Two important recent events – Narendra Modi’s landslide victory in India last week and the massive energy and trade agreement which Russia and China signed in Beijing on Wednesday – have the potential to alter Asia’s strategic landscape.
Modi is an assertive politician unafraid to take risks, a market-oriented reformer, but also a Hindu nationalist. When asked recently about his approach to foreign affairs, he replied “I believe in Hindutva ... And I am confident my Hindutva face will be an asset when dealing with foreign affairs with other nations.” In other words, he will try to increase the country’s international visibility. Already on my visit to India six years ago, several analysts and academics unsympathetic to the Congress government expressed hope that Gujarat’s then-Chief Minister would one day lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instead of its ageing founder Lal Krishna Advani. As they had expected, Advani led the BJP to a defeat at the 2009 general election, but it was not until last September that Modi was finally selected as the party’s prime ministerial candidate.
The most controversial episode in Modi’s political career concerns anti-Muslim violence which swept Gujarat at the end of February 2002, after a fire – allegedly started by Muslim arsonists – destroyed a train packed with Hindu pilgrims, killing 58 of them. The Modi government imposed a curfew in major cities and issued shoot-at-sight orders, but some human rights groups and sections of the media accused him of taking inadequate action against the riots, or even sympathizing with them.
This episode resulted in the U.S. government denying him a visa in 2005 under a section the Immigration and Nationality Act which makes foreign government officials ineligible if they are responsible for “particularly severe violations of religious freedom.” Even after India’s Supreme Court found no such evidence against Modi, the U.S. did not lift the ban. The campaign “to get Modi” was particularly virulent during Hillary Clinton’s tenure at the State, ostensibly for the 2002 riots, but in reality “for taking stands that may be different from that favored by the U.S. administration.” As an Indian commentator noted on the day of the election, since the Obama Administration still has not expressed regret for its revocation of his visa, “Modi is unlikely to go out of his way to befriend the U.S. by seeking a White House visit. Instead, he is expected to wait for US officials to come calling.”
America’s relations with India can and should improve, and for all its many sins the administration of George W. Bush cultivated and improved them during his second term. First of all, in the context of the “Pivot to Asia” Washington should give up on the notion of using India as a southern prop of the U.S.-led geopolitical ring around China. There are potential common U.S.-Indian interests in balancing China’s growing might, but India under Modi’s leadership will base its foreign policy on the old-fashioned premises of national interests, and not on the notions of “shared values” and “joint responsibilities.”
While Modi will not continue the “feeble” foreign policy of his predecessors, economic development and civil service reforms are his priorities. My contacts expect that his foreign agenda will include maintaining good relations with Iran, building stronger ties with Japan, and advancing a more resolute demand for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council for the world’s second most populous nation; yet “the toughest job he faces is to force the Indian Foreign Service mandarins to start thinking strategically.”
On the whole China has been doing a better job of translating its growing economic power into political and diplomatic influence. India’s long-term strategy will require a more effective balancing act vis-à-vis China to the north and Pakistan to the West. India’s traditionally close relationship with Russia – the country’s major arms supplier – is particularly important now that Moscow and Beijing are forging what is de facto strategic partnership.
A word from Putin to Chinese President Xi Jinping on the desirability of seeking a new era of détente between Asia’s two giants could do a lot to defuse latent tensions on the Subcontinent. In Narendra Modi the nationalist, the Chinese may yet find a bolder and more imaginative partner for serious talks on the perennial border problem and other issues than in the ineffective and weak outgoing government.