Majoritarian here, secular there: on foreign policy under Modi

Modi has been able to bring about a paradigmatic shift to India’s foreign policy in one regard

July 12, 2019 12:15 am | Updated 12:30 am IST

Abu Dhabi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes a selfie with Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, during his visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on Sunday. PTI Photo by Atul Yadav(PTI8_16_2015_000163B)

Abu Dhabi: Prime Minister Narendra Modi takes a selfie with Sheikh Hamdan bin Mubarak Al Nahyan, UAE Minister of Higher Education and Scientific Research, during his visit to the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque, in Abu Dhabi, UAE, on Sunday. PTI Photo by Atul Yadav(PTI8_16_2015_000163B)

Some argue that Narendra Modi as Prime Minister has brought dynamism to India’s foreign policy, evident by his frequent visits abroad. However, no theory in foreign policy research suggests that the higher the frequency of head-of-government visits to foreign nations, the greater the success in foreign policy outcomes. The most enduring foreign policy outcomes are accomplished by quiet diplomacy engineered by professional bodies. That is why heads of government of China, France or even Israel, to name a few, are selective in their visits. But Mr. Modi’s foreign visits and diaspora meetings have a spectacle of dynamism and generated an image of him as a world leader among his followers. Compared to splendid foreign policy accomplishments of leaders such as former U.S. President Harry Truman, who laid down the institutional arrangement for the U.S. to operate as a global power, or Chancellor Helmut Kohl’s political wisdom that led to German unification, the foreign policy accomplishments of Mr. Modi remained modest during his first term.

A paradox

However, Mr. Modi has been able to bring about a paradigmatic shift to India’s foreign policy at least in one regard. His regime has demonstrated a majoritarian character in the domestic arena, as seen in the formulation of the Citizenship Bill for instance, but secular tendencies on foreign policymaking. He has strengthened ties with West Asian countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Acceptance of Saudi Arabia’s prominent role in the de-escalation process during the post-Pulwama tensions and the UAE’s decision to present the highest civilian honour, Zayed Medal, to Mr. Modi are signs of a special relationship that his regime has built up in recent years.

The Modi regime’s attempt to enable the Indian state to grapple with paradoxical ideologies — domestically majoritarian and secular in the foreign policy arena — is a departure from India’s traditional foreign policy paradigm. Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Israel have governed their countries with majoritarian ideologies and have pursued their national interests through secular alliances with foreign nations. By implication, there is a fair chance that future violations of human rights and minority rights in India could be firewalled as an internal matter. This would weaken the global voice for India’s minority rights and human rights. Ironically, the Modi regime’s response to the Rohingya issue or the Christchurch attack in New Zealand indicates that even the so-called secular approach in foreign policy has a majoritarian spin.

Arms deal

The Modi government’s ability to take prompt decisions over an arms deal, such as Rafale, is argued as a sign of robust security policy. But mere accumulation of cutting-edge weapons is no guarantee for a country’s security. Countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria were some of the top arms-importing nations during the early 1980s, according to a report by the International Institute for Strategic Studies, London. The powerful nations that sold pricey weapons to these countries also played a decisive role in bringing these countries to the position they are in today. The mighty Soviet Union disintegrated despite possessing stockpiles of cutting-edge weapons, mainly owing to its failure to deal with its domestic economic crisis. Dynamism in foreign policy may have few substantial domestic consequences unless it is accompanied by a reduction in India’s mass unemployment.

Shaikh Mujibur Rehman teaches at Jamia Millia Central University, New Delhi

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