The Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascent to power has received extraordinary global attention. But neither the reasons for the attention nor the reasons of his victory predict what he is likely or capable to do in the days ahead.
Several factors contributed to this global attention. Partly, America had denied him a visa and other western countries demonized him for his role, or lack of it, in the Gujarat riots in 2002 when he was chief minister there. Partly, it is the first time since 1984 when a single party has secured a clear majority in the parliament. Partly, he is Hindu nationalist, a former tea seller, a married and yet celibate man, a pro-business guy, and someone who has risen to national prominence straight from his state. Partly, India is a major regional player. And partly, his main rival, the Congress Party, was routed as never before.
Modi’s trip from his two constituencies to the prime minister’s office was also spectacularly media material. He visited his mother in his village to get her blessings. He invited all South Asian heads of government to his swearing-in ceremony where people from all walks of life in India, including some of his co-tea sellers, and held the function in an open place. His 45-strong cabinet is one of the smallest in Indian history. He lumped related ministries together and even gave charge of more than one big ministry to some of his trusted colleagues.
We know why Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party won the election: Corruption and mismanagement under the Congress government, slowdown in economic growth, weak leadership of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, Modi’s 10 percent growth performance in Gujarat, Hindu backlash against secular parties, growing disenchantment with regional parties, and his well-funded and efficient campaign.
Now the question is: Where will he go from here? In the domestic front, he campaigned on the platform of a clean, efficient, pro-business government, relief to the poor and disadvantaged, removal of obstacles to investment, liberalization of the Indian economy, and accelerated growth, among others. Certainly, he will try to implement his election promises, but that would not be easy. First, his party does not have a majority in the upper house of parliament, so he will face obstacles in getting necessary laws enacted. Second, his party does not run most states. Third, the strong and change-averse Indian bureaucracy, patronized by the Congress Party for most of the post-independence period, will not make his sail smooth. Fourth, if he cannot push the growth rate up, he will not have enough resources to implement several of his election promises.
In the foreign policy front too, he will face formidable challenges. Although US President Barack Obama invited him to the White House as a signal to put the unpleasant past behind and although he is a pragmatic person, his relations with Washington will at best be professional and friendly but not warm. A personal insult will be difficult for him to forget. European countries have not been kind to him either, and it will in some way reflect on his reaching out to them. One thing is sure. He will welcome western investment, but he will not be loyal to the West as his predecessors. His pick of foreign minister also demonstrates it. Russia might get more importance under him than under his predecessor due to his discomfort with America and Europe. He seems comfortable working with Japan, but China may frown him for too much closeness with Tokyo. Dealing with China will be a challenge for Modi not only because it has occupied some land that India claims as its and supports its immediate rival Pakistan, but also because China is a strategic and economic regional competitor of sorts.
Modi’s reputation with Islamic nations in general is not positive due to his role in the Gujarat riots and his pro-Hindu background and political plank. Though Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif showed up in Modi’s swearing in as a friendly gesture, the all-powerful Pakistani military and terrorists will not let him put Kashmir on the back-burner and will not give him freedom to work with India as he saw fit. Last time, they put the spanner into the works with the Kargil incursion and removed Sharif from power when he resumed dialogue and started bus service between the two countries with his Indian counterpart Atal Behari Vajpayee from Modi’s party. That danger continues to lurk for Sharif if he tried to do anything that will improve relations with India and strengthen his position in Pakistan.
Neither will India’s relations dramatically improve with other immediate neighbors under Modi. Indonesia and Malaysia have not been enthused towards Modi because of his anti-Muslim reputation. India will be at odd with the military junta in Thailand. Indo-Chinese contest for resources and friendship of Burma will continue. Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina has been closer to the Nehru-Gandhi family and the Congress Party due to Indira Gandhi’s help in the country’s liberation in 1971, and Modi will not appreciate the growing anti-Hindu activities there. Modi will not take kindly Bhutan’s growing closeness with China. Afghanistan will get more robust attention from Modi because the United States military is leaving and Pakistan will try to fill the vacuum. Sri Lanka might get a breather because he invited to his swearing-in President Rajapaksha despite Tamil leader Jayalalitha’s strong opposition.
Nepal will probably have the most impact of Modi’s victory for several reasons. It is entirely dependent on India for transit, like Bhutan, but is more independent than Bhutan in its foreign policy and security policy, which gives room for considerable friction. Even the mild-mannered IK Gujral was angry at Nepal when it imported some military equipment from China. As a Hindu nationalist, Modi will try to persuade Nepali leaders to retain the primacy of Hinduism in Nepal, if not insist on declaring Nepal a Hindu state again, something that has been clear from the concerns expressed by the BJP Vice President Bhagat Singh Koshyari’s recent visit to Nepal about conversion to other faiths. Other than that, he might not be too much interested in Nepal for the simple reason that junior bureaucrats in the Ministry of External Affairs make and implement most of India’s Nepal policy.
So the question is not what Modi will do for or to Nepal, but what Nepali leaders can get from Modi by winning his personal interest and his government’s sympathy. Based on media reports, the starting has not been encouraging. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala could not make his presence felt during Modi’s oath and afterwards in New Delhi. Besides, rather than talking about the aspirations of the Nepali people — such as democracy, interdependence, development, basis for economic cooperation and investment, etc. – to set a broad policy framework between the two countries, he talked about the nitty-gritty: Specific issues, projects and policies, which should have been left for ministers and senior officials, as the late King Birendra used to say and as other world leaders often do.
Koirala will have the opportunity to make up for the lost opportunity in New Delhi to some extent when Modi comes to Kathmandu for the summit of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation later this year. He should try and focus on a broad framework for Nepal-India coexistence and cooperation and leave specific policies, projects, scholarship and medical treatment for his supporters and relatives to his subordinates. By doing that, he will be able to win greater respect from Modi and his government, stay out of irritating details, and be able to resolve any outstanding issues between the two countries at the highest level with the advantage of not being directly involved in creating and sustaining them.
Therefore, as such, there is no reason for Nepal to be specifically happy or unhappy about Modi’s victory and government. If the Indian economy picks up momentum under him, that will be a reason to celebrate, because it will also benefit Nepal. If he increases development assistance and trade concessions to Nepal, that will be welcome. If he does not interfere too much in Nepal’s internal affairs, that will be positive. But all this will depend on the Nepali leaders’ skill and ability to win his personal interest and confidence. If our leaders are smart enough to do it, there will be every reason for Nepal to be happy about Modi’s victory. If our leaders bungle with him, Nepal may end up shedding prolific tears as well. As they say, beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder.