The Perception of India Under Narendra Modi: The National-International Convolution

Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi
Credit: Prime Minister's Office (GODL-India) / GODL-India

The national elections in 2014 and 2019 underlined a key feature of the evolving Indian political system — absolute majority over coalition governments. Bewildered with the Congress-led UPA alliance, the opinion radically shifted in favour of a resilient government that could lead the country towards holistic prosperity and triumph. Not only did the BJP under Narendra Modi assure the citizens of the realization of a thriving economy, but it also sought to attract them by invoking multiple pages from history. The pre-election campaigns suggested a charismatic empathetic leader willing to involve an all-inclusive governance module both in the external as well as the internal realm. Following the promises of less corruption, more accountability, and tempting the masses with an affluent future, the BJP was able to resemble with the aspirations of many Indians. It formed a perception amongst the world community that the opulence of Modi’s India is pragmatic and not a mere illusion.

The perpetual mobilization of masses within was assisted with the growing urge to seek greater solidarity with the neighbouring countries. In 2014, Prime Minister Modi invited SAARC leaders to attend the oath-taking ceremony to pursue fraternity within a fragmented region and to establish India’s image as a responsible nation. Modi’s first trip to Bhutan and the announcement of Act East Policy in Myanmar in 2014 highlighted the significance of aligning further with its eastern neighbours to keep China in check. Also harmonizing relations with Pakistan till 2016 was a crucial facet of Modi’s foreign policy. Another key feature of India’s foreign policy was to strengthen the bilateral relations with the United States while maintaining cordial diplomacy with China through the Wuhan and Mamallapuram diplomacy. India’s membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization and the enthusiastic progress of the Chabahar project were a part of the holistic foreign policy under the Modi regime. These developments were guided by the rising power ambitions as promised in the electoral manifesto.

Conducted pragmatically, such policies advanced India’s perception as a symbol of peace and harmony. Not only did it enhance India’s prestige, but the personal diplomacy undertaken by Prime Minister Modi was also perceived to be a positive-sum game by other countries. The focus on people to people relations and a proficient diaspora based policy has been the hallmark of the Modi doctrine since 2014. India’s stance on the multilateral platforms with a significant effort to collaborate with inclusive diplomacy has reaped benefits to both the nation and Prime Minister Modi as a leader. However, the robust perception of India is not persistent. Rather than blaming the developments in the international system, the severity of domestic policies along with an ineffective implementation has restricted the optimistic change of opinion towards India.

National Inadvertences

To govern effectively, a certain amount of both stability and steadiness is required. The countries that are unstable with a lack of institutional capacity often are marked with fragility. Having a heterogeneous society, Indian history is full of instances in which the principle of unity in diversity has survived successfully. Though there have been occurrences of sectarianism especially the 1984 Sikh Riots and the Godhra Riots in 2002, the trajectory of India’s growth is directed by communal harmony and collectiveness. The fulfillment of democratic aspirations, as well as federalism, has been more often the reality rather than a norm. Moreover, constitutionalism with its appropriate emphasis on rights has bestowed India with dignity amidst an unstable and fragmented region. Such principles have influenced the way India perceives the world and the way the world recognizes India. Despite having an increasing number of challenges, India’s triumph has been an example for other third world countries willing to embrace the same. This has allowed India to elevate its effective participation at many multilateral platforms and diplomatic initiatives.

Unfortunately, the impulse to gain recognition, dignity, and admiration has splintered the foundations of Indian polity. Unlike the earlier UPA coalition, the BJP led government’s campaign was leadership rather than party-centric. Amidst the wide-ranging corruption, allegations of a puppet regime, and rising inflation, the BJP fielded Narendra Modi as a gallant leader willing to undo the past 67 years of injustice that India fell victim to. Appearing as a populist leader, there was a degree of resemblance between the aspirations of the people and the promises the leader pledged. Due to the insufficient response of the erstwhile coalition, the strengthening of a full majority government secured the need for effective leadership. Upon assuming power, the invincible persona of a leader was reinforced by dividing lines based on omnipotence versus powerlessness. Furthermore, the essence of territorial nationalism generated an external enemy, thereby assisting the identity of the leader eager to give a befitting response to the adversaries of India. Primarily targeting the external adversary, the false consciousness generated by the incumbent has led to the creation of a virile state.

