Pursuing India’s Multi-Aligned Foreign Policy in a Multipolar World: Time for a Sister Souljah Moment?

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

India’s minister for external affairs Dr. S. Jaishankar forcefully summarized India’s foreign policy at a security conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, earlier this month.

Those remarks have been superseded by a firestorm of controversy throughout the Islamic world, accompanied by domestic Indian protests. These were triggered by offensive remarks made about The Prophet by the national spokesperson for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party, Nupur Sharma, during a televised debate. Naveen Kumar, the BJP’s chief of its Delhi media unit, also tweeted further incendiary remarks.

The fallout from this issue threatens to deflect – although will likely not derail outright – the multi-alignment foreign policy course set by Jaishankar. Separately, the United States has issued another report condemning India’s record on religious freedom – and threatening further possible repercussions.

Interested readers might want to revisit three earlier posts, to establish context for Jaishankar’s remarks. In the first, I set out how India’s policy was outlined in 2020 by a book Jaishankar authored – long before Russian troops moved into Ukraine and India responded with a neutral policy (see India: Pursuing its National Interest in the Multipolar World).. In the second, I discuss India’s response to criticisms of its human rights record during meetings in Washington arranged in part to chew over India’s failure to impose economic sanctions against Russia  (see External Affairs Minister Jaishankar: India Has Concerns About U.S. Human Rights Record). In the third, I discuss Jaishankar’s criticism during a conference in Delhi of the selective concern for rules-based order Ukraine Western diplomats showed, after failing to muster  similar concern in the last decade over pressing foreign policy issues in Asia (see Jaishankar Calls Out Europe’s Selective Concern on Rules-Based Order).

For those who lack the time for such a review, the present post is intended to be a stand-alone post.

India continues to chart an independent policy of multi-alignment in its foreign policy, in spite of pressure from Western diplomats to adopt economic sanctions against Russia.  In his Bratislava remarks, Jaishankar picked up on familiar themes.

First, he rejected outright the premise that India should bow to Western pressure and curtail its economic relations with Moscow, else it might face the prospect of a lack of Western support if Indian relations with China further deteriorate to open hostilities at some time in the future. Permit me to quote extensively from The Wire’s report on Jaishankar’s Bratislava remarks, ‘Europe Has to Grow Out of Mindset That Its Problems Are World’s Problems’: Jaishankar.

India has a difficult relationship with China but it is perfectly capable of managing it, external affairs minister S. Jaishankar said on Friday, rejecting the European construct that New Delhi’s position on Ukraine could impact global support to it if its problems with Beijing increases.

In an interactive session at a conference in the Slovakian capital Bratislava, Jaishankar also said that the “Chinese do not need a precedent somewhere else on how to engage us or not engage us or be difficult with us or not be difficult with us.”

….

The strong comments by Jaishankar came amid persistent efforts by the European countries to convince India to take a tough position on the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the argument that New Delhi may face a similar challenge from China in the future.

“In terms of the connection you are making, we have a difficult relationship with China and we are perfectly capable of managing it. If I get global understanding and support, obviously it is of help to me,” Jaishankar said.

“But this idea that I do a transaction – I come in one conflict because it will help me in conflict two. That’s not how the world works. A lot of our problems in China have nothing to do with Ukraine and have nothing to do with Russia. They are predated,” he said.

Jaishankar was asked why he thinks anyone will help New Delhi in case of a problem with China after it did not help others for Ukraine.

In respnse to that query, Jaishnkar chided European diplomats for continuing to view the current state of the world through an exclusively European-focused lens. Per The Wire:

“Somewhere Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problems but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems. That if it is you, it’s yours, if it is me it is ours. I see reflections of that,” he said.

“There is a linkage today which is being made. A linkage between China and India and what’s happening in Ukraine. China and India happened way before anything happened in Ukraine. The Chinese do not need a precedent somewhere else on how to engage us or not engage us or be difficult with us or not be difficult with us,” he said.

