Coronavirus helping save Modi government foreign policy blushes?

In the face of such sustained criticism, to which its foreign office is very unaccustomed, it is clear that India’s domestic politics are now placing India’s global ambitions at grave risk, writes Nilova Roy Chaudhury for South Asia Monitor

Nilova Roy Chaudhury Mar 11, 2020

In a perverse and supremely ironic kind of way, the global coronavirus outbreak could perhaps have come as a saviour for the Indian government, allowing it to completely take the focus away from the horrific communal violence that engulfed the north-eastern part of the country’s capital city. The government has, perforce, had to concentrate its efforts in spreading awareness about the disease and preparing an adequate response to meet the possible consequences of the spread of the virus that has ravaged significant regions of the world.

Across the world, governments and people are trying their hardest to stall the spread of the disease that has claimed over 3,600 lives globally, mostly in China where it originated, initially shrouded in secrecy, but significantly enough elsewhere, in countries from South Korea to Iran and, seemingly the worst afflicted outside China, Italy. Governments have been too busy tackling the fallout of the CoVid 19 to look closely at what has been happening in India after a series of political and social moves made by the government.

For Prime Minister Narendra Modi who, during his first term in office, notched up significant frequent flyer miles, visiting an impressive 55 countries, many of them several times, in pursuit of a more personalised, pro-active foreign policy, the virus has meant the cancellation of several important foreign visits - to Brussels, for the important India-European Union summit, and to Dhaka, for the centenary celebrations of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the founder of Bangladesh.

The cancellation of these visits has, in some ways, been fortuitous because it was certain that there would have been popular protests in both cities against the Indian government during the visits. The European Parliament has been extremely critical of some domestic legislation like the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), with over 600 members tabling resolutions to censure the Indian government, and the prolonged incarceration of political leaders in Kashmir after the removal of the state’s special status. The Geneva headquartered Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights actually sought to approach the Indian Supreme Court to be made amicus curiae (impartial observer) in a pending petition that challenges the validity of the CAA. It is certain that these internal issues would have come up during the summit, taking the attention away from the crucial, pending issues between India and the EU, primarily trade-related.

A piqued Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, sounding increasingly petulant in the face of external criticism, said the UN Human Rights office had been wrong in the past on the issue of Kashmir and did not look critically enough at Pakistan’s history of cross-border terrorism.

"UNHRC director has been wrong before,” he said. "UNHRC skirts around cross-border terrorism as if it has nothing to do with country next door. Please understand where they are coming from; look at UNHRC's record how they handled Kashmir issue in the past," he added. In December, the former career diplomat and envoy  to the USA had refused to meet with a Congressional foreign affairs panel because Pramila Jayapal, a US Congress member of Indian origin, has been critical of New Delhi’s decision to terminate Kashmir’s special status.

He also said the recent criticism, particularly of the communal violence which engulfed the Indian capital, allowed India to distinguish who its “real friends” are. Unfortunately, the number of “real friends” appears to be diminishing as voices critical of the recent violence are emanating from an increasing number of governments worldwide. The violence in the national capital, which saw painfully slow official responses, has clearly opened a new chapter of international questioning of the BJP-led government’s agenda and Indian claims of being the world’s largest democracy.

“If India loses that secular, democratic identity then it loses what makes it different than other countries in Asia. We are all watching the riots in Delhi and worry they are going down a dangerous road that makes it harder for us to be a strong advocate for India,” said US Congressman Ami Bera, who is the longest-serving Indian-American in Congress. Bera visited India immediately after the well-orchestrated visit of US President Donald Trump, which was touted as the “world’s oldest democracy meets the world’s largest democracy”

Iran, which has close, civilizational, ties with India and has normally refrained from commenting on its internal affairs, issued a rare condemnation about the treatment of Muslims in India. Both Iran’s Supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif were scathing in their comments, with the latter tweeting, “Iran condemns the wave of organised violence against Indian Muslims.” Urging the government to stop what he called the “senseless thuggery,” Zarif said, “For centuries, Iran has been a friend of India.” India summoned the Iranian Ambassador Ali Chegeni to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and protested, issuing demarches against the statements.

Indonesia, which is the world’s largest Islamic nation and which, unlike Malaysia, Turkey and Pakistan, rarely criticises India, was critical of the violence in Delhi in which mostly Muslims were targeted.

The Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) slammed the violence as “anti-Muslim,” barely a year after the group of 54 Islamic states had invited India as its guest of honour. India, which has worked hard to cultivate particularly the West Asian and Gulf countries during Modi’s stewardship, had hailed that invitation, at the behest of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as a diplomatic victory.

Closer home, protests against the riots which victimised Muslims, were held across large parts of Afghanistan and Bangladesh, two of India’s closest friends and neighbours, over the weekend. War-ravaged Afghanistan, which also rarely comments on other countries’ affairs and has a warm relationship with India, has expressed its displeasure over being included in the CAA as a persecutor of minorities.

There has been widespread speculation that the Bangladesh government had wanted to stall Modi’s visit for the Sheikh Mujib centenary events, given how unpopular the Indian government has become after naming Bangladesh (and Afghanistan) in the CAA as a country where minorities are persecuted and the illegal immigrants from which are called “termites” and other derogatory names by leading luminaries of India’s ruling party. The coronavirus  has saved the blushes for both Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, daughter of Sheikh Mujibur Rehman and widely perceived as a particularly warm friend of India, in the face of diminishing returns, and Modi, who will not face those black flag protests in a country he last visited as a hero who had delivered the long-delayed Land Boundary Agreement in 2015.

In the face of such sustained criticism, to which its foreign office is very unaccustomed, it is clear that India’s domestic politics are now placing India’s global ambitions at grave risk. Officials in the MEA  have their hands tied when foreign dignitaries visit Delhi, spending most of their time in meetings defending the country’s domestic policies instead of furthering the bilateral agenda.

India, which is no longer content to be a follower of rules, as Jaishankar has said, and seeks to be a maker of rules in the global arena, may find it has more on its plate than it can handle to be able to attain that place on the high table as neither is its economy functioning very well nor is it able to live up to its  much-vaunted secular democratic credentials for which it was an envy of the world. 

(The writer is Editor IR&A)