The dispersal of hostility was initially limited to the external sphere with Pakistan being the main target to mobilize the masses within the country. The subsequent warfare impacted consensus building and bilateral relations between the two countries, thereby enhancing the rhetoric against the neighbouring country. Rapidly, the politicization of religion gained occurrence within India. Based on external reality, the rising animosity between the two communities confronted the secular fabric, enraging the debate between the rights of the majority against the will of the minority. The debate has led to sanctimonious antagonism in dispensing a certain section of the population as peripheral to the society. As a result, mobocracy has legitimized the vehement exclusion of those who unwilling to follow the dominant narrative. Firstly, it has alienated minorities particularly the Indian Muslims by persistently reducing their status as second class citizens. There have been multiple instances wherein the discrimination against Muslims was constructed on the underlying insecurities of the masses. Along with estrangement, the consumption of beef is being readily highlighted as evading the norms of Indian culture while neglecting the fact that India is the largest beef exporter and gains significant revenue from it.

Secondly, the penetration of violence and disdain has generated fear amongst other communities not willing to abide by the majoritarian conventions resulting in mob lynchings. Though Indian Muslims faced the brunt of it primarily, there have been cases in which the Hindus have witnessed persecution underlining the importance of not relegating terror to one particular religion. The mob mentality juxtaposed with standards of radical nationalism has legitimized the normalization of violence within society. Apart from the subjugation of the minorities and communalism, dissent has been the second fatality of the dominant narrative. The crackdown on universities such as Jamia Millia Islamia, Jawahar Lal Nehru University, Aligarh Muslim University underlines the sanctimonious nature of violence that justifies itself in a nationalistic undertone. Many students are alleged and have been arrested for exercising the freedom of opinion vis-à-vis the government. Subsequently, the media organizations have played a prominent role in disseminating information beneficial to the narrative by ascribing dissent to be anti-India. This has allowed the incumbent to dilute the distinction between the government and the nation, making authority transcend the limits of culpability.

Moreover, the increasing centralization and breakdown of the federal structure has not only impacted the center-state relations but has also had an effect on transparency and accountability in governance. The centralized command and control policies of this government are replete with examples of monopoly over the decision making process. The centre has increasingly started to interfere and influence the state governments. Instances like demonetization, Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA), and National Register of Citizens (NRC), have stressed upon the lack of consensus-building and de-legitimization of the people, the grounds on which the government corroborates democratic credentials. Not only has the devolution of power retroceded, but the government has also subverted the autonomy of other institutions with the gluttony of political offices, the example of which is the nomination of the erstwhile Chief Justice of India as a Rajya Sabha member. The rampant political defections have further eroded the stability of the opposition parties. Consequently, the defections have strengthened the reliability of the BJP as a Pan-India phenomenon. Karnataka, Goa and Madhya Pradesh are the prime fatalities of such unstinting illustrations when the majoritarian electoral will within a state became a victim of horse-trading.

The scrutiny of policies under Modi’s India underlines an emaciated democracy, the latter which helped India to consolidate its presence in the world community as a champion of rights and welfare, pluralism, and devolution of powers. However, the constant focus on the persona of a charismatic leader willing to address issues such as inequality and poverty has not obtained the required results. With a dwindling economy, fragmentation of social fissures, the disparity in incomes of the population, and largely ineffective institutions, the perception of India is changing. There are numerous reports published that bring peculiar problems at the forefront. India has slipped to 102nd in the Global Hunger Report published in 2019 from 95th position in 2018. According to a global survey, it has also become one of the world’s least free democracies with the Freedom in the World (2020) report ranking the country at 83rd position along with Timor-Leste and Senegal. Under the current regime, the gradual dilution happening in three stages is worrisome. Firstly, the weakening of the distinction between the party and the leader with the latter occupying the position of omnipotence is a direct threat to the party system. Not only has it allowed Prime Minister Modi to exert authority, but it has also extinguished the parliamentary democracy set-up that India has readily espoused since independence. Secondly, the distinction between the leader and the nation is turning into something more than a patronage system — a paternalistic democracy that ruptures the linkage between state and society. Thirdly, the aforementioned stages have led to the curbing of dissent with people questioning the supremacy of rights over the duties to the nation.