“If I were to take Europe collectively which has been singularly silent on many things which were happening, for example in Asia, you could ask why would anybody in Asia trust Europe on anything at all,” he said.

Indian Foreign Policy Sideswiped by Furore Over anti-Prophet Comments by BJP Officials

Clear, concise, consistent: the erudite Jaishankar enjoyed a long career as a senior Indian diplomat, including stints in China, European capitals, and the U.S.. Some of these gigs – China, the U.S., saw him serve as his country’s  ambassador. He’s now well-positioned India to pursue its greater interests in the emerging multipolar world.

My recent writings have focused on the Modi government’s foreign policy, and I have barely addressed the Hindutva cast of its domestic policy. In fact, the Modi government has tried to pursue a two-siloed policy, of aggressive pro-Hindu policies domestically, while attempting to maintain and extend relations with many Muslim-majority countries, especially in the Gulf. Not only does India rely on mid-Eastern countries for oil and natural gas supplies, but it sends legions of its nationals abroad as guest workers, who largely labor in the construction, hospitality, and tourism sectors.

For nine days, the communications made by Sharma and Kumar at first attracted no official BJP response. That’s not altogether surprising because in form – if perhaps not in degree – they were part and parcel of Modi ’s policy of maintaining separate silos for foreign and domestic affairs. More on that theme in a moment. Only after the comments went viral – sparking calls for boycotts of Indian goods and services in Kuwait and Qatar, and leading to condemnation of the remarks by at least twenty countries and bodies –  was any action taken against Sharma, who was then suspended from her position. Kumar ’s punishment was more severe. He was expelled from the BJP (see The Wire, The Full List of 20 Countries and Bodies That Have Condemned the BJP Leaders’ Remarks). Several of these countries summoned their respective Indian ambassadors and subjected them to official dressing downs.

Separate Silos for BJP Foreign and Domestic Policy

Prior to these events, BJP policy has been to try and run India’s foreign and domestic policies out of separate silos. That’s becoming increasingly difficult, now that Jaishankar has charted a foreign policy of multi-alignment  Writing in The Wire in After Outrage in the Islamic World, the Modi Government Could Be at Point of No Return, former Indian ambassador to the United Arab Emorates (UAE) and Iran, and retired as secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, K.C. Singh wrote about how BJP officials fanned the flames of Hindu extremism domestically while seeking to limit any negative impact on India’s foreign relations:

But all this while, the BJP spokespersons in television studios nightly kept up their Muslim-baiting to polarise voters before the vital upcoming state elections, especially in the prime minister’s own state, Gujarat. Most television channels, chasing higher viewership ratings and the government’s goodwill, devised guest panels and issues for maximum confrontation and verbal duels.

For years, this writer had warned that domestic and foreign policies could not be relegated to separate silos. But four years of former US president Donald Trump, who jettisoned climate change and liberal democracy as issues traditionally relevant to US diplomacy, encouraged the Indian government to believe that diplomacy was unaffected by BJP’s Hindutva project. The pace was accelerated after the 2019 re-election of Narendra Modi to move India from constitutionalism and liberal democracy, as envisioned by India’s founding fathers, to majoritarianism and a reconstructive Hindu Rashtra.

Such siloing no longer seems possible, especially as the United States continues to oppose Jaishanker’s attempt to follow a multi-alignment foreign policy. Singh noted in The Wire:

…Joe Biden’s victory, after Modi’s unwise, subtle endorsement of Trump, raised concerns that the state of domestic play in India may invite US attention. Jaishankar’s unwise snubbing of Pramila Jayapal, an Indian-origin Democrat member of the US Congress during the Trump presidency, was also a cause for concern. But China, climate change and now Ukraine have made the US  harbour doubts about the Modi government’s commitment to liberal democracy.

