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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

By Firdaus Ahmed
Kashmir Times
Implications of a NaMo foreign policy

NaMo has spoken. Narendra Modi, in his bid for prime ministership has fired off a salvo on foreign policy while addressing the Gujarati diaspora in the US. Disallowed from going to the US due to his government's record against minorities, including tribal Christians, he had to rest content to discourse via a video-uplink. His main point was that India's is a 'soft' policy, the implication being that with a 'strong leader' at the helm (meaning 'himself'), India could stride the world stage as a regional power and global player. 
He said that while it was alright for the Chinese to have withdrawn from Indian territory at Daulat Beg Oldi, why did Indian forces need to do likewise when the territory was deemed Indian. The second illustration he used for India's pusillanimity was in the positive vibes on ascendance of Nawaz Sharif in Islamabad. He wondered why India needs to sup with Sharif when Pakistan had only recently taken back severed heads of Indian soldiers at the Line of Control. These allusions to the government's alleged foreign policy missteps, suggest that his would be a different foreign policy; an assertive, if not aggressive, one. What would such a foreign policy imply for the state and nation? 
That the government is watchful of its flanks occupied by NaMo is evident from its somewhat stand-offish approach to the change of governments in its two prominent neighbours, China and Pakistan. While China has gone out of its way to make India as the first foreign destination for its new leader, Li Keqiang, Nawaz Sharif has indicated the promise of a new beginning. Yet, India has been reticent in its reciprocation. The opportunity could have been used to make bolder strides, but instead a 'wait and watch' game has been preferred by the government, naturally circumspect in light of approaching elections and the threat of NaMo taking advantage of any 'soft' actions it may take. This indicates that the NaMo critique is a serious one, and on that account needs fleshing out in terms of its implications both internally and externally. 
However, the NaMo position cannot be taken as the traditional conservative-realist position on foreign and security policy. The conservative-realist impetus in India's policy has always been strong. Sardar Patel epitomised it in the early years. Nehru was influenced by it and is consequently termed a 'liberal-realist' by revisionist foreign policy wonks. Indira Gandhi was once likened by an adversary, Vajpayee, as Durga. Rajiv Gandhi was at the helm when India made its first bid for regional dominance. The NDA government has to its credit the Bomb, a war (Kargil) and a near war (Op Parakram). Likewise this government has presided over the largest buildup of India's security forces since 1962: the CRPF for internal security and the Indian military's expansion for its China border. In effect, India's policy can be taken as already a conservative-realist one. Therefore, if NaMo is still unimpressed, then he obviously intends to take it further, impelled by a self-image as Sardar Patel II. Any further, the policy can only be extremist; conservative to reactionary. How will such an India look?
It is a popular myth that foreign and security policies are about the external domain. The reality is that factors - threats and opportunities - in the external sphere are mustered for internal political purposes. Therefore, the more significant drivers of foreign policy lie within a polity. Since a NaMo regime in its first tenure will want to self-perpetuate in order to remake India in the image of Gujarat, it would be more than a reprise of NDA I. Imagine a NaMo hand at the rudder rather than that of a Vajpayee. Recall Vajpayee could not dismiss Modi for the Gujarat carnage that he otherwise viewed as travesty of 'Rajdharma'. The opportunity in saddle would be to reset not merely foreign policy alone, but to use it to reset India.
Externally, India will have China and Pakistan arraigned against India. While this will help warm the US to Modi, NaMo's preference for an India under siege owes to it giving ample scope for raising nationalist, if not chauvinist, passions. Nothing can do this better than a 'clear and present' 'danger at the gates'. Such false consciousness has political utility. It will help with homogenisation of a diverse country, along the lines argued for about a century by the right wing political-cultural formation, the RSS, the ideological fount and institutional anchor for Modi.
Pakistan can be expected to respond appropriately by in the very least opening up the Kashmir front. Adversarial relations will be used internally to bracket India's largest minority with the external foe. This will carry the 'fifth column' discourse that made an advent with the 'IM' thesis over last decade to its logical conclusion. If the earlier Murli Manohar Joshi tenure is any indication, the ideological forces unleashed under the benign watch of an NDA II will use the contrived external-internal linkage to gain control not only over the policy space but also the imagination.
Replicating the Gujarat model on a national scale would be to revisit Emergency. While then institutions crawled when they were merely asked to bend, this time their reaction can only be encouraging of authoritarianism, the leadership model of Modi in Gujarat. The million mutinies that will be sparked by Modi's economic model, another import from Gujarat, will be subject to the 'jackboot'. This will further energise the 'one volk, one fuehrer' thesis of the far right. 
Since NaMo has fired the first shot in the security debate that will attend the run up to elections over the coming year, his strike must be engaged with. To dismiss it as revealing a mufassil level understanding of national security would be to miss the internal implications, to which Modi, the politician, is better attuned than foreign policy pundits. The conservative-realists who dominate the discourse need to be apprised of the dangers of their intellectual wares being appropriated for purposes that they have little understanding of, leave alone any control. 
(The author can be contacted at Think South Asia:

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