Ultra-nationalist political posturing and decision-making seem to be yielding political dividends the world over, going by recent trends. Not only have centre right leaders like Shinzo Abe in Japan and David Cameron in Britain taken hard stands on sensitive issues but also heads of states like Francois Hollande of France, who belongs to the political left, have done so. Monsieur Hollande, by sending French forces into Mali to take on Islamist rebels, has played an active role in the resuscitation of La Francafrique, which was long thought to be in a rather torpid state. To a large degree the positions taken by these statesmen are meant to draw attention away from the economic ills these countries are currently beset by. In India, too, both the major national political outfits, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress, have been trying to outdo each other in the adoption of jingoistic overtones – well illustrated after the beheading of a Indian soldier and the killing of another on the international border with Pakistan became national news in the country – which is neither practical nor feasible in the long run.
One thing the likely prime ministerial candidates, Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP, share in common is their half-baked understanding of foreign policy issues. Both have been guilty of making rash statements during domestic election campaigns. Gone are the days of Jawaharlal Nehru; a prime minister who minced no words but one who could never be accused of making preposterous statements in public. Nehru however was advantaged by his having a keen sense of world history–books like Discovery of India and Glimpses of World History authored by him are even today some of the best introductory history texts for Indian schoolchildren–which is something undoubtedly lacking in both Rahul Gandhi and possibly Narendra Modi.
Narendra Modi has assiduously cultivated foreign governments in the West and in Asia, with special emphasis on Asian economic giants, China and Japan, where he has also led delegations. He has received accolades from overseas for his performance as chief minister–most notably from the United Kingdom and also a section of the news media in the United States–after having been at the receiving end of a boycott of sorts for close to a decade in the West. On vexed issues like India-Pakistan relations however, seldom has Modi moved beyond his standard rhetoric. While he is believed to share a good rapport with sections of the business community in Karachi and has made references to the possibility of Gujarat-Sind inter-state cooperation, his overall tenor vis-a-vis Islamabad has been very bellicose. Also, in order to keep his support base intact, he is not averse to taking extreme decisions such as the last minute exclusion of Pakistani delegates to the “Vibrant Gujarat” summit in the past and the refusal of the Gujarat Cricket Association –which Modi heads – to host the ongoing women's cricket world cup because of the participation of the Pakistani national team. The tournament is currently being hosted by Orissa, a state led by Naveen Patnaik of the Biju Janata Dal, a party which cut-off long held ties with the BJP a little over three years ago.
Beyond Pakistan, one has not heard much from Modi. The only other references to states in the neighbourhood were to Bangladesh (for its inability to control its people from crossing over to India in search of livelihood) and Sri Lanka (for the plight of Tamils in the island nation). With regard to the United States, it is interesting to note that while the Chief Minister relishes all the praise he receives from American businessmen, think-tanks such as The Brookings Institution, and the Indian diaspora ( a large chunk of whom are Gujarati businessman), he has never supported New Delhi’s overtures to Washington in public, even if they have been purportedly to India’s advantage. Whenever the Manmohan Singh led-United Progressive Alliance (UPA) Government has made initiatives in this direction, he has been quick to mock the prime minister. While commenting on the UPA Government's decision to introduce FDI in retail, Modi said that Singh only acted like a 'singham' (lion) when under pressure from the Americans.
While Narendra Modi's gaffes in the realm of foreign policy get noticed as a consequence of the ‘baggage’ of 2002 and his abrasive public persona, Rahul Gandhi or the ‘yuvraj’ (youth leader, rather apt as his image on the campaign trail may have led the Indian Youth Congress to victory in the Delhi University, counted among the country’s premier central universities, Students Union Elections only a few months ago) of the Indian National Congress, too, does not particularly have an outstanding world view, if one were to go by his public statements.
Rahul's first major foreign policy statement was made during the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections when he spoke of how his grandmother (the late Indira Gandhi) was responsible for splitting up Pakistan. Apart from this, seldom has he made any remarks on India's relationship with her South Asian neighbours or for that matter with China or the United States. It is believed that the newly appointed Congress Vice President was very impressed by Bangladesh’s performance on the Human Development Index (HDI) and even visited Dhaka to study their famous micro-finance model sometime ago. He however, did not have much to say about India’s position on the global stage at the “Jaipur Chintan Shivir” (the ceremony which marked his ascension to the position of vice president in India’s oldest political party). It was the Prime Minister who had to speak on India’s role in the neighbourhood and the wider world at the occasion.
Both Narendra Modi’s and Rahul Gandhi’s limited – as it seems – interest on foreign policy issues is at best, an insult to Indians who, after having waited for so long, are finally witnessing their country being noticed by people around the world and at worst, worrisome since the country, at this important juncture in world politics, needs leadership of a clear and focused type when it comes to matters of foreign policy. Both would do well to remember that prime ministers from their respective parties have, in the past, distinguished themselves in the domestic and foreign policy domains by taking bold and visionary stands. Some of these had at times been at variance with their own party positions. Let them know that mere indulgence in rabble rousing would do no favours to India’s global image. It would also do no good to its people. They owe them much more than that.
Tridivesh Singh Maini is a New Delhi based columnist and Arko Dasgupta (firstname.lastname@example.org) is doing an MA at Jamia Millia Islamia, India