What PM Modi needs to realise is that when the external environment degrades, domestic politics must adjust if it can't be insulated from it
On July 28, America’s secretary of state Antony J. Blinken held formal discussions with India’s external affairs minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar. Before that, however, he held a meeting with and addressed select civil society leaders, including a representative of the Dalai Lama’s Tibet House. The visit’s choreography was significant as it occurred just a month before American deadline for the withdrawal of its military forces from Afghanistan and almost simultaneously with the visit of Mr Blinken’s number two, deputy secretary of state Wendy Sherman, to Beijing.
The issues on the table were obvious, although their order of importance for either side naturally varied. For the United States it was climate change, China, democracy and human rights, the Quad (that comprises, besides the US and India, Australia and Japan) and Afghanistan. For India, it was understandably the Afghanistan-Taliban nexus, climate change and the other issues in descending order. Of course, the hype before the visit that somehow American concerns about the democratic slippage in India would be an irritant proved wrong. Like all nations, the US can mix pragmatism with evangelistic pursuit of democratic values.
After the external affairs ministry’s two-questions by media per side rule, which belies a proper assessment of diplomatic parleys, four questions were posed. Two Indian journalists asked about Afghanistan and the Indo-Pacific against the backdrop of speculation that the US was planning a first in-person Quad summit, after the online meeting hosted by US President Joe Biden soon after assuming office. Both the ministers concurred that the Quad was not a military alliance, nor was it aimed at opposing any other nation and was in fact aimed at furthering cooperation among the four democracies. Not surprisingly, China viewed that explanation with much scepticism.
One of the two US journalists, Courtney McBride of the Wall Street Journal, asked the question the Indian journalists chose to skip – on the supposedly shared democratic values. Ms McBride wondered that if the US looks “to partner on issues such as climate and Covid to offer a democratic alternative to China, how do you address the Indian government backslide on issues such as human rights?”. Mr Blinken conceded that the US was drawn to India by the “steadfast commitment of its people to democracy, to pluralism, to human rights, to fundamental freedoms”. These shared values, he added, are a basis for seeking a free and open Indo-Pacific or “indeed, a free and open world”. But then he left the door open on the Indian slippage by adding that “every democracy, starting with our own, is a work in progress”.
This is an argument that hasn’t been heard from American leaders in decades, if not ever. It also reflects the damage that has already been done to America’s democratic credentials by President Joe Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump, who continues his crusade to delegitimise America’s electoral process and deny his own defeat. Republican Party governments in several US states are tweaking electoral rules to make it more difficult for the less prosperous and education-deficient working classes among the minority communities. This also allowed Mr Jaishankar to grab the life jacket thrown to him. He intoned that the “quest for a more perfect union applies as much to Indian democracy as it does to the American one — indeed to all democracies”. This was an intellectual leap that would surprise even his friends, as the globally uncovered Pegasus snooping scandal was flaring up in India, causing daily disruptions of India’s Parliament all through the Blinken visit. Surely the visiting minister would have been briefed by his embassy and seen in the local newspapers that the Indian government was not only unwilling to order a judicial probe into the shocking breach of privacy of journalists, Opposition politicians, etc, but even refusing to answer with a simple “yes” or “no” whether it had purchased the malware.
Even more disturbing was the Indian minister’s follow-up reasoning that much of the alleged human rights abuses were merely “legacy issues” and “historical wrongs” that needed correcting. Surely the minister knows that the Constitution of India was drafted by our founding fathers after living through many of the wrongs. The sacred document was the result of a national consensus to bury the past in order to ensure a better future. Digging up real or imagined past hurts to justify present breaches of the rule of law and constitutionalism is treading a dangerous path. For instance, considering the minister is a Dravidian, where would the argument end if debate began on who were the original occupants of South Asia and who were the invaders. Take the sacrifice of 9th Sikh Guru Tegh Bahadurji, who offered his head to defend the principle of freedom of faith, although at stake was not his own faith, Sikhism, but that of Kashmiri Brahmins. History is a dangerous weapon, often presenting arguments that negate your thesis.
Similar dissimulation persisted on Afghanistan. India must have in private taken up its concerns over the vacuum, caused by the sudden exit of the US military, being exploited by the Taliban in league with Pakistan. A Taliban delegation led by co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani was hosted by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi in Tianjin, China. It suited the Taliban to both seek legitimacy by diplomatic talks with major nations while persisting with its military operations to capture more space and corner the current Kabul government by blocking its lifelines. The US position that moral pressure shall keep the Taliban from seizing power by force sounds unrealistic, if not deceptive. Clearly, the US has washed its hands off military intervention in Afghanistan and is willing to live with the Taliban dominance of any future order in Kabul. The key question is whether India can adopt the same blasé attitude.
Therefore, the related question arises on whether the BJP-led Union government can persist with its majoritarian project to reshape India, or as Mr Jaishankar justified maintain the correction of historical wrongs? A Taliban-led Islamic caliphate in Kabul, recognised by most neighbours, as it was not when it captured power in the 1990s, would be the font of Islamic radicalism. The contrary US assurances won’t change that. What Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the eternal political pragmatist, needs to realise is that when the external environment degrades, domestic politics must adjust if it cannot be insulated from it. He needs to buy peace with India’s farmers, curb the polarising narrative in Uttar Pradesh and reach out to the Opposition parties. Current wrongs need contemporary solutions, not alibis from history.