By Pranav Prakash:
If one were to simply count the multifarious social media posts and news articles lauding the Indian Prime Minister’s recent appearance at a joint session of the US Congress, in what might well be his last official trip to the States before Obama’s term in office comes to an end, it might take longer than it took Modi to pay a quick visit to the US’s neighbor to the south, in a successful attempt to garner support for India’s bid to the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG).
It is difficult to downplay the enormous impetus that has been given to India’s position and influence in the global stage thanks to Narendra Modi’s, often thankless, efforts to build diplomacy across the geopolitical landscape. We’ve simply never had a Head of Government, since Pandit Nehru, who has afforded foreign affairs and diplomacy the kind of lavish attention and primacy that it is receiving today.
At an average of about two foreign trips every month since he’s been in power, Modi has stunned critics who predicted in 2014 that foreign policy might take a backseat under the helm of a statesman who had no international diplomatic experience. From military to economic to cultural advances, India seems to have a somewhat enduring disposition in an otherwise shifting international political landscape.
The historical Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US, for instance, which allows for the sharing of military supplies and fuel, can be described as nothing short of a tectonic shift in the foreign relations of a country that, for a significant period in its post-colonial history, was associated with the doctrine of Non-Alignment.
The Land Boundary Agreement that we inked with Bangladesh around this time last year allowed us to resolve a challenging border dispute that has subsisted since Independence, leaving over 50,000 people stateless and in enclaves that neither country had sovereignty over. It might be fair to say that where foreign affairs are concerned, we’ve left no stone unturned.
So where is the catch, one might wonder, for there’s always a catch. It can hardly be contested that to cement India’s position in world politics and to move increasingly towards a more dynamic grand strategy is in her best interest. But then, would we still praise our foreign policy if it comes at the price domestic security, as increasingly seems to be the case?
The sheer plurality of caste, class and religion that abound within the subcontinent in their infinite manifestations, is hardly anything new. We’ve existed within this diversity for years; our heterogeneity, if anything, is growing, as differences in sexuality, scientific beliefs and social practices arise. It would then, to the astute politician, be of tremendous consequence, to leverage this heterogeneity, as we appeal for importance to a global community.
That which has tragically resulted, in our quest for international relevance, is an indifference to the politics of the domestic, or so at least it seems in the case of Modi. Thrust into the limelight of national politics nearly a decade and a half ago for his inability to curb the macabre and savagery of the Gujarat pogrom, Modi has, to this day, kept away from any serious public acknowledgement of the events of 2002. It wouldn’t hurt to recall that this was precisely the reason for the United States government’s revoking of Modi’s visa in 2005. A lot has changed in the interim, in large part due to the stellar rise of Modi and the importance of strategic relations with India, for the States. But it would be misguided to presume that anyone, but us, has forgotten.
Not surprisingly, an article that didn’t get publicised as much as the ones keeping diligent track of the number of standing ovations that Modi received during his speech at Congress was one that revealed a markedly antagonistic sentiment, among the members of the US Congress, towards Modi, in the days leading up to his arrival at Capitol Hill. Nisha Biswal, assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, who was testifying at a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Indo-US relations, had to deal with a harsh dismissal of Modi when Bob Corker, Chairman of the Committee, reportedly blamed Modi for India having “14 million slaves in the year 2016″. The term was used in reference to victims of trafficking, child labor and debt, and appeared in a global slavery index published by the Walk Free Foundation. To conflate the tumultuous hospitality that Modi received after this incident with compliance to and succor of Modi’s politics would be an embarrassing transgression.
Back at home, the nation seems to be hovering precariously between religious fanaticism, bigotry and nationalist fundamentalism, all of which are inextricably intertwined with each other as much as they are with the social construct of caste and with communalism. Modi’s charismatic speeches abroad might be winning hearts, but his silence at home is stopping them. The propagation of religious extremism through the RSS and its organs, a growing apathy towards minority rights and the stifling of dissent through the evolution of archaic laws such as sedition are but the reverberations of a government without its leader. As a nation state, which is hailed as the world’s largest democracy, freedom of speech is considered a fundamental right. How is speech free, if students of the nation’s most prestigious universities are tortured for being a certain way? Indeed, for the first time in over thirty years, we have a majority government in power. Perhaps a coalition could have prevented the withering away of domestic security. We may only speculate.
On the 24th of June, in Seoul, India was hopeful that China would rescind its opposition, as it did in 2008, and allow us to join the 48-nation NSG. If this were to have happened, it would have been a testament to Modi’s diplomatic prowess in the first half of his term as Prime Minister. At the halfway mark, Modi has a choice to make. He could continue with his exuberant diplomacy and secure India’s position as a force in international politics to be reckoned with. Or he could divert his attention homeward, and be a leader to a people that is beginning to let differences tear it apart beyond recovery once again. There is incredible potential either way. The choice, as they say, is a matter of politics.