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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 1 January 6, 2024

India and the World: Loud claims, little ground support | Apratim Mukarji

Friday 5 January 2024, by Apratim Mukarji


Of late, Narendra Modi’s loud declarations and slogans are failing to match the ground realities. One can easily point out this inadequacy in the case of three specific instances in the sphere of foreign policy. As in all other sectors of governance, foreign policy is no longer the domain of foreign office diplomats and experts but is solely determined by the Prime Minister himself.

The concerned Minister S. Jaishankar has proved himself to be a faithful associate whose main job now is to communicate with Modi’s interlocutors, explain to them what the Indian leader wants on a specific issue, and get back to his superior to explain the global perception of a particular policy or stand that India has publicly taken, and travel around the world to sell Modi’s concepts and India’s claim to be advancing so fast that in a few years time this country will be beyond most nations’ reach.

However, we will examine how the outlier states are responding to Mode’s claims and demands. Take, for example, how the Maldives has just knocked out its giant neighbour in a subtle, well-executed manoeuvre to extinguish Indian presence in its territory. Of course, the Maldives’ latest India-specific policy would not have come about without encouragement from a very friendly, devilishly cunning China which is now easily sliding into the chair India has been obliged to vacate.

India’s present humiliating position vis-à-vis the Maldives did not come as an unpleasant surprise. Two likely developments were in the knowledge of New Delhi. One, that the previous friendly government would most likely be replaced by the present government which would fight the 2023 election on an anti-India plank. And two, that this is what has since happened. The Mohamed Muizzu government has been quick to change its policy towards India on the expected line. The most visible sight of Indian prevalence in the archipelago was the rather large presence of Indian soldiers on its soil. Thus, the Muizzu government has ensured that this ‘irritating’ sight was removed at the very first opportunity.

However, the Muizzu government’s decision not to renew the 2019 agreement under which India could conduct hydrographic survey in the Maldives’ territorial waters has been viewed in New Delhi as both anticipated and unfortunate. For one thing, this is in sharp contrast to various other countries in whose territorial waters India has conducted hydrographic surveys, and they are Kenya, Mauritious, Mozambique, Oman, Seyc helles, Sri Lanka and Tanzania.” Male’s decision appears to be a function of domestic politics rather than diplomatic or economic interest. The recently-elected government of President Mohamed Muizzu campaigned on an ‘’India Out’ plank,’. (The Indian Express editorial, December 16, 2023)

In November 2023, the country “requested” India to withdraw its troops from its territory, and earlier In December the same year the Maldves’ Vice-President Hussain Mohamed Latheef attended the Indian Ocean Forum organized by China while he skipped the Colombo Security Dialogue that involves India and other Indian Ocean states. The Muizzu Government’s decision to withdraw from the agreement on the survey thus appears to be a clear signal that Male is not toning down its anti-Indian stance ignoring the recent meeting between Muizzu and Indian Prime Minister Modi on the sidelines of the COP28 in Dubai.

As has happened several times since the late-1940s, the domestic politics of individual South Asian countries have an outsize impact on their external policy determinants. Two factors appear to be rather salient in this respect. First, as the dominant economic and military power in the region., India’s position, role and attitudes make for easy political slogans. Second, China’s substantive influence in the same region and its readiness and ability to deploy resources has given several regional countries a bargaining chip. The Maldives and Sri Lanka, for instance, have leveraged their geographical and geopolitical

To play all major powers---to name one such country, the USA---against each other in an era of renewed geopolitical competition. By itself, this is comprehensible---nations grat and small---use the hand they are dealt to maximize their interests. ‘What is unfortunate in the current scenario is the Muizzu government’s sacrificing of long-term common interests for the sake of short-term political gins.”(ibid)

The Gaza Moment

Narendra Modi’s strengths, in a manner of speaking, are also causes for his weaknesses. Populism, which has brought about immense benefits to his domestic policies, has now begun to expose the weaknesses in his foreign policy. Populism and nationalism seem to have generated a belief in his own invincibility; and this was proved when, following the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Indian Prime Minister rushed to sympathize with his Israeli counterpart Benjamin Netanyahu on October 10 to express his “shock” at the news of “terrorist attacks on Israel.” One may discern the absence of any Foreign Office advice in the making of this telephone call. It would be evident that as the United Nations General Assembly on October 12---just two days after Modi had talked with Netanyahu---a majority of the UN member-states had formed a different opinion of the Israel-Hamas conflict. This would imply that New Delhi had not consulted any other capital on the issue, and had not even considered India’s long association with the Palestinians, the only victim of the Israeli assaults on the Gaza Strip which was already in full swing.

