How Modi 3.0 looks from South Asia : The Tribune India

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How Modi 3.0 looks from South Asia

The region will hope the PM will move towards rapprochement with Pakistan and revival of SAARC

How Modi 3.0 looks from South Asia

SHIFTING SANDS: As leaders of South Asian and Indian Ocean countries assembled to watch Narendra Modi being sworn in for a third term, they came fully aware that much had changed since he first took up office. PTI

Nirupama Subramanian

Senior Journalist

IN 2014, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi first took up office as the head of a National Democratic Alliance government in which the BJP had a majority of its own, South Asia saw promise in dealing with a strong leader in Delhi for the first time since 1989. Against the background of growing Chinese influence in the region, Modi’s invitation to the SAARC leaders, including then Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, was hailed as a grand gesture of goodwill. South Asia saw in it a sign of new beginnings.

The BJP’s willingness to throw under the bus its ‘Neighbourhood First’ diplomacy for its own majoritarian aims has not helped.

Five years later, when Modi invited another group of leaders from the neighbourhood and beyond for the inauguration of his second innings, he had already stamped India and the region with his strongman style of leadership. He was at the peak of his political power, having achieved an even bigger victory on the nationalist wave following India’s strike inside Pakistan after the Pulwama attack. And to the dismay of many smaller South Asian nations, Modi had dumped SAARC.

On Sunday, as the leaders of five South Asian nations — Pakistan and Afghanistan were not invited — and two Indian Ocean countries, Mauritius and Seychelles, assembled at the Rashtrapati Bhavan forecourt at Modi’s invitation to watch him being sworn in for a third term, they came fully aware that much had changed since he first took up office. In their own countries, China’s influence has grown deeper roots, and their polities have undergone massive churns. And this time, it was almost as if a politically weak Modi needed their presence to bolster the signals being sent out from June 4 that nothing has changed in Delhi.

They would, of course, have sized up the new arrangement for themselves, of what has changed and what remains.

But for the diverse people of a region that has seen — and seen off — its share of strongmen and who have held India’s pluralism and its secular democracy in admiration, Modi’s democratic downsizing is an inspiring moment. There was concern at the erosion of these values in India over the last 10 years and for the fallout on their own polities. They have greeted India’s 2024 verdict with relief. Especially in countries struggling with the authoritarian creep of their own leaders, it has restored faith in India’s democracy. Across South Asia, there is admiration for the Indian voter.

In Bangladesh, where five-time PM Sheikh Hasina won a fourth successive term in January in a controversial election marred by an Opposition boycott and a crackdown on dissent, Mahfuz Anam, the editor of The Daily Star, noted, somewhat wistfully, that in “Bangladesh... voters aspire for the same power”.

In Sri Lanka, voters had used the ballot to send the authoritarian Mahinda Rajapaksa packing in 2015, only to bring him and his brother Gotabaya back in 2019. After helplessly watching them preside over the country’s economic meltdown, Sri Lankans came out on the streets in 2022, and, in a dramatic show of people’s power, unseated the Rajapaksa family. But they believe their efforts to bring about real change have been thwarted by the country’s entrenched political elite, who have clawed back into positions of power after small rearrangements among themselves.

The Daily FT said the Sri Lankan people could “take heart from the election results in India, where voters have pushed back against powerful forces using the power of the ballot”. It pointed to the communal malaise in its own polity and said, “the Mahinda/Gotabaya Rajapaksa brand of politics which brought Sinhala Buddhist supremacy to the fore and demonised ethnic and religious minorities is a replica of what the Modi government has been practising in India since taking power in 2014”.

In Pakistan, where the struggle for democracy is ranged not so much against politicians as the powerful army, Modi’s seemingly unstoppable rise as a Hindu majoritarian leader was seen as mirroring Pakistan’s own descent into the Mullah-military alliance. “Tum bilkul hum jaise nikley,” a line from Pakistani poet Fahmida Riaz’s eponymous poem, was often used to describe India’s embrace of Hindutva in the last 10 years.

In a country still smouldering from the two-year-long internecine competition among political elites for the army’s patronage and an election in February that resolved none of its problems, there is now surprise, if not admiration, that India’s democracy is in the safe hands of its voters. Writing in Dawn, columnist Mahir Ali noted that “Indian voters have now indicated that they resent [the religious fundamentalism] formula in the Hindu context, particularly when it fails to deliver the promised levels of employment and levelling up.”

Nepal has had its own concerns about Hindutva, on aggressive display along its border in the states of Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. Columnist Namrata Sharma, writing before the election in Rising Nepal, observed the ‘unease’ in the former Hindu kingdom at how a third-term BJP government in Delhi might impact Nepal’s own hard-won secular republic with a Constitution that took several years to frame. She also flagged the presence of RSS leaders from India at protest demonstrations for a return to a Hindu monarchy.

After the Mohamed Muizzu government came to power in the Maldives against a background of resentment against New Delhi and ‘India Out’ protests, it has been hard for Indians to understand how a small country can stand up to the region’s biggest country, that too, a generous one. But even Muizzu’s openly Delhi-friendly predecessor, Ibrahim Solih, struggled to explain to voters in this Islamic republic the bigoted shenanigans of a hate-mongering functionary of India’s ruling party or the commandeering of locals by the Indian Embassy in Male for a yoga day event.

At a time when India is trying to push back on China’s large footprint in these countries and in countries such as Seychelles and Mauritius in the wider Indian Ocean region, the BJP’s willingness to throw under the bus its ‘Neighbourhood First’ diplomacy for its electoral gains has not helped. The blockading of Nepal just before the Bihar election of 2016, Amit Shah’s description of Bangladeshi migrants as ‘termites’ in 2018, the PM’s ‘bheekh ka katora’ jibes at Pakistan’s economic woes and the gratuitous raking up of India’s Katchatheevu agreement in this poll campaign speak of a reckless disregard in the top BJP leadership for how India is perceived by the people of the neighbourhood.

Why has Shehbaz Sharif not congratulated Modi yet, some Indians ask, in response to why Modi left out the Pakistan Prime Minister for his inauguration. After Modi’s taunts, Sharif would be risking the little credibility he has left from his tainted election victory to risk any outreach to the new government. India will need to make the first public move, but can a weak Modi do what a strong Modi could not, after singed hands in 2015?

Still, South Asia will hope that Modi 3.0 will move towards a rapprochement with Pakistan and a revival of SAARC. After all, it was an NDA coalition government that made the big peace move in 1998 and 2003, which was taken forward by another coalition, this time the UPA, in 2004. South Asia will also hope that Modi 3.0 finds it less easy to denigrate neighbours, or use his social media clout to boss over them, or swing secret deals with their unpopular leaders for Delhi’s favourite businessmen. It will hope for an Indian foreign policy that understands the people of the neighbourhood and their aspirations better.

#BJP #Narendra Modi #Pakistan

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