The Modi Phenomenon: By Murari Sharma

Since the Indian general elections in March this year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has become a phenomenon. Indians appear to be enthralled by the political success of the former tea-seller and the international community intrigued by his phenomenal rise in a country otherwise known for sclerotic political leadership. Modi ran in the election on the agenda of investment, growth and respect for India. If his agenda is implemented, India will become a pole in a multipolar world order.

First, Modi surprised India’s smaller neighbors.  He invited all SAARC heads of government to his oath as prime minister, and they turned up at the ceremony. Afterward, Modi visited Bhutan and Nepal followed by Japan from where he has just returned home. Wherever he has visited, Modi has made a strong impression. By making Bhutan the first country to visit, he has won the hearts and minds of the people of that tiny kingdom. In Nepal, where India is often perceived as a bullying big brother, he was able to garner accolades from a broad spectrum of Nepali society.

Nest, Modi visited Japan recently and signed significant agreements on defense, nuclear power, and trade and investment sectors. Both countries, which have serious territorial disputes with China, worry about Beijing’s increasing territorial assertiveness with its neighbors. The accords reflected that concern. This is one more success of Modi in strengthening India’s ties with its friends to push his country forward. All this has happened without any diplomatic challenge so far.

However, his diplomatic skills will be tested when he welcomes the Chinese President Xi Jinping in New Delhi and he travels to the United States shortly. China is the major economic partner and the main strategic threat to India, and the two countries have territorial disputes along the long, common land border. His nationalist and pragmatist facets will compete to deal with Beijing.

If his nationalist facet wins, Modi will take a strong stand over the territorial dispute; otherwise, as a pragmatist, he will minimize such irritants and focus on strengthening bilateral economic relations. One of the daunting challenges for him will be to assure China convincingly that, during his recent visit, he has not colluded with Japan to encircle and contain it.

Modi will meet US President Barack Obama later this month, when he travels to the United States to participate in the UN general debate. US relations with him have long been fraught. America denied him a visa in 2005 citing his reluctance to prevent and control the Hindu-Muslim riots as Gujarat’s chief minister in 2002 and painted him as a Hindu fundamentalist. On his part, Modi openly criticized Washington for mistreating Devyani Khobragade, a junior Indian diplomat in New York, over a complaint by her maid.

America, and Europe, will face challenges to win him and his country under him. Though Obama sought to mend the fences by congratulating Modi warmly at his election by sending Secretary of State John Kerry to visit India, Modi might find it difficult to bury the personal insult. His feelings towards Europe are similar for the same reason. And Modi is not a pro-West intellectual, as most other Indian prime ministers of India, who would tolerate the Western heavy-handedness, including in the freedom to proselytize Hindus into Christianity, lightly.

On a broader level, India has never been close to America. During the Cold War, it was close to the Soviet Union. It does not appreciate the American support to Pakistan in the Indo-Pak conflict and American economic sanctions imposed after it tested nuclear weapon in the 1990s. US President Bush reversed the course somewhat by signing nuclear and economic cooperation agreements and putting pressure on Pakistan to control anti-Indian terror groups. However, India’ reluctance to implement the agreements and America’s arrogance in dealing with Indian officials have remained constant irritants.

In the midst of these irritants, Modi also presents a set of opportunities for America. He is pro-private sector, pro-market, pro-foreign investment, and pro-growth. He is likely to welcome American investment and expand trade and technical cooperation between the two countries more than his predecessor, Man Mohan Singh. He will also be more eager, albeit tacitly, than his predecessor to work with the United States and Asian countries to contain China, which is the crux of the American Asia policy.

In addition, America needs India’s support to stabilize Afghanistan and isolate Russia over the Ukrainian crises. Afghanistan needs a regional understanding and arrangement to stabilize and India will be a key player. America needs to isolate Moscow and impose broader sanctions supported by India, China and others to force Russia from supporting Russian-speaking rebels in Ukraine. Western sanctions have hurt but not repealed Russia. Although NATO has proposed a rapid reaction force to back its Eastern European members, there is no military solution to the conflict, as Obama has repeated umpteen times.

Modi is eager to strengthen India’s collaboration with the fellow BRICS countries — Brazil, Russia, China and South Africa. His first overseas trip was to Brazil for the sixth BRICS summit in April this year, which adopted the Agreement on the New Development Bank, the Treaty for the Establishment of a BRICS Contingent Reserve Arrangement and agreements among BRICS Development Banks and Export Credit Insurance Agencies. These measures are expected to weaken the West-dominated economic order and evolve a new order in which India will have a greater voice.

In foreign relations, Modi’s daunting challenge will be to freeze, let alone resolve, India’s long-standing conflict with Pakistan over Kashmir. The two countries have already fought three wars. Pakistan-based terror groups have attacked several places and Al-Qaida has decided to set up its branch in India. The two countries have traded barbs over the recent cross-border firing. Political protests, tacitly backed by the military, have weakened Pakistani Premier Nawaj Sharif dimming the prospects of peace.

There are equal chances that Modi will fail or succeed. His fractious party, the disruptive opposition parties, the change-averse bureaucracy, and states under the opposition’s control can sputter his agenda. A section of his party opposes his rise and private investment bias. The alliance of opposition parties will spare no opportunity to drag his feet. Indian bureaucrats would not cooperate if they think Modi is just a passing fad. Besides, without existential threat or substantial benefits, states under other parties will not collaborate with him.

A debacle at home will weaken Modi externally. India’s friends and allies will begin to downsize their expectations and wait him out, rather than seeking a compromise with him. In a vicious cycle, it will stifle his agenda and program further at home.

Alternatively, the Modi phenomenon might roll on. For it to happen, he should carry his party, which enjoys a majority in the parliament, with him and preserve the coalition he leads to stifle the opposition. Likewise, he should convince the Indian bureaucracy that he is there to stay and the states that they would benefit by cooperating with him. This will accelerate growth and revive the Indian economy that has slowed down over the couple of years.

Such growth will give Modi strength and resources to implement his ambitious agenda, to strike prudent deals abroad, to win the next election and to go down in history as Lee Kwan-Yu and Mahathir Mohammad. Consequently, India will emerge as a key player — along with the United States, Europe, Russia, China and South Africa – in a decentralized, multipolar world order.

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