When Narendra Modi was sworn in as prime minister of India in May 2014, the then Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif was a guest. But after Modi’s re-election in May 2019, Pakistan’s current Prime Minister Imran Khan was conspicuously absent from the ceremony. India may assert itself as an emerging global power, but so long as its relations with Pakistan are tense — and other domestic issues persist — it will remain only a regional power.
In February 2019, a Kashmiri extremist rammed an explosives-laden vehicle into a convoy carrying Indian paramilitary forces in Kashmir. The Indian government blamed Pakistan, even though the terrorist was Indian-born and had managed to transport explosives on a strategic road without being checked by any Indian security forces.
Pakistan denied the charges. A few days later, Indian military aircraft entered Pakistani airspace and destroyed what India claimed was a terrorist camp. India also claimed to have shot down a Pakistani fighter jet. Pakistan did bring down an Indian aircraft and returned the pilot back to India a few days later. At the end of the election campaign, India announced — quietly — that its own forces had shot down one of India’s helicopters, killing those on board.
The jingoistic mood required that India claim it had ‘won’ the encounter and that Modi had given a fitting response to ‘Pakistani terrorism’. Indian propaganda suggested that Pakistan returned the pilot to India because it was afraid of more brutal retaliation. Pakistan closed its airspace to flights going to India, affecting airlines around the world and possibly contributing to the demise of Jet Airways — the Indian carrier that stopped flying altogether soon after.
India’s relationship with other states is also precarious. Bangladesh is cooperating with India in clamping down on extremist groups that use the country as a sanctuary, yet India continues to demonise Bangladeshis who come to India as economic migrants. The number of Bangladeshis in India may run in the millions, but India is determined to send them home. In the run-up to the elections, the president of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, called immigrants ‘termites’ that had to be gotten rid of.
The BJP said that it will provide refuge to those persecuted on religious grounds, but stated clearly that Muslims from the region would not be welcome. India is in the process of sending 40,000 Muslim Rohingya refugees back to Myanmar despite persecution.
Modi would love to impress upon Indians that India’s ties with the United States are close, but President Donald Trump is unpredictable. The day after Modi’s new cabinet was sworn in, the United States removed India from its generalised system of preferences, making Indian exports to the United States more expensive. India has imposed retaliatory tariffs on some American-made products.
India faces further challenges at home, with its unemployment rate at its highest in 45 years. Jobless youth can turn to crime and India had more than its share of vigilante violence against religious minorities during Modi’s first term. That has continued into the early days of the second term. An economically stressed India where restive youth turn to lawlessness would have difficulty getting the world to take it seriously as an emerging power.
The country remains a difficult place to do business compared to many countries in Asia, despite a quarter century of economic reforms and partial liberalisation. It keeps its domestic market closed to foreign investors. One of the complaints US companies have is that its vast internet and e-commerce market has rules tweaked in favour of Indian companies. Trump’s annoyance, while self-serving, is not entirely unfounded. The mind-bogglingly complex goods and services tax has tied small businesses in procedures.
Indian business is highly leveraged, and one of the challenges for Modi is to ensure that there is no major banking crisis over the next few years. His decision to replace 86 per cent of the country’s currency with fresh notes in 2017 depressed domestic demand, impoverished many who were already poor and lost his credibility as a manager of the economy. Historically, the BJP has not been a fan of foreign investment. In the 1990s, when India pursued deregulation, the BJP’s slogan was ‘India is a country, not a market’. The BJP’s nationalism is not only religious but also economic, and that hasn’t changed.
The appointment of Subrahmanyam Jaishankar as India’s Foreign Minister may be a silver lining. Jaishankar has been a distinguished diplomat with a fine understanding of India’s foreign policy. As diplomat, he had stayed scrupulously non-partisan, and his presence can earn India some credibility internationally. But as with former foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, Jaishankar may become a glorified passport and visa officer.
India’s desire to be taken seriously as a major international player is legitimate, but both domestic and international challenges must be overcome to make that a reality. And with rising religious extremism, bigotry and increasing tensions with Pakistan, Modi is putting India on the world map for all the wrong reasons.
Salil Tripathi is a contributing editor at Mint and Caravan in India. He was a correspondent in Singapore for Asia, Inc and the Far Eastern Economic Review. An award-winning writer, he is the author of ‘The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy’, published in 2014. This commentary first appeared in AsiaGlobal Online.