Not just growth and nationalism: India's Modi campaigns on foreign policy


India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with Foreign Minister S. Jaishankar at the G20 Leaders' Summit, in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, in November 2022. - Reuters

NEW DELHI: In a campaign video clip, India's ruling party credits Prime Minister Narendra Modi for halting the Russia-Ukraine war two years ago so the government could rescue and repatriate nearly 20,000 stranded Indian students.

In the video, a young woman rushes to her middle-aged parents waiting outside an airport building, hugs them and says between sobs, "I had told you, no matter what the situation, Modi ji will bring us home. He stopped the war, Papa, and got us out.”

Modi shared the video on his YouTube page on March 10 this year, under the caption: "Safety & security of all Indians assured as they are Modi's Family". It has since gathered nearly 650,000 views.

At the time, Indian officials dismissed suggestions that New Delhi had prevailed on Moscow to delay the assault to allow evacuation of its citizens.

India votes in a general election starting on April 19 and Modi, who polls project will convincingly win a rare third term in office, has made the country's global standing and foreign policy an unusual electoral plank.

Indian elections are fought usually on domestic issues like prices, caste equations and allegations of corruption. Foreign policy is almost never a part of campaign rhetoric except for conflicts or tensions in the neighbourhood.

But this February, in a poll published by the India Today group, 19% of the 35,000 respondents said Modi will be most remembered for "raising India's global stature”.

It was the second-most popular response, after 42% claimed Modi's top achievement was building a temple to the Hindu deity Ram at a contested site, which he had inaugurated less than a month earlier.

In recent years, India has hosted the G20 summit of world leaders, forged deeper defence, strategic and technology ties with the US, become the fifth-largest economy in the world and landed a spacecraft on the unexplored south pole of the moon.

In the election campaign, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is painting New Delhi's rising world stature and more assertive foreign policy as major achievements of the Modi administration, alongside its Hindu nationalist agenda and rapid economic growth.

"We are playing our cards adroitly," BJP's national executive member Vinay Sahasrabuddhe told Reuters. "Keeping the political arithmetic and political geography also in our mind is a smart strategy. What is wrong in that?"

Analysts say New Delhi has never been meek in its foreign policy, but it has become more robust in the 10 years under Modi.

"It's more a change in style and rhetoric rather than substance, on which there is continuity in Indian foreign policy," said Ashok Kantha, a retired diplomat.

Still, Canadian accusations of Indian agents being involved in a murder near Vancouver resulted in New Delhi expelling more than 40 of its diplomats.

Despite Western criticism and pressure, India bought record levels of Russian oil since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, and has maintained close ties with Moscow.

While India has denied any role in killing of wanted militants overseas, Modi and his defence minister have said in a campaign speech that the new India will not hesitate to cross borders to kill terrorists.

Modi said at a campaign rally this month that India was "considered a weak and poor country" under the previous Congress party administration.

"Today the world is witnessing how much India’s reputation and status have grown in just 10 years," he said.

He asked the crowd, "Who did this?" "Modi did it," they chanted in reply. To which he said: "Modi has not done it, you have done it. Your vote has done it."

Challenging this narrative, the Congress in its manifesto has promised to "work to repair India’s international image that has been damaged by the present government’s intolerance of dissent and suppression of human rights".

S. Jaishankar, India's suave and sometimes acerbic foreign minister, is the person most identified with the country's recent assertiveness on the international stage.

Last June, Jaishankar was asked repeatedly at a panel in Bratislava about India's purchases of Russian oil, which increased even as Western capitals slapped sanctions on Moscow in response to the invasion of Ukraine.

Jaishankar said: "Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe's problems are the world's problems, but the world's problems are not Europe's problems."

Video of this response, like many of his others as a minister, are often shared on social media platforms in India, and have millions of views on YouTube.

Jaishankar, who is from India's diplomatic corps and has been envoy to China and the US, has become Modi's chief spokesman for the world, and translator of foreign policy for the domestic audience.

BJP's Sahasrabuddhe said the "apex level leadership is very clear about the approach, that we will not offend anybody but if some country offends us we will not take it lightly".

Jaishankar, he said, articulates this in an effective manner. "Articulation these days has become so very critical, and on that count his contribution is remarkable. He minces no words."

Jaishankar's office turned down multiple requests for an interview.

In his book 'Why Bharat Matters' released in January, Jaishankar wrote that India sees "no contradiction in espousing internationalism abroad while articulating nationalism at home".

Indians are more globally aware now because of travel, the internet and the diaspora, and expect the country should receive more recognition and respect on the international stage, said Rohan Mukherjee, an assistant professor of international relations at the London School of Economics.

The BJP, he said, "has understood the pulse of a rising nation and worked hard to cultivate the idea that India’s standing in the world has risen on their watch. So ultimately, there is both demand and supply for foreign policy to be a campaign issue."

However, foreign affairs analysts warned that while this assertiveness in the international arena is applauded by the domestic audience, it may not always play well overseas.

"Sometimes, it's better to seek your interests under the radar, so to say, rather than engage in megaphone diplomacy, because that causes apprehensions and also push back at times," said Kantha, the retired diplomat. - Reuters

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