Indian intellectual Bharat Karnad lays out a message of hope for South Asia in Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition (Penguin/Viking 2018): India is a story of private success and public failure—its rise is due to its enterprising people rather than the state.
“Our red tape and bureaucracy breaks the spirit of small and medium enterprises that create the most jobs,” writes Gurcharan Das, India’s corporate guru and public intellectual. The World Bank has been pointing this out for 15 years but every Indian government till now has ignored its findings, preferring instead to pick holes in its methodology. The Indian prime minister, says Karnad, does not seems to sense the contempt the people and the private sector have for politicians.
Detached from reality
P.M. Modi appears detached from the reality of an India with half its population below the poverty line, who have to daily contend with a venal and rapacious, typically Third World administration, and a government that is responsible for social welfare indices so miserable that Amartya Sen felt constrained to point out in 2013 that the country looks “more and more like the islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.”
In Indian society at large, divisive antics are becoming combustible. Deification of the cow and the stigmatization of, and random violence against, Muslims and Dalits are leading to the unravelling of the complex and delicate socio-cultural weave of Indian society, undermining social peace and sowing dissension. Modi’s refraining from publicly calling out Hindu extremist outfits suggests the ruling RSS-inspired BJP is allowing a traditionally tolerant Indian society to turn into an illiberal Hindu state, which has no precedent in India’s history. By mixing religion and politics. Modi has seeded a milieu in which censorship of the arts, literature and films, imposition of strictures on couture and cuisine, and the steady assault on the easygoing milieu of the countryside and the cosmopolitanism of the urban areas are resulting in what many fear is a “Hindu Pakistan.”
Creation of domestic disorder
Thoughtful supporters of Modi in the media see in this trend a dead-ending of the prime minister’s agenda. Exacerbating social divisions may lead to grave internal security problems. Thirty-four countries in the new century have fallen apart at the seams or suffered a breakdown owing to sustained domestic disorder; only four of these suffered this fate owing to foreign interventions. Modi’s ‘Gujarat model’ functions in top-down mode with the prime minister as the sole authority and fount of ideas in government, and cabinet ministers and senior bureaucrats alike acting as cogs in the machine to realize his schema of technology-driven growth.
The situation inside the country is unsettled by the shenanigans of the loony fringe, even as India’s foreign policy—conducted by Modi with a certain showman’s flair—is facing trouble at its doorstep and in the wider world. His neighborhood-first policy risks going belly-up owing to his government’s relentless hostility towards Pakistan and the anti-Muslim prejudices in society conflated by him with the anti-terrorism tenor of the times. It has made the lives of Indian Muslims miserable and the abutting Muslim-majority states (Pakistan, Bangladesh, The Maldives) uneasy.
Single-minded over Pakistan
Islamic states in the extended region are uncomfortable. And friendly states in Central Asia are wary of putting at risk the TAPI gas pipeline that Turkmenistan puts much store by, and the IPI gas pipeline that Tehran has assiduously promoted. The anti-Muslim fervor also threatens to upend the prime minister’s delicate balancing act of cultivating the Sunni Gulf states and Saudi Arabia on the one hand, and cooperating with Shia Iran and Israel on the other, and seeds doubts about India’s intentions in Sri Lanka, Nepal, and even Bhutan.
The bellicosity towards Pakistan that the Modi government seems to easily summon is curious because it seeks, single-mindedly, to invert the perception of Hinduism as effeminate and passive compared to muscular and robust Islam that American diplomats, for example, used to argue for supporting Pakistan over India in the 1950s. The manifestations of this hostility geared towards isolating Pakistan have ranged from self-hurting to silly—the postponement, for instance, of the SAARC summit for reasons of cross-border terrorism, to shifting the 2018 Asia Cup cricket tournament from India to the U.A.E. because of Delhi’s prospective denial of visas to the Pakistan team. That the Pakistani tail wags the Indian dog becomes apparent when contrasted with the Modi government’s soft-glove and respectful treatment of China and its infinitely more dangerous economic, political and security challenge and threat.
Moving to a peace dialogue?
Perhaps the BJP government has realized that it has politically milked Pakistan to the maximum and that it better begin making overtures to Islamabad, particularly the decisive entity in that country, the Pakistan Army. Chief of Army Staff Gen. Javed Bajwa has given notice of his willingness to talk directly to the Indian government or via his counterpart, the Indian chief of the army staff. Institutionally, this should pose no great problems. After all, if former heads of the Indian and Pakistani spy agencies, Amarjit Singh Dulat and Lt. Gen. (retd.) Asad Durrani, respectively, can collaborate in writing a book about the intelligence ventures their agencies have been involved in, there’s no reason why the Indian Army and Pakistani Army chiefs cannot sort out problems relating to keeping the disputed border peaceful.
It can lead, by way of congealing the dialogue process into a permanent mechanism, to the chiefs negotiating an entente cordiale between the two armies, allowing them to reconnect with each other through the medium of ‘divided regiments,’ renewal of inter-army sports meets and similar social activity—the sort of confidence and security building measures that have never been mooted but which can be the ‘key to peace’ in the subcontinent. It is a process that can unfold in step with composite dialogue at the government level. All it requires is a little strategic imagination and political will. It represents an ‘out of the box’ way of thinking that Modi has recommended to the country’s youth. Apparently, what’s good for the youth is not good for the prime minister.
India and South Asia
If India’s influence has shrunk in South Asia, it has also lost its international standing as power-balancer owing to the Modi policy’s over-tilt towards the U.S. and the West. It is a slant supported by a new phenomenon: an ecosystem in Delhi with a distinctly American flavor prominently featuring Indian chapters of Washington think tanks funded by Indian corporate donors that propagate the U.S. line. It flourishes in the context of senior government and military personnel interacting with U.S. counterparts invariably seeking immigrant visas, work permits and other considerations for family members and, in return, easing U.S.-friendly policies through government corridors.
This policy tilt is explained by apologists as natural, considering it serves the purpose of having the U.S. on India’s side in the looming confrontation with China. Except Washington’s agenda seems more ambitious: It is to reduce India into American dependency, in fact, into another Japan which is advised an active ‘denial of military’ strategy to hold off China and, should matters come to a nuclear crunch, to await U.S. help.