The Uttar Pradesh victory would add to the Prime Minister’s international standing.
New Delhi: What will be the impact of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s victory in Uttar Pradesh on the country’s foreign policy? Modi’s stature is bound to grow internationally, and this will surely benefit the country.
When Modi won the general election, he created a unique precedent. He won the largest election of recorded world history. To lead a nation as gigantic as India by virtue of winning free and fair elections is an honour without parallel in the world. That credit belonged to Narendra Modi in 2014.
Besides that decisive victory, even a loss in Uttar Pradesh would not have mattered for Modi’s standing in the world. After all, assembly elections are not general elections, even if they pertain to Uttar Pradesh, the country’s paramount political state sending no less than eighty MPs to the Lok Sabha.
Nevertheless, the midterm timing of the Uttar Pradesh election was crucial, as other analysts have pointed out prior to this writer. Winning or losing Uttar Pradesh would carry perceptional weight. A loss for Modi would have strengthened forces of the opposition and made his re-election bid in 2019 stressful. In the interim, the Prime Minister would have weakened internationally as well. At the same time, victory in the poll does not hand over easy foreign policy triumphs to Prime Minister Modi. He would have to persevere as before although with the consolation that his personal standing has survived the rigours of a devilishly hard-fought election.
This writer believes that the world would be divided on Narendra Modi’s latest victory. The world’s democracies will hail him and look up to him with greater respect. President Donald Trump and the elected heads of governments of other Western countries would want more of his company and friendship in the hope to gain the secrets of his success. Politicians are the same all over the world. Even as they conduct foreign affairs, they have eyes at the back of their heads observing the shenanigans of domestic adversaries. Since Prime Minister Modi is so well attuned to managing domestic and foreign affairs at one and the same time, Western leaders would find themselves in a position where they simply cannot get enough of him.
Especially President Trump: He will come to know in regular interactions with Modi that there is much in common between the Indian and American democracies. As a rank outsider to politics and Washington, he should be glad for some earthy advice from Modi. Theresa May is an old hand at politics but new to 10 Downing Street. The political treacheries in Central London and Lutyens’ Delhi are not significantly different. May is counting on India’s economic and trade support to sail past the perilous waters of Brexit, now made even more fraught by the unelected peers of the Upper House, UK’s version of the irascible Rajya Sabha. France is a hopeless case: The great Napoleon Bonaparte exhausted it, and the leaders after Charles de Gaulle can’t even summon his singular Gallic shrug. On the other hand, Angela Merkel, nearly the most experienced of them all in the power game, is faced with a possible decline, and would be ever so glad for some of Modi’s success to rub off on her.
The dictatorships, quasi and complete, for their part, will grow more wary of Prime Minister Modi following his political consolidation. The leading nation in that category will be China. Incapable of making concessions being a hard, Confucian state, China will see even less possibility of that from Modi’s side, now that he is politically stronger. Another factor will play into this, this being Modi’s greater traction with the Western democracies following the Uttar Pradesh victory. If India and the United States grow closer in consequence of this, China will become still more implacable in its opposition to this country’s rise. It will incite Pakistan the more against India, destroying any chances for that country to visualize relations with its eastern neighbour outside the Chinese prism. And while some journalists hope Modi would be amenable to extending the olive branch to Pakistan after Uttar Pradesh, this writer sees no connection between the two developments. Pakistan is a state sponsor of terrorism. Unless it begins by taking irreversible penal actions against state sponsored terrorist leaders who have inspired attacks against India, India has no grounds to resume the dialogue. If anything, the Uttar Pradesh elections have endorsed India’s tactical military actions against Pakistan, including the “surgical strikes” and the spirited retaliations against Pakistani ceasefire violations.
It is important to make an observation at this juncture. India has not reached a position of global power where its foreign policy affects domestic politics. The “surgical strikes” are a one-off incident that happened somewhere on the border with Pakistan and involved troops of the Indian Army which recruits from all over the country, including Uttar Pradesh. The strikes involved national security and their nature and immediacy differentiated them from the general arcana of foreign policy. Foreign policy does not impact Indian politics in the same way as it does in the United States. The IPKF episode remains an exception, but even in Tamil Nadu where it should have theoretically polarized elections, it did not. The only other foreign policy danger was augured by likely Indian troops’ deployment in Iraq during the Second Gulf War, but the Prime Minister of the day, Atal Behari Vajpayee, wisely overruled it. Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination provided a ready example to Vajpayee perhaps of the dangers of misfired foreign policy.
Democratic leaders often make the mistake of attempting to encash presumed foreign policy gains in the circumstances of highly contentious elections. It rarely works in the Indian context, unless it is a clear war victory like 1971. The splendid achievement of Manmohan Singh in regard to the India-US nuclear deal was lost on voters. The Congress party frequently sought to capitalize on Dr Singh’s stirring international reputation as an economist, but it failed to impress the electorate. By and large, electorates are insular all over the world. The Brexit and Trump votes should make that doubly evident. Foreign policy emerges and draws strength from domestic policies. If a country is strong, its foreign policy has a good chance of being vigorous. It usually does not work in reverse. There is a salutary lesson here for Prime Minister Modi and his successors. However welcome are foreign policy successes, there is no substitute for domestic strength and coherence. Happily for now, though, Prime Minister Modi’s victory in Uttar Pradesh would add to India’s strength abroad.
Editor’s Note: Here is wishing all our readers a very Happy Holi.