In 2014, Narendra Modi stormed the national and international scene as a rock star. One of the first decisions of the nationalist government of the BJP was to adopt a leonine mark containing four lions of Emperor Ashoka symbolizing strength, courage, pride and confidence. India, the elephant, now wanted to become a lion and was ready to pounce. It’s not that the dancing elephant slowed down to waddle; the new government just didn’t want to be seen as a clumsy pachyderm. He also didn’t want to be a tiger, as there were many tiger economies in Asia itself.
Prime Minister Modi’s personalized diplomacy and his well-choreographed shows in various world capitals were considered by many to be a hit performance. Prophecies and pious hopes often go strangely wrong. Seven years later, India is far from becoming a lion. In fact, the Indian elephant even stopped dancing. The world will therefore continue to describe India as an elephant. More so, when the lion does not roar. Some would say he purred. The elephant is back across the world. What didn’t go well?
India’s greatest strength all these years has been its vibrant democracy as well as its multi-faceted diversity. In the 1950s and 1960s, as the newly independent countries fell into the hands of the military or autocrats, India kept the flag of democracy high. The message India conveyed to the admiration of the whole world was that democracy and development can go hand in hand. India’s democratic success, the West believed, has extended the hand of democracy globally.
Today the economy has bombed, but politics is booming. Not so long ago, Sunil Khilnani, a specialist in history and politics, wrote that India was “the substantial bridgehead of effervescent freedom on the Asian continent”. Today, he says the Modi government’s credentials do not stand up to scrutiny.
India’s global footprint and adulation of its democratic credentials was a powerful support until they weren’t.
The smoke and mirror games do not make you a world power. The story is non-linear, more like a chaotic pile of sand. Things seem stable, then suddenly collapse. The reality often trumps the staging. Diplomacy is not alliterative slogans and bombastic rhetoric. It is an instrument of good governance and inclusive politics.
The worldview of Hindu nationalists is largely based on myths and half-truths. It may produce more history than it consumes. Myths provide attractive answers to unanswered questions, but do a lot of damage to history, making history deaf to democracy. History is good, but we need applied history – learning from the past to improve policies. It is not an attractive proposition for the party in power.
There is a feeling around the world that India has been a big disappointment. Projected by many in the West, India was considered “the future”. However, with the battlefields of the past becoming the combat zones of today, India seems to have become a prisoner of its past.
While democracy in India is on the decline, the economy has also lost its luster. Prime Minister Modi’s $ 5,000 billion economic dream has always been a pipe dream. As they say, every dream is just a pipe dream before someone realizes it. Today, the Indian economy finds itself in stormy water. Many swollen bubbles burst before our eyes. Most start-ups have closed for lack of investment. The trickle-down economy doesn’t work.
We went to town shouting from the rooftops that India was the fastest big economy in the world. But as Amartya Sen noted, India has taken “a quantum leap in the wrong direction”. You cannot treat systemic disease with quack remedies. Modi promised the Indians El Dorado, but delivered very little of what Harvard professor Merilee Grindle calls “good governance.”
India had every right to claim the status of a great power. Under the Modi government, India, “the reluctant world power”, began to behave and act like a great inclined power. No problem with that. But India has failed to link strategy to execution. Seasoned journalist Sunanda K Datta-Ray believes India has become a world power in the “condescending rhetoric of US diplomats playing up our political bags.” The Americans wanted India to be prepared for “sharing the global burden”. India was elated when Western powers projected it as a provider of net security in the Indian Ocean and beyond.
In 2009, Hillary Clinton described India as a “world power”. Ned Price, spokesperson for the State Department, reaffirmed that India is “a leading world power”. Both Congress and the BJP governments have sought to capitalize on India’s association with the United States.
Diplomacy under Modi has seen more flash than bang. Modi’s foreign policy at times seems to be what one might describe as a “peacock dance” – three steps forward, one step back and flaunt colorful feathers. He suffered from mirror imagery because it resulted in gross distortions of facts to meet his demands, leading to oversights and poor planning. He also fell victim to the so-called “broken cookie effect”, which puts more emphasis on your own opinions because you think you are special.
In its quest for world power status, New Delhi has spread its wings far and wide by promising more than it could offer. In 2015, India hosted the much-publicized India-Africa Forum Summit, which marks a departure from the low-key summits of 2008 and 2011. With the participation of 39 African heads of state and government, this summit was billed as the biggest event in independent India. But he could not be supported. Indian Covid diplomacy was also doomed to fail as there was very little thought and planning involved. Indian leaders love to quote Chanakya, a former Indian philosopher, in the blink of an eye, but ignored his advice, “By failing to plan, you plan to fail.”
Today, Africa is in shock from the new wave of Covid. It has been compounded by the slow progress in immunization across the continent, due to limited vaccine availability and Western countries which purchase most vaccines. Many accuse India of not delivering the vaccine.
The Modi government chose to follow a policy of multi-alignment but acted as if one of them mattered the most. As they say, a single rose could be your garden, but a single friend doesn’t have to be your world.
The United States is a great world power with which India will remain strongly engaged. But with Freedom House and the V-Dem Institute blaming the BJP government for the decline in democracy, the United States will be asking uncomfortable questions. India needs to be as careful with what the Biden administration says in New Delhi as it does with what is left unsaid.
Recently, when Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar met with Donald Trump’s National Security Advisor Lieutenant General HR McMaster during his visit to the United States, he asked a rather uncomfortable question. With reference to Hindutva politics and the undermining of Indian secularism, McMaster asked, “Are friends of India right to be concerned about some of these recent trends?”
India saw itself as an X factor in ASEAN’s growing profile. This no longer appears to be the case. ASEAN may not have made cold troopers on India, but it saw India’s limits, especially after New Delhi’s refusal to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The Indian government must take to heart the words of Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore: “I see India everywhere but I cannot find it anywhere.
Not everything that showers is monsoon. The way India behaves as a democracy and manages its economy will remain its global calling card. Unlike the East Asian model whereby a country must first become economically fit for democracy, India has insisted that it should become economically fit through democracy. India has nothing to gain from becoming a clone of China. The world has seen the end of Pax Americana. Pax Sinica is also doomed to failure. India must assert itself as a benevolent power that will not fight the wars of others and that it will maintain the big difference between extending “strategic reach” and being “expeditionary”. Diplomacy is more difficult when you are shouting the loudest. India needs bigger ideas, strategies and traction, not careless demagoguery. The grand standing has an expiration date.