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Foreign Policy As A Poll Tool Can Be Harmful

May 29, 2024 17:29 IST
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It is time the political leaderships in this country arrived at a common ground over issues of foreign and security policy concerns.

There has to be a greater communication between the government and the Opposition leaderships for the nation to present a unified face against the rest of the world, advises N Sathiya Moorthy.

IMAGE: Senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader Narendra D Modi during an election meeting at Dwarka in New Delhi, May 22, 2024. Photograph: ANI Photo

It is no more a one-off affair. Team Modi's persistent references to neighbouring nations as part of the high-pitched campaign in the ongoing parliamentary elections has the potential to leave behind permanent injuries and deep scars in bilateral and multilateral relations.

This is also because India-watching is both an occupation and past-time for almost every individual in every neighbouring nation, apart from their elected government leaderships, permanent establishments, policy-makers and strategic community.

There is not as much neighbourhood-watching in the Indian establishment, maybe outside of the diplomatic corps assigned to specific nations in the past and present.

Then there is a veteran community of strategic analysts, whose pre-occupation is not certainly with individual or a collective of neighbourhood nations but an X-factor.

It was the US during the Cold War and China since. Unlike the US, China in the post-Cold War era is a legacy issue that comes with its own set of regional complications.

Like successive governments, this section of the strategic community too has assigned a geo-strategic role for China than may be required from a purely Indian context.

It may have begun with then defence minister George Fernandes declaring that the Pokhran-II nuclear test was aimed at offsetting China, and not Pakistan.

Since then, however, the depth and width of Indian perception of China as a geo-strategic threat has only widened and deepened.

The unprovoked Galwan attack and the crude and cruel killing of 20 Indian soldiers has failed to re-focus bilateral attention to the issues at hand, with result talks on Chinese troops' withdrawal has at best been slow and staggered.

Against this background, poll-time statements by the Indian leadership, taunting the domestic Congress rival in particular, will have long-term political and diplomatic consequences.

In each of these instances, as and when diplomats from India confer with their counterparts from individual nations, there will be those who could and would remember the past, which is current now, and recall it at mutually inconvenient times and in specifically embarrassing ways.

Of immediate concern are the successive attacks on the ruling Congress at the Centre and the DMK in southern Tamil Nadu on the 'Katchchatheevu issue' involving the Sri Lankan ocean neighbour.

As Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabry pointed out, New Delhi did not take up the issue with Colombo, hence there was nothing for the latter to comment upon.

It may -- or, may not -- remain so in the future, especially if there is a change of government or even change of foreign minister in the future, near or afar.

For the present, barring a few social media activists, no mainline political party or leader in Sri Lanka has responded to Prime Minister Narendra D Modi, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, et al, attacking domestic electoral rivals in the Congress and DMK, who are allies in the Lok Sabha elections in Tamil Nadu.

But when the issue is about negotiations of the tricky 'fishing dispute' between the two countries, issues like the domestic one on Katchchatheevu could have its reflections even in official-level talks.

In turn, this could have consequences as even Sri Lankan Tamil fishers, and their non-fisher politicos want alleged infringements by Indian fishermen across the mutually-agreed upon IMBL banned through severe penalties.

If and when the IMBL, or international maritime boundary line, is the issue, then Katchchatheevu comes into the picture.

IMAGE: Indian Coast Guard repatriates Sri Lankan fishing boats at the India-Sri Lanka maritime border. Photograph: ANI Photo

While talking about domestic preoccupation with India in individual neighbourhood nations, public opinion in these nations have a tendency to influence policy-decisions much more than in a large and diversified country like India.

This has consequences.

As and when a party that perceives New Delhi as backing an elected regime in their country comes to power after a break, they tend to view India as being against them.

The same view gets reciprocated in India, too.

Thus, in Bangladesh, domestic political rivals have identified the ruling Awami League of multi-term Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as 'India's favourite'.

In Nepal, it is the 'Nepali Congress' and so on.

In tiny Maldives, where President Mohamed Muizzu won electoral power last year and whose PNC-PPM coalition swept the parliamentary elections last month, at least some of the avoidable misunderstanding with India flowed from the ruling combine's belief that New Delhi favoured defeated predecessor Ibrahim Solih and his MDP.

There was/is of course the larger 'China factor' in each of these nations.

India is neither able to counter this effectively, nor are host governments under the so-called 'anti-India' regimes been able to convince New Delhi, otherwise.

Such perceptions lead to avoidable situations, as happened in Sri Lanka, when after losing elected power in January 2015, two-term president Mahinda Rajapaksa went on record that India worked with the US and the rest of the West in effecting a 'regime change'.

What Rajapaksa did not say, but what possibly his political strategists did not forget was the advanced congratulations that Modi offered him for re-election, while commencing his speech at the Kathmandu SAARC summit only weeks earlier in November 2014.

In common neighbour Maldives, then president Abdulla Yameen saw India's February 2018 criticism of internal emergency after that country's supreme court freed self-exiled predecessor Mohammed Nasheed through a controversial order as 'interference in internal affairs'.

