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BJP’s communalism is weakening India’s foreign relations: Experts

Only Secularism And Internal Democracy Will Win Friends Abroad, They Insist

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Shyam Saran and Shivshankar Menon at a discussion on India-China relations.

Top flight former Indian diplomats and experts in various fields have urged Indian policy makers to restore secularism and internal democracy in the country to secure for India the respect and influence it once enjoyed in the comity of nations.

In a “discussion paper” entitled: India’s Path to Power: Strategy in a World Adrift recently published by the Centre for Policy Research and the Takshashila Foundation, former Ambassadors Shivshankar Menon and Shyam Saran point out if India is to successfully operate in a world marked by “tectonic shifts” it has to think anew. But any policy changes must be set in a normative and historically validated foundation, they insist. 

They prescribe four pillars for a new policy framework: 1) domestic economic growth, 2) social inclusion, 3) political democracy, and 4) a broadly liberal constitutional order. 

“If these integral pillars remain strong, there is no stopping India,” they assure. 

Putting the suggestion in its context, they say: “At the turn of the 21st century, we (Indians) took it for granted that India was progressing on all these fronts. The most significant change in the last decade or so is that we cannot take for granted the success of India’s development model. India still has considerable strengths and often compares well with some of its peers. But the fundamental sources of India’s development and international influence look increasingly precarious. We must confront this changed outlook fully and frankly.”

“Even if issues related to growth and inclusion can be fixed, there is greater uncertainty about the state of the other two pillars: political democracy and a liberal constitutional order. The electoral success of the BJP has not only meant a change in the party system and the nature of political power, but has also brought about a transformation in India’s constitutional order. There is concern that Indian democracy is moving steadily towards ethnic majoritarianism, polarization and divisiveness. Indian democracy seems less inclusive today than at any point in its history. India’s democracy is being dis-embedded from its founding constitutional norms.”

“The majoritarian vision of democracy is increasingly accompanied by an autocratic conception of power. Institutional checks and balances enshrined in the constitution are largely inoperative. The parliament barely performs its deliberative functions; the judiciary is increasingly coy about protecting individual rights and freedoms; independent agencies bend to the whim of the executive; and the powers of the states in the federal polity are draining towards the central government.”

“The combination of low growth, limited inclusion, ethnic majoritarianism and political centralization will enmesh India in internal conflicts that would, at once, sap its resources, and also undermine its international aspirations,” they warn.

“At this crossroad, India has a choice. It can ignore the writing on the wall, as so many scribblings from a bygone age. Or, it can take a sober and more analytical look at the deep, historical sources of prosperity, power and influence. What can hold India back in the coming decade is India itself.”

Wrong Reading of History

Decrying the current idea of India’s ethos, the experts say: “It is claimed that India now needs a new international identity—one that affirms itself as a unitary civilization and a state that is determined to draw on what it believes to be its own indigenous cultural and intellectual resources to cast off the lingering effects of the long encounter with colonialism. Such claims are doubly misplaced. For one thing, the conception of Indian civilization that informs this quest is deeply tinctured with colonialist readings of the Indian past. For another, the Indian nationalist movement not only had a much more sophisticated grasp of the resources offered by India’s past, but also the confidence to aver that India must be the site of an alternative universality. It is for us to realize that powerful inheritance through the choices we make in the years ahead.” 

“India should affirm the strength and resilience of its historic national identity. Indian nationalism sought not to flatten out diversity, but to find an enduring national strength through the creative articulation of myriad local identities as sites of deeply connected differences. It was also confidently internationalist.” 

Politicization of the Military 

The authors are worried about an incipient politicization of the Indian military. “Among the senior leadership, the conflation of the government with the state has distorted the traditional outlook that the military’s loyalty lies with the Constitution and not with the party in power. Further, there is an assault on the secular outlook of the armed forces by wider social and ideological currents.”

“There is an increasing trend of identifying the Armed Forces with political ideologies, a phenomenon evident during the 2019 elections that leveraged the Balakot strike for electoral purposes. There is a danger of a pliable military leadership being used for narrow party-political purposes at the cost of national interests.” 

China Factor 

China will embrace India’s neighbors more tightly as India-China relations worsen, the authors warn. The Chinese challenge makes working with regional Asian powers like Iran, Turkey and Russia ever more important. 

“India must set aside certain concerns, say, Turkey’s relations with Pakistan or Iran’s relations with China. This is needed to tackle the situation in Afghanistan. However, India has no alternative to a combining engagement and competition vis-à-vis China,” the authors aver.

Tackling Pakistan

India-Pakistan relations are likely to remain adversarial and the only way open to India is its “effective management” of the contradictions. Isolating Pakistan would be counterproductive because South Asian integration cannot come about without Pakistan.  India must engage and dialogue, and promote economic and cultural links with Pakistan. 

“Such a course (rapprochement) might also be attractive to the Pakistani elite, including its powerful military, who would be uncomfortable about their increasing all-round dependence on a powerful China and the consequent limitation of their own agency,” the authors suggest.  

Don’t Spurn SAARC

New Delhi must not spurn SAARC, seeing it as “neighbors ganging up against India.” Spurning SAARC “could open the door for China being invited to join a SAARC without the presence of India—a development that will reinforce Chinese penetration of the subcontinent. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may well become the key instrument for weaving the region into a Chinese web of transport and communication links, and a sub-regional trading arrangement led by China.” 

It is important that India acknowledges the “perverse impact” of domestic political and ideological factors that are driving its foreign policy vis-à-vis the neighborhood, the authors point out. 

“We have seen this in our relations with Pakistan and, to some extent, with Nepal and Bangladesh. This trend needs to be arrested and reversed. Political polarization and majoritarianism will lead to a more diminished India—one that may struggle to meet the challenges and opportunities that lie in the decade ahead.” 

The authors say that India can take the lead in reinvigorating regional institutions, integrating the economies, opening up free movement of goods and people, and leading climate change mitigation and adaptation.

“Rather than competing with China (in the neighborhood) on its terms—constructing physical infrastructure or undertaking mega-projects—India should do what China simply cannot: build regional links; open its markets, schools and services to the neighbors; and become a source of economic and political stability in the sub-continent. In promoting such engagement, India could begin by dropping its objection to Pakistan wanting to convene the SAARC summit.”

Lastly, India’s “Neighborhood First” policy is hamstrung by excessive concerns about national security, especially border security, the authors point out. Such so-called security barriers and impediments only create opportunities for corruption, extortion and high-handedness, smuggling, loss of income to the state and the hostility of neighboring states.