India’s foreign diplomacy, once touted as the path to becoming a “Vishwaguru”, is now under scrutiny due to recent incidents, notably the controversy surrounding Sikh Khalistani leader Pannu and the subsequent rebuke from the US State Department. This has prompted questions about the wisdom of India’s assertive global stance under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Critics argue that the government’s exaggerated sense of global power, embodied in Modi’s “macho manner” and muscular foreign policy, is creating diplomatic challenges. The belief that Canada is an enemy and Pakistan is powerless against India’s robust diplomacy is fuelling a narrative that many citizens buy into, especially when Modi’s ministers discuss potential takeovers, as seen in the case of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The recent humiliation over the Pannu case, where the US considers India a strategic partner, adds to concerns about the brusque handling of foreign affairs. The upcoming hearing by the US Foreign Relations Committee on this matter amplifies the need for a nuanced approach in India’s global interactions.
The BJP’s electoral success in 2019 was fuelled by the perception of Modi’s invincibility and the promise that “if there’s Modi, the sky’s the limit”. Political adversaries ignore Modi’s popularity among voters at their own peril. However, experts caution against dismissing the sentiment of “India rising” under Modi, emphasising the significance of projecting self-reliance and indigenous capabilities, symbolised by Modi’s symbolic flight in the Tejas LCA. While this patriotic narrative is crucial for domestic politics, there is a call for a more measured and strategic approach to foreign relations.
Despite projecting economic and strategic power, India must avoid being perceived as a minion, both in the BRICS and the QUAD. The opposition, particularly the INDI-Alliance, faces the challenge of dispelling the impression that it is “against India”. The BJP and the media have perpetuated this narrative, blurring the lines between criticism of Modi and criticism of India. The opposition must distinguish between the two, recognising that India’s interests are paramount. As India approached key state elections on December 3, uncertainties loom regarding potential electoral surprises. Prime Minister Modi’s association with electoral victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan adds complexity to the political landscape. The opposition must address the credibility and trust that Modi has built around himself, combining pride in India, whether false or true, with the narrative equating Modi with the nation.
In the context of these elections, the role of the Muslim vote-bank and the dynamics of Hindutva pride are crucial factors. The BJP’s focus on Modi as synonymous with India, a narrative cultivated by the opposition over a decade, has become a double-edged sword. India stands at a crucial juncture where a reassessment of its foreign diplomacy is imperative. Balancing assertiveness with strategic restraint will be key to navigating global challenges. The opposition, in turn, must redefine its narrative to counter the perception of being “anti-India” and distinguish between criticism of Modi and the nation’s well-being. The December 3 election results will provide a clearer picture of India’s political landscape and the effectiveness of these strategic adjustments. As India grapples with the complexities of its foreign policy, it must embrace a more nuanced and collaborative approach on the global stage. Strengthening alliances, addressing concerns diplomatically, and showcasing India’s prowess while maintaining humility can contribute to a more balanced and effective foreign relations strategy.