Together, the three stages are directed towards a homogenization project altering the ‘Unity in Diversity’ along with challenging the very foundations on which India’s democracy stood — secularism, interdependence, and socialism. Each assault on the foundational beliefs of India by the incumbent is stimulating consequences on its bilateral relationship with every region, especially in South Asia. While the democratic credentials within are defied with the rising invincibility of the persona of a leader, there are multiple repercussions at the international front that have shifted India’s perception towards obliteration. Based on charisma, the Prime Minister’s mendacities have delivered him domestic legitimacy and credibility, the increasing alienation of India in the world community is contradictory to the goals on which the former is built upon.

International Inadvertences

In the South Asian Region, the hegemonic perception of India has been duly underlined by three significant factors- territory, economic capability, and population. While India has been considered a hegemon by its neighbours, the sturdiness has reinforced insecurity in the region. In lieu of the internal commotion, the remoteness of the considerations of other country’s interests has had a negating effect on Indian foreign policy. Likewise, Chinese penetration into the region has gained proximity to neighboring countries such as Nepal, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Furthermore, the Modi government’s diminished involvement in regional groupings such as the South Asian Association of Region Cooperation (SAARC) and the increasing importance of bilateralism within the region signifies the refusal of the incumbent to move towards an integrated South Asian region. 

The erstwhile Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s presence in the oath-taking ceremony of Prime Minister Modi in 2014 created an illusion of a thaw in India-Pakistan relations. Furthermore, the illusion was sustained with an illustration of PM Modi attending Nawaz Sharif’s granddaughter’s wedding in 2015. As a mark of personal diplomacy, the Indian Prime Minister elevated the vision of harmony between the two countries. However, the cross-border firing persisted from both the sides amidst the cordiality between the leaders. Subsequently, the Gurdaspur Attack in 2015, the Pathankot Attack by Jaish-e-Mohammad Militants, and the Uri attack in 2016 raised the strained bilateral relations. In return, India carried out a surgical strike in Pakistan occupied Kashmir, inflicting heavy casualties on terrorists, indicating a change of stand in the rules of engagement on the disputed line of control. Not only the bilateral relationship was hampered, the 19th SAARC summit supposed to be held in 2016 got canceled due to India’s refusal to engage with Pakistan. The disengagement received support from other countries such as Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, and Bangladesh. It underlined the success of India’s neighbourhood policy though short-lived.

Not only did the attacks rupture the bilateral relations, but they also led to the rise in Islamophobia within, having the capacity to extinguish the existing solidarity with India. The anti-Pakistan ideology headed towards curbing dissent and restrictions on the freedom of religion (Article 27, 28, 29), thereby generating a narrative residing in majoritarianism. The government benefited from the cleavages in society and used it to garner support in the national elections of 2019. Along with the revocation of Article 370, policies such as CAA legitimised the threat to Indian minorities leading to international repercussions. While the former provided Pakistan a pretext to achieve cohesion in the Muslim world, the latter authenticated the persecution of minorities in countries like Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The process of dismay and denial by the aforementioned countries steered towards estrangement. Coincidently PM Imran Khan’s visit to the United States and President Donald Trump’s willingness to mediate between the two neighbouring countries on the Kashmir crisis has provided enough leverage to Pakistan in its effort to readily control the chronicle against India. On the issue of terrorism, there was not any serious criticism of Pakistan. The mention of security assistance and emphasis on military relations was another setback to India’s subtlety with the United States. These incidents signify the lack of effectiveness of PM Modi’s personal diplomacy with President Trump. Consequently, Beijing also opposed Indian actions in Kashmir and Ladakh underlining the potential of the all-weather friendship between China and Pakistan.

