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Modi success at UN, but larger questions remain

The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh
Published : Sep 30, 2019, 6:28 am IST
Updated : Sep 30, 2019, 6:28 am IST

Modi has prioritised climate change action since the Paris Climate Accord.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Friday. (Photo: AP)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses the 74th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Friday. (Photo: AP)

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistan’s PM Imran Khan were circling each other since the “Howdy, Modi” extravaganza in Houston on September 22. They finally lined up like prizefighters on September 27 on the world’s biggest stage, the UN General Assembly podium.

Their performance could not have been less identical. Mr Modi stuck to the high road, recalling his unprecedented mandate, the development schemes of his government in its first term like 11 crore toilets to eliminate open defecation, the Rs 5 lakh health coverage for 50 crore people, financial inclusion and digital identification. He outlined new programmes like the banning of single-use plastic, greater connectivity by building over one lakh kilometres of roads and clean water supply to each Indian by 2022, the 75th anniversary of India’s Independence. In addition, tuberculosis is to be eradicated by 2025, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the BJP’s parent body, the RSS.

These development markers were then woven by Mr Modi into the global responsibility of India. Quoting an Indian aphorism, he said Jan Kalyan, meaning people’s good, is tantamount to Jag Kalyan, that is global good. Like the China Dream of President Xi Jinping, the “Indian Dream” was spelt out, but shown as different as it’s not India-exclusive but globally shared. Rhetorically, this was great messaging from the UN stage as it defined India’s soft power as an instrument for global influence through assistance and cooperation. In the past, India had supplied at low prices drugs to control pandemics like AIDS in Africa. India has also sponsored computer literacy programmes like Hole-in-the-Wall under India’s time-honoured Indian Technical and Educational Cooperation (ITEC) scheme. But as usual, Prime Minister Modi excelled at remarketing old schemes with contemporary upgrades and catchy slogans.

Mr Modi has prioritised climate change action since the Paris Climate Accord. He, unlike US President Donald Trump, attended the special climate summit convened by the UN Secretary-General a day before the high-level UNGA summit. Mr Modi also inaugurated the India-gifted 193 solar panels, one for each UN member, on the roof of the UN headquarters. In his UNGA address, he recalled the Indian Solar Alliance, and advocated a new coalition for environment engendered disaster relief. Climate change most endangers small island nations as rising seas are beginning to devour them. Mr Modi met those groups to discuss their predicament.

Finally, he turned to the challenge of terrorism, faced by India for four decades. Avoiding any reference to Pakistan, the abettor of India-specific terror attacks, he urged the global community to jointly counter it. He supported multilateralism and a stronger UN. Behind this lay the push again by the old G-4 group consisting of Brazil, Germany, India and Japan, for their induction as new permanent members of the UN Security Council. However, the chances appear dim after the rise of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a thinly veiled nationalist populist, and the post-Angela Merkel political vacuum in Germany, as indeed the rising confusion within the post-Brexit European Union and Britain.

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, in total contrast, launched into a meandering address that lasted thrice the allotted time. After a tutorial on moderate Islam, the need for sensitivity about each faith’s belief system, he arrived at the Kashmir issue. He demonised the Indian PM as a puppet of the RSS, likening it to Nazis, etc. He recounted in great detail his attempts to reach out to the Narendra Modi government before and after the May elections in India. He ended by warning the international community that continued repression of the Kashmiri people could result in a limited and then a nuclear war. This was a plaintive cry for UN intervention. It seemed the address, to a largely empty hall, was meant for his domestic audience as a strong riposte to India, as indeed a warning to the US and P-5 members. The US has been publicly and privately telling him to moderate his rhetoric.

The India-Pakistan drama had already played out in meetings of the two countries’ Prime Ministers with President Donald Trump. Despite attempts by the media, Mr Trump refused to either endorse Pakistan’s criticism of the Indian actions in Kashmir or the Indian argument that Pakistan is the sole fount of terror. Other than being present at the Houston rally, where Mr Modi strangely asked the Indian diaspora, who are largely US citizens, to endorse his government’s abrogation of Article 370, President Trump did not endorse the Indian action. The American views emerged at a press briefing by acting assistant secretary of state Alice Wells. She said the US urged India to deliver on the promise to “improve the lives of the Kashmiri people”. She noted US concerns about “widespread detentions, including those of politicians and business leaders, and the restrictions on the residents of Jammu and Kashmir”, and looked forward to the resumption of political activity and elections. Finally, she said that the US was aware of India’s rejection of outside mediation, but India and Pakistan must have a “constructive conversation that leads to an improvement of relations between the two nuclear powers”.

Mr Modi’s visit was mostly successful in meeting three principal objectives — to ensure that the Kashmir issue does not figure on the UN agenda, in Geneva or New York; President Trump is engaged and the trade issue is at least contained if not finessed; an finally, the UN stage is used to broadcast India’s message on contemporary issues engaging global attention, like climate change and terrorism. Pakistan was largely isolated, and Imran Khan’s 50-minute harangue won few kudos internationally. The Chinese continued to preach to India on Kashmir, to reassure ally Pakistan, but may have affected the atmosphere before the coming visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to India in October.

But the larger question lingers — whether India’s Prime Minister can be a statesman abroad, preaching inclusion and humanitarianism, but regress domestically to partisan and majoritarian politics. Can a government’s foreign policy be secular and its domestic approach populist and sectarian? Highlighting this was the lynching of two dalit children for defecating in the open as Mr Modi boasted in New York that his government stood for “Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas”, and additionally “Sabka Vishwas”. By not ruthlessly controlling its delinquent fringe element, the BJP is guilty of tacit approval. Global powers will give the Modi government a little more time to restore normality in Kashmir and deliver on his promises of inclusion. Otherwise his voice will carry diminishing value abroad.

Tags: narendra modi, un general assembly