arabian Sea in November 2020. 

The second phase of Malabar naval exercise, a joint exercise of the Quad comprising India, US, Japan and Australia, in the Northern Arabian Sea in November 2020.  | Photo Credit: AP

All the talk about not normalising relations with the PRC until it vacates all of the territory encroached upon since 2019 sounds meaningless when bilateral trade shot past $130 billion in the same period. There was a time when India’s small and medium enterprises were producing the buckets and screws it needed. Now everything, including nail cutters and puja lamps, seems to come from China. If this is not a normal relationship, what is?

Habitual ‘whataboutery’

Defenders of the government, in their habitual “whataboutery” mode, try to counter the loss of hundreds of hectares of grazing land post-May 2019 by pointing to the loss of larger chunks of territory in 1962. At the time of the earlier loss, relatively weak Indian defence forces (debilitated by the naivety-induced neglect of the Nehru governments) had gone up against a battle-hardened People’s Liberation Army. The 2019 losses occurred after India’s military had been built up for 50 years.

Some of the incursions across the Line of Actual Control have been reversed through 20 rounds of corps commander-level talks. These outcomes have reportedly cost the forfeiture of some patrolling and therefore presumably grazing grounds. While that might be only a temporary setback, the situation in Demchuk and the Depsang Plains is apparently more challenging. According to the statements that have been published from time to time, China seems to regard these as “legacy issues” that it is unwilling to discuss at this level. Will such issues be taken up if and when an attempt is made at an overall border settlement? That too is unknown since the broader talks have stalled.

“For reasons of principle and self-interest, the best position India can take is one of neutrality and of support for a two-state solution. ”

What India has to deal with is a situation where there is heavy military build-up along the borders with one hostile and another not-so-friendly neighbour. Projections of a possible two-front war are probably excessive, but India is expending enormous fortunes in keeping its forces deployed forward in inhospitable terrain. Should not the sheer costs involved—financial and otherwise—infuse greater urgency to the tasks of finding solutions?

Even suggestions along these lines are apparently anathema as far as Pakistan is concerned. Here India seems to be neglecting its own successes. It was probably chasing a chimera when it sought for years to get Pakistan designated a terrorism-sponsoring state. But India’s efforts and Islamabad’s colossal stupidities did result in Pakistan being put on the watch list of the Financial Action Task Force that monitors funding for such outfits.

Also Read | As Pakistan approaches its 2024 election, the army’s grip on power tightens

A slew of other factors has forced Pakistan’s establishment into a phase of retrospection. Dire economic conditions, backlash against the military for its incursions into the political economy, domestic counterblasts from the terrorism it has sponsored over the years, unresolved ethnic issues, the perennial confusion about democratisation, and so on, have set off some churning in that country. It may eventually come to nothing, and Pakistan might revert to being a country that serves its army with a civilian government as an interface.

Dilemma before India

Should India then let the situation drift with no initiative of its own, merely the smug satisfaction that its western neighbour is on a downhill path? Or, is it not time India recognised that it has much to gain if Pakistan is transformed into a democratic, liberal progressive country? While overt actions to help such changes will be counterproductive, can India not at least awaken its imagination to see how positive processes can be pushed along? No country is going to announce that it has renounced terrorism and thereby admit that it had resorted to this abomination until then. It can only be made to stop through the use of effective counter-measures that make it realise the futility as also the patricidal nature of terror. With the experience of decades, India has built a strong (though not foolproof) infrastructure to combat terrorism and can surely spare some time and effort to find additional strategies.

A shop selling Chinese products in Hyderabad, a 2020 picture. 

A shop selling Chinese products in Hyderabad, a 2020 picture.  | Photo Credit: NOAH SEELAM/AFP

Until 2021, Afghanistan offered some leverage that India could use against Pakistan. India seemed to have lost it when the Taliban captured Kabul in August of that year. At present, the country’s prospects do not appear as bad as they could have been. Still, it is difficult to fathom the degree to which Indian diplomacy contributed to this slightly happier outcome. India had a close relationship of nearly 30 years with the Northern Alliance, which was the staunchest anti-Taliban, anti-Pakistan force in that country before losing Kabul.

Then India seemed to compound its record of betrayals in Afghanistan by letting down the Alliance in its hour of need. If India did that in order to build bridges with the Taliban, there has been no word on any success achieved. Nor are there any indications of India having cultivated groups within the faction-ridden Taliban. India does not seem to be in the game at all even as the Taliban has to some extent turned against Pakistan.

