According to studies of about a dozen democracies in the past decade, “populism” in the age of social media can be best described by two negatives: anti-elitism and anti-pluralism. And elections, both in developed nations and in the developing world, have produced leaders who fit the descriptions.
In India too, the winning message includes the rejection of elitism (power to the people, policies for the poor) and pluralism (the majority has the moral right to rule). Internal policies have been intensely debated, but the impact on foreign policy is comparatively uncharted.
One gets an inkling of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s views on foreign policy from the Nani Palkhivala memorial lecture he delivered in Chennai in 2013, titled ‘India and the World’.
Prior to that, when Modi was Chief Minister of Gujarat, his foreign forays had been driven by trade commercial collaborations. In his Chennai speech, Modi introduced a powerful, populist concept: “India is not just Delhi,” he said, “Foreign policy should be decided by the people and not by some politicians sitting in Delhi.”
Later, in an interview to a news channel in 2016, he completed the circular argument: “After 30 years, Indians chose a government with an absolute majority and this has had an impact on world politics. Countries and world leaders have changed their perspective towards India. This is the biggest benefit.” Speaking to a Russian television station the same year, Modi emphasised that his policies were “correct,” and the proof was the victory of his party in subsequent State elections.
Simply put, according to Modi, his foreign policy was a success because his party had a majority. And since he represented the “majority,” his policies were those of the people — and this explained his electoral success.
Then there is the Modi government’s drive to deliver visas and passports to ordinary citizens in response to demands on social media. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj has given orders to ambassadors over Twitter, asking them to issue passports and visas to people who have written directly to her. The immense response online has, according to the government, justified the means.
At her annual press conference in May 2018, Swaraj called her ministry a “Ministry of Elites or Elitist Ministry,” which, she claimed, she had now been able to “sensitise” to the problems of the people.
Modi’s engagement with the diaspora constitutes a unique application of populist principles. He has appealed not just to the well-heeled Indian-origin community in every country he visits, but has also used their support as a tool for political projection back home.
In speeches delivered from Shanghai to Seoul to San Jose, Modi’s refrain has been that the diaspora was “ashamed” of India in the past, but has become ‘proud’ again after Modi’s election to power in 2014 — and this was used as a pitch for votes in India as well.
The show of strength by the diaspora was also seen as a form of powerplay with the host government — most notably when Modi’s Madison Square Gardens address preceded his first meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama.
Significantly, since Donald Trump has come to power, Modi has preferred not to hold such events in the U.S. probably because of Trump’s avowed anti-immigration policies. According to Jan-Werner Müller, professor of politics, Princeton University, “While populism does not oppose the principles of representation and the practices of election, what populism necessarily has to deny is any kind of pluralism or social division: in the populist imagination there is only the people on the one hand and, on the other hand, the illegitimate intruders into our politics.”
Translated into foreign policy terms, this ‘exclusive representation’ principle leads to a discourse where the political opposition is conflated with India’s external opposition. It is now quite common, for example, to find Opposition leaders being told by ruling party politicians to “go to Pakistan”.
In the electoral arena
During the State election campaigns of 2017, Modi targeted both Congress president Rahul Gandhi for meeting the Chinese ambassador during the Doklam crisis, and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for meeting a former Pakistani Foreign Minister, painting them as “anti-national” acts.
The populist message is clear: any opposition to the ruling party is also opposition to the government and the state — what Professor Müller describes as the theory of “illegitimate opposition”.
There are some decisions taken by the Modi government that bring this debate into sharper focus. The decision to raise the issue of safety for Indian-origin people in West Asia or in the U.S. during bilateral talks is one. And the use of surgical strikes against Pakistan in electoral campaigns and government advertorials is another.
Populism doesn’t always prevail, however. Two foreign policy moves that Modi bitterly opposed when he was Chief Minister were carried out by him as Prime Minister, leading to improved bilateral ties.
The U turn
One is the return of the Italian marines held for murder that led to the normalisation of ties with Italy; and the second is the Land Boundary Agreement that set a new trajectory for ties with Bangladesh.
Similarly on Pakistan, while maintaining a consistent policy of “no talks and terror”, and rejecting engagement at any political level with Islamabad, the government decided to send two senior Ministers to Pakistan to inaugurate the Kartarpur corridor.
This is the ultimate example of the foreign policy conundrum — when two competing populist issues clash. The desire to accommodate the wishes of the Sikh population to visit the shrine won out against the desire to be seen as unyielding to Pakistan.
Both instincts, however, reinforce the principle that in an era of populism, foreign policy, like charity, begins at home.