India's image has taken big hit in past year; only recourse is for BJP to up engagement with world in transparent manner
Ever since it became a sovereign republic, India has meticulously built its global network of 'friends' through continuous democratic practice and evolution, not least under former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who sought to build a secular and liberal country
The aggregate of India's image on the international stage is a sum of many parts. From its geographical location on the map of the world to its material capacity to fulfil specific geopolitical roles, New Delhi's diplomatic profile is built on several layers of pragmatic interests, realpolitik concerns and a strong normative tradition.
Yet, there is one core impulse that decisively defines India's relationship with the rest, or at least most, of the world: Democracy.
Ever since it became a sovereign republic, India has meticulously built its global network of "friends" through continuous democratic practice and evolution, not least under former prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru who sought to build a secular and liberal country. At every turn, New Delhi made sure it was seen as progressive and reformist, rather than status quoist and revisionist.
Sure, India might always have been an imperfect democracy and it even exhibited strong signs of authoritarianism and sectarianism, but none of that was significant enough to sully its image as a plural, secular, multi-party democracy that dearly values the core democratic principles of equality, justice and rule of law.
But the sands appear to be shifting now, as India gets more divided along sectarian lines. New Delhi's partners in the West have signalled shiftiness. Missives of concern and condemnation have come from unlikely quarters, which had so far embraced or at least entertained the government. Indian diplomats are scrambling to control the narrative. International organisations are using unusually coarse words. Some are even talking sanctions.
This is not an unremarkable shift. It signals a fundamental reformulation of how the world sees India within a rapidly evolving geopolitical context. However momentary it might be, it is something that New Delhi would ignore only at its own peril.
The trouble began not long after the NDA government swept to power for the second straight time in May last year. When it diluted Article 370 and subsequently put the Kashmir Valley under a near-indefinite lockdown, the world took note. From the United Nations Security Council to the US House Foreign Affairs Committee, New Delhi's move was discussed with concern at many international fora.
The criticism grew when less than three months after the Kashmir lockdown was imposed, the government invited a delegation of Far-Right Members of European Parliament (MEPs) for a visit to Kashmir. As argued earlier, the visit, which was meant to fix India’s image in the West, backfired, as the European Union (EU) mission in India distanced itself from it and some of the visiting MEPs themselves expressed concern over the state of affairs in Kashmir. A fortnight later, the Kashmir issue became the centrepiece of a US Congressional hearing.
India continues to dismiss all criticism on Kashmir, insisting that it is an “internal matter”.
The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), passed by Parliament in December, and the Delhi riots that followed, in February, drew criticism from international quarters, including the EU Parliament, US Department of State, Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC), the UN and some foreign governments. The UN Special Advisor on the prevention of genocide, Adama Dien, raised an alarm about heightened hate speech and targeted violence against minorities after the passage of the sectarian citizenship law amendment. On 3 June, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed concern about authoritarian restrictions on press freedom in the country.
But India has dismissed the criticism, reiterating that the CAA is an “internal issue”, and has called the international media coverage of the Delhi riots “misleading and inaccurate”. India has also dismissed this year’s Annual Report of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), which urges the US Department of State to enlist India as a ‘Country of Particular Concern’ (the highest classification in their three-tier system) and impose sanctions on Indian entities for fanning religious hatred.
In June 2016, the government rejected the USCIRF’s annual report. In November 2017, it rejected a statement by UN Special Rapporteur, Leo Heller, accusing the Narendra Modi government’s flagship sanitation and cleanliness programmes of flouting human rights norms. In June 2018, New Delhi rejected a damning report on Kashmir by the OHCHR. In September 2019, India dismissed statements by the current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michele Bachelet, on the Kashmir lockdown. In March 2020, the Indian foreign minister, S Jaishankar, personally rubbished critical statements on the CAA and Northeast Delhi violence made by the OHCHR at the 43rd UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) session.
Last month, when a tweet by a sitting BJP legislator quoting an objectionable and sexually-explicit opinion on Arab women resurfaced, influential voices based in the Gulf voiced displeasure: From an Emirati princess to a Kuwaiti minister, a large set of individuals took to Twitter to talk about Islamophobia in India. This was aggravated by an upsurge in anti-Muslim hate speech on social media platforms amongst Indian users based in the Gulf, following the emergence of the Nizamuddin Markaz COVID-19 cluster in New Delhi.
This triggered a frenzy in New Delhi. The Gulf, after all, had so far gladly embraced the government despite the party’s historic position against Muslims. In a rare move, the Indian Ambassador in Abu Dhabi tweeted a reminder to Indian expatriates to uphold the common values of non-discrimination and rule of law shared by India and the UAE. Even the Indian foreign minister reportedly reached out to his counterparts in the Gulf to reassure them. Following the outrage, Modi personally tweeted a call for non-discrimination during the COVID-19 crisis.
It would be hasty to conclude that the NDA does not realise how the international community, particularly the "liberal West", looks at this government. Hence, it has used a tactical decoupling strategy to keep domestic politics away from foreign policy agendas. While the BJP might push its nationalist agenda at home, it has consistently maintained a largely liberal posture at international forums. This includes acts like participating in proactive multilateral initiatives and taking broad pro-migrant/pro-refugee positions at the UN (while dialling up anti-migrant rhetoric at home).
In the current context of heightened criticism, the government has drawn up a nearly Rs 1.2 billion plan to offer COVID-19 related assistance to 90 countries and revived South Asian multilateralism through a video conference. The prime minister has even participated in a NAM meeting on the pandemic, a not-so-subtle throwback to the Nehruvian way of doing foreign policy. The fact that New Delhi is using the pandemic to do some damage control is undeniable.
But the events of the past year and the reaction to them reflect the international community’s growing displeasure at domestic developments in India. This isn’t something that will go away anytime soon. Hence, India’s foreign policy establishment must clearly recognise the limits of diplomatic doublespeak and engage with the international community with transparency and tolerance.
It must realise that to this day, India’s international goodwill and the attendant soft power thrust hinge primarily on its pluralistic, secular and democratic traditions. Any pushback in this regard is bound to rock the boat on the global stage.
Angshuman Choudhury is a senior researcher and coordinator of the Southeast Asia Research Programme at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi and former GIBSA Visiting Fellow at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin. He is also the founding editor of Eleventh Column, an online magazine on politics, conflict and geopolitics.
Prannv Dhawan is a student at the National Law University of India, Bangalore, where he leads the Council for International Relations and International Law and the Law and Society Committee. He is also the founding editor of Law School Policy Review, and his research interests include majoritarianism, minority rights, affirmative action policies and constitutionalism.
Views expressed are personal.
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