The dynamics of international affairs moves very fast and at most times unpredictably so. Two days later Israel’s staunchest ally and protector from global animosity, the US President Joe Biden criticised for the first time Israel’s behaviour. Reuters reported from Cairo on December 13 that amid growing isolation, Biden said the “indiscriminate bombing of civilians” was costing international support. As a matter of fact, it was Netanyahu’s policy of giving the Israeli Defence Force a free hand to ”eradicate” the Hamas, a recognized terror group, had clearly shot Israel in its foot. The undeclared Hamas attacks on Israel had initially shocked the whole world, and almost every non-Arab country had stood with the world’s only Jewish state. But as in retaliatory attacks, Israel showed its utter content for human lives and humanitarian values the world very quickly turned against Tel Aviv.

On December 22, the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) managed to adopt a ”watered-down” resolution calling for immediate speeded-up aid deliveries to “hungry and desperate” civilians in Gaza but without the original call for an “urgent suspension of hostilities: between Israel and Hamas. The long-delayed vote in the 15-member council was 13-0 with the US and Russia abstaining. The vote came immediately after the United States vetoed a Russian amendment that would have restored the call for an immediate suspension of hostilities. That vote was ten countries in favour, the US against and four abstentions. The final-vote US abstention averted a send American veto of a Gaza resolution following the surprising Hamas attacks on October 7 inside Israel. A visibly relieved American ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the SC after the resolution was carried that “This was tough but we got there.” (Associated Press)

But Russia’s UN ambassador Vassily Nebenza called the resolution “entirely toothless” and accused the US of “shameful, cynical and irresponsible” conduct and resorting to tactics “of gross pressure, , blackmail and and twisting arms” to avoid a US veto. The final resolution, with some late changes on the morning of December 22, culminated a week and a half of high-level diplomacy by the United States, United Arab Emirates on behalf of Arab nations and others.

We, hence, come back to the question: Where was India all this time?

Definitely not on the side of the persecuted Palestinians, though that had been the Indian policy until Modi came on the scene. India is not presently among the GA member-nations who are periodically elected to the UNSC. But that would not restrict a non-SC member from campaigning on behalf of the Palestine Authority.

The US Alert

The Indian prime minister appears to be intent on maintaining that US-India relations are at an “upward trajectory”, and yet cold-shoulders the consistent American pressure to acknowledge that its men were involved in assassination attempts on the Khalistani activist Gurpatwant Singh Pannun. In the latest exchange between the US and India, he allowed himself to say which would like setting up an escape toute in case of future difficulties, namely, that “If someone gives us any information, we would definitely look into it. If a citizen of ours has done anything good or bad, we are ready to look into it. Our commitment is to the rule of law.” (The Indian Express, Dec. 21, 2023) While this was the first time the Prime Minister spoke on the alleged involvement of Indian nationals, he has not acknowledged till date the role of any involvement of any Indian official in the plot. However, the Indian government has already begun to work on the US complaint, a committee has been formed on November 18; but the whole development is still under wrap.

Yet, the Indian government’s consistent denial has been more than matched by the Western reaffirmation of the accusation against Modi’s government. The indictment of Nikhil Gupta, presently imprisoned in the Czech Republic and following the intervention by US federal law, has expanded into a major crisis in the US-India relationship. The threat to these relations is so threatening that the Indian-origin US lawmakers have felt it necessary for them to intervene in order to repair this vital relationship. Ami Bera, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, Raaja Krishnamoorthy, and Shri Thanedar, have jointly issued a statement highlighting thir concerns about the allegations against Gupta, an Indian government official implicated in a murder-for-hire scheme targeting Pannun, the Sikh separatist. A classified briefing by the Biden administration officials prompted their response. (The Indian Express, US-India Partnership At Risk: Lawmakers Alarmed Over Foiled Murder Plot, Dec. 1, 2023)

The US administration is perceived to have seriously taken up the matter with its Indian counterpart, and the latter too appears to be equally serious and concerned and conscious of the gravity of the situation, and has already launched a high-level inquiry into the allegations. Much will depend on whether the result of the Indian probe would satisfy the Biden administration. Time will show if the US-India relationship would survive this development. But the fact that one single incident could be so deadly for bilateral relations should be a major lesson to Modi that not the entire world has accepted him as a Gospel-mandated world leader.

(Author: Apratim Mukarji covered the Ministry of External Affairs for a Delhi-based newspaper for many years)

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