On the other hand, the peace deal between the United States and the Taliban was signed on 29th February 2020. Due to constant emphasis on humanitarian aid and support to President Ghani, Indian foreign policy in Afghanistan is following the past precedent. The monolithic approach has led to the marginalization of Indian interests in Kabul wherein New Delhi has been overlooked during the entire peace process. Post-1973, Indian support to the former Prime Minister Daoud Khan, Najibullah, the Rabbani government, former President Hamid Karzai, and subsequently President Ashraf Ghani has not permitted the incumbent to move away from the existing policy in Afghanistan. Despite the United States distinguishing between jihad and terrorism, Indian reluctance to intervene in the country is because of the history with the Taliban that raises suspicion. However, certain actions by the Taliban need recognition- the vow to protect the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) gas pipeline, adamantly keeping away from Pakistan’s reaction to the Kashmir crisis publicly, and a willingness to bring India into the peace process. The recent visit of the U.S. Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad to India and the briefing is given to the foreign ministry underlines that Washington is eager to identify India as a major player in the region vis-à-vis Pakistan. 

Due to the sightless assistance to the Ghani government, a victim of internal fissures, India has signified its unwillingness to move out of the past. While countries such as Iran, China, Russia, and Turkey are eager to reciprocate to the Taliban, the Indian vision of a democratic Afghanistan does not have many takers. Moreover, the emergence of ISKP as a third front mainly in eastern Afghanistan and its impact on the peace process has further delineated New Delhi from Kabul. The shameful attacks on the Sikh community in Kabul by ISKP were mainly in response to the rising Islamophobia within India. As the number of attacks is increasing, it is high time to recognize the growing potential of the Taliban in Afghanistan using which India could effectively deal with ISKP via a regional coalition. Along with involving India into the ambit of Washington’s distinction between jihad and terrorism, the diplomatic outreach with the Taliban could further keep Pakistan occupied in the western sector. Like in the late 1990s, the Taliban demands recognition within the world community and the Indian approach towards the former shouldn’t be governed by the IC-814 hijack incident. 

Another country in South Asia with which India’s bilateral relations have considerably changed is Nepal. Prime Minister Modi’s historic trip to Nepal in 2014 led to an announcement in the Parliament of Rs 10,000 crore as a concessional line of credit to the country. The visit also emphasized on the 3 Cs — Cooperation, Connectivity, Culture and Constitution. Coming after a gap of 17 years, this visit strived to reset the bilateral ties amidst the growing uncertainty between the two countries. With the advent of Prime Minister K.P. Oli corresponding to the economic blockade of 2015, a further fragmentation was witnessed in Indo-Nepal relations. Using religion as a source of unity, the visit of PM Modi to Nepal in 2018 was marked by the inauguration of the 900MW Arun III hydroelectric project, Raxual-Kathmandu rail link as well as a visit to Janakpur and Muktinath. However, the economic blockade had offered an opportunity to the Nepal Communist Party to enhance an anti-India position within the country while simultaneous proximity to China. The Indo-Nepal Kalapani border conflict and Nepal’s protest over Lipulekh with the Indian Army Chief’s suspicion of a ‘third party’ involvement have further worsened the progress made during the visits since 2014. Recently, Chinese Ambassador Yanqi’s involvement to protect the already crumbling communist party government in Nepal is another instance of Beijing’s rising influence vis-à-vis India.

The negation of reverence and affability has vociferously influenced the perception of India in the South Asian Region. The domestic sphere consisting of a dwindling economy, an oligarchical political structure, and rising social cleavages have not helped the Indian position. Furthermore, the enigmatic foreign visits and photo-ops with diminutive advancement have reversed the progress in the neighbourhood relations. While international developments could be blamed for the failure, the lack of consensus-building and the resurrection of hegemonic perception are also to be credited as the primary reasons behind PM Modi’s vacillating diplomacy. The charismatic persona with an immaculate concentration on ideology building along with a weakened economy has substantially contracted the gap between domestic and international convolution in India.

As the world is dealing with Covid-19, the concavity of the present establishment is being duly recognized by the world community. In between the communalization of an issue of health security and the alienation of human rights, the perception of India as an erratic country is slowly gaining attention. While the government has provided 10% of its GDP towards economic and liquidity advancement, the migrant’s crisis and the increasingly diminished response towards it has reinforced the mortifying perception of India. On a positive note, the Covid-19 cases in India are less when compared to other developed countries but the rising centralization and authoritarianism are concerning both to the domestic as well as the international sphere.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.