While India’s problems with its most problematic neighbour remain as they were, relations with other neighbours (except Bangladesh) have not improved much over the year. Myanmar has slipped into another round of ethnic strife, and given the Manipur-centric problems in the north-eastern region, the great outreach to Thailand and points beyond seems to be on the slow track.

Progress with Bangladesh

With Bangladesh, road and rail links are reportedly progressing. For this the credit probably goes as much to the most dynamic economy in South Asia as it does to India. As regards Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Maldives, India’s efforts to finely calibrate varieties of conflicting factors do not appear to be much closer to fruition. The bottom line is that the problem seems to be one of building a healthy relationship while constantly ensuring that India does not come across as the domineering big brother. Simultaneously, India is struggling to ensure that China does not step into any space it vacates.

The Maitree Express between India and Bangladesh at Kolkata, a file picture. 

The Maitree Express between India and Bangladesh at Kolkata, a file picture.  | Photo Credit: PTI

The younger Sheikhs who have come to power in the Arabian Peninsula do seem to have induced the Indian government to shed its sharper ideological edges. Proposals for economic corridors between India and the United Arab Emirates and beyond and the promise of heavy investments appear to have persuaded the government that it can deal with cultures that once inspired the Mughals. Until Hamas launched its surprise attack against Israel on October 7.

Whatever induced the Prime Minister to express solidarity with Israel as it coped with this terror strike, it was certainly not a cool, calculated assessment of the country’s overall interests. Hamas is known to carry out terror strikes, but the Zionist state’s slow strangulation of Palestinians is not far less horrendous. Although India needs the technologies that Israel is so adept at developing, the petrochemical resources of the Arab world and the job opportunities it offers are as important if not more.

Tanks pull back from the banks of Pangong Tso in Ladakh along the India-China border on February 10, 2021. 

Tanks pull back from the banks of Pangong Tso in Ladakh along the India-China border on February 10, 2021.  | Photo Credit: Handout

For reasons of principle and self-interest, the best position India can take is one of neutrality and of support for a two-state solution. This alacrity to express solidarity is even more inexplicable when one considers that Israel has never been as forthright in naming the instigator of terror against India for so many years. It has commiserated with India and condemned the phenomenon of terror without going further to identify Pakistan or its agencies. To draw the contrast more sharply, it can also be mentioned that Hamas has never attacked India.

A couple of days later, India was left embarrassed when Israel embarked on a massive retaliation with total callousness towards civilian casualties. Another statement had to be then issued reiterating India’s support for the legitimate rights of Palestinians. That too was diluted a little when the Israeli President was told about India’s sorrow at his country’s losses and not about India’s concern with its lack of restraint. India’s gyrations were even more cringingly on display in the UN General Assembly. It first refused to back a resolution calling for a ceasefire on the grounds that the draft did not include a condemnation of Hamas and then it flipped to endorse a second call for truce.

ALSO READ:India’s partnership with Israel: A tightrope between justice and self-interest

Perhaps this shedding of balance is in keeping with a newly acquired swagger born of the belief that India has joined the big boys. (We too have carried out “surgical strikes”, haven’t we?) The government has to be backed up in its assertion that officially sponsored assassination of anti-India operatives is not part of its state policy and the disgusting hypocrisy of the US can be viewed with contempt. But, is India’s stature in any way enhanced when it dismisses with disdain Canadian accusations about the killing of a Khalistani activist and simultaneously accords the greatest respect to US accusations on the same lines?

In summing up the current government’s conduct of foreign affairs, the balanced view probably would be that it has been neither particularly spectacular nor—Ladakh developments aside—disastrous. Much like its works in other spheres, its performance has been generally mediocre, especially in a context in which the weight of the economic development set off in 1990 has finally come to bear.

That summation is certainly contrary to the myth-making pursued so vigorously and imbibed so widely. It is still, arguably, more realistic. No one outside India’s borders, aside from the diaspora, looks at the country as the Vishwaguru or is listening to the nostrums about “Vasudaiva Kutumbakam”. They can see that India is about to become the third largest economy. But probably wonder how it can take so much pride in that factum when it is still so far behind in most human development indices.

Such bubble-creation is perhaps the greatest disservice that the present government has done in the sphere of foreign affairs. More than any other, this sphere requires a sober, rational, and balanced assessment. These are the very qualities that are lacking.

Such distortions of perspective are of course part of an agenda to build a cult around one personality. This agenda has no doubt yielded electoral dividends and hence is unlikely to be abandoned. Should the national interest be damaged in the process? 

Kesava Menon is a commentator and analyst. He is the author of Never Tell Them We Are The Same People: Notes on Pakistan.

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