Yes, it has not reached those levels, nor is most likely to reach it, but Indian political class needs to understand and acknowledge that decades of anti-India politics addressing competing domestic constituencies was the main reason for Pakistan's military, political and economic downfall.

After a time, it was based on the self-defeating premise that the India-centric 'Kashmir issue' and competitive politics and military growth alone were the only way to keep Pakistan together as a 'united country'.

India is nowhere near it, nor can it be imagined to be so even in the distant future.

But excessive fallback on foreign policy issues in domestic politics would still come with its package.

Though it was not to the same levels as the 'Bangladesh War' victory for then prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1971, the post-Pulwama 'surgical strike' inside Pakistan occupied Kashmir helped in Modi's political image-building at the time.

Today, given their nation's economic plight, many Pakistanis are openly criticising their governments and the political class for it all, comparing their nation's failures with India's all-round achievement.

Hidden behind their continual praise for the one-time hated Indian neighbour is the acknowledged realisation that constantly comparing and competing with India on everything from sugar production to nuclear weaponry over the past decades was blatantly wrong.

India and Indians may have a lesson in it. There is an all-round temptation among many Indians, experts, politicians and common people, to compare everything with China, going beyond non-comparable sizes of geography and economy.

Comparing with China what India could not design and manufacture from defence equipment on, they celebrate when New Delhi procures from other sources.

'Licence to manufacture' those machines and machine guns in India seems to be their password to self-reliance and military preparedness.

Even Modi's 'Make in India' and 'Aatmanirbhar Bharat' slogans were/are only a reflection of that kind of mindset, devoid of as much merit as is being attributed to it, or assumed to be.

In comparison, the Modi government's decision to defy the US friend's sanctions regime and procuring cheap oil from Russia since the outbreak of the Ukraine War is a self-centric decision that needs to be commended.

So should be the more recent decision for New Delhi to take over the management of Chabahar port in Iran, again defying threat of US sanctions, is what the strength of Indian foreign policy is all about -- and where it should also stop.

IMAGE: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh assesses the security situation in Ladakh. Photograph: ANI Photo

India has inherent potential for growth that had made the country the 'jewel in the crown' that the rest of the world looked up to in a distant past and made someone covet it, too, and literally so.

But over-playing the foreign policy card one way or the other does not take any nation too far.

India found it out to its own utter embarrassment, to the point of harassment, under the Modi regime, too, as in the past -- but no one wants to remind himself as much as they want to remind others about the failed Nehruvian days of 'Indi-Chini bhai, bhai'.

Modi's unscheduled visit to Lahore to greet then Pakistan counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday produced as much impact as another BJP PM in Atal Bihari Vajpayee's 'Lahore bus-trip' did in the nineties.

At least this time, there is no equivalent of the Kargil War.

Some of it could be attributed to the weakened economy in that country, hence the limited elbow-room for the army generals.

The other might have also had to do with the 'surgical strikes', whose unexpectedness demoralised the Pakistani psyche as none else since the Bangladesh War and the Kargil War.

The same could be said of Modi's two informal summits with China's Xi Jinping at Wuhan and Mahabalipuram. In this case, Galwan followed.

That the political Opposition in the country did not embarrass the PM and the ruling party then, or since, as much as they have been doing it the other way round, going all the way back to Independence and Jawaharlal Nehru's longish term as prime minister, is noticeable and notable.

Yet, the Congress leadership, comprising both Rahul Gandhi and Mallikharjun Kharge, has lately been taking pot-shots at government leadership on the land they claimed China had 'occupied' since around Galwan.

What they say however is not as much as fellow BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has been tweeting for months and maybe years now -- only that he too is not getting the kind of media space as his sensitive disclosures had done in another era.

IMAGE: Indian and Chinese troops and tanks disengage from the banks of the Pangong lake area in Eastern Ladakh where they had been deployed opposite each other for several months. Photograph: PTI Photo from the Rediff Archives

For all this, however, it is time the political leaderships in this country arrived at a common ground over issues of foreign and security policy concerns.

Even on allegations of human rights violations involving Indian security agencies, there has to be a greater communication between the government and the Opposition leaderships for the nation to present a unified face against the rest of the world, especially the self-indulgent West.

Today, however, Western governments and their media have been specifically targeting the Indian leadership, both on democracy nearer home and 'intelligence interference' in such nations like Canada.

The political Opposition is unable to defend the government on the latter, and may be unwilling to do so even if briefed on the official position.

However, indications are that no such information sharing is happening under this government as used to be the case, whoever was in power at the Centre and whoever was in the Opposition.

This reportedly continued through the era when the ruling BJP was targeting a stronger Congress (than at present, that is) on the 'foreigners issue' involving party president Sonia Gandhi, in 1998, 1999 and 2004.

In the first two, political stability became the touchstone of electoral politics after the disastrous post-poll United Front experiment/experience under prime ministers H D Deve Gowda and I K Gujral, and the Vajpayee-Advani duo won convincingly.

It was a different game in 2004, when Sonia Gandhi's 'Aam Aadmi' swept away the 'foreigners issue'.

N Sathiya Moorthy, veteran journalist and author, is a Chennai-based policy analyst and political commentator.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/

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