As I wrote in my post cited above, Jaishankar tried to deflect release of a negative state department human rights report during his Washington visit with quips about the human rights record of the United States (see External Affairs Minister Jaishankar: India Has Concerns About U.S. Human Rights Record). Excellent point, but not one usually made by a ‘friendly’ diplomat. (I note that Jaishankar certainly understands that nations don’t have friends, only interests.)

The main goal of that visit for India was to reiterate its decision not to fall in line behind the West’s policy on Russian economic sanctions.

Earlier this month, the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom released its 2022 annual report the state of global religious freedom  (USCIRF). which singled out India for especial criticism.  Retired career Indian diplomat Dr. M.K. Bhadrakumar, posted on his blog, Indian Punchline, USCIRF report is a writing on the wall:

In particular, the report recommends that India be designated as a Country of Particular Concern,  a country that engages in “particularly severe” violations of religious freedoms and on which sanctions be imposed on individuals and entities responsible by freezing their assets and barring their entry into the US. It calls on the USG to promote human rights of all religious minorities in India; raise this issue through bilateral & multilateral forums “such as the ministerial of the Quadrilateral,” and take it up in the bilateral relationship as well as highlight the US’ concerns through Congress. [Emphasis added by Bhadakurmar]

The report is direct, explicit and forceful in targeting the Modi Govt and the BJP — “The BJP-led government, leaders at the national, state and local levels, and increasingly emboldened Hindu-nationalist groups have advocated, instituted and enforced sectarian policies seeking to establish India as an overtly Hindu state, contrary to India’s secular foundation and at grave danger to India’s religious minorities.”It leaves no scope for misinterpretations.

To rub salt into the wound, while releasing the document in Washington on June 2, Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an acerbic remark that “For example, in India, the world’s largest democracy and home to a great diversity of faiths, we’ve seen rising attacks on people and places of worship.”

Bhadrakumar notes that India was especially  singled out for the deterioration of religious freedom in 2021, even though other countries perhaps had far worse records on this score:

On closer look, however, it transpires that in comparison with all othercountries that have been mentioned as “countries of particular concern” by the USCIRF, it is only India where conditions are deemed to have “significantly worsened” during 2021 —curiously, alongside Taliban-run Afghanistan and the military dictatorship in Myanmar.

He attributes this spotlighting of India to benign U.S. concerns:

The point is, India’s democratic backsliding is as much on the US radar today as the human rights issues. Furthermore, in what can be called other “technocratic issues” — such as the UN forums, G-20, data localisation rules, cyber issues, climate change, and so on — Indian stance happens to be more in harmony with China’s or Russia’s than with the US.

Succinctly put, India is paying a price for its pretensions to have a “value-based relationship” with the US and to be sharing a commonality of interests with regard to the “rules-based order.” You can’t have the cake and eat it, too! The US has every right to hold the bar high for India in comparison with, say, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia or Russia and China. And on its part, India ought to have every obligation to clear that bar of democracy. At least, India must make a genuine effort.

Yes, all true of course, but I assert  the main reason the U.S. is  now focusing on India’s human rights and religious freedom transgressions is due to the Biden administration’s continued consternation over India’s failure to toe the U.S. line on Russia sanctions.

The Question for Modi et al. : What is to Be Done?

I close by again quoting Jaishankar’s: Europe’s problems aren’t India’s problems. Yet the institutional configuration of Indian foreign policy still skews heavily towards Europe and the U.S. In a different Indian Punchline blog post, An appalling slur on the civilisation state that is India, Bhadrakumar outlines necessary next steps:

… First and foremost, this moment must be taken seriously as a wake-up call as regards the dangers of the BJP nurturing bigotry for reasons of political expediency. Second, India’s unique status as a country with one of the largest Muslim populations in the world (and yet its exclusion from the [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation] ) poses severe challenges to Indian diplomacy.

Our approach is insufficient and archaic — and episodic. Such excessive attention to Europe and America in South Block’s diplomacy is not only unwarranted but also risks neglect of India’s “near abroad” where India has vital interests. Surely, there must be some way India can take advantage of the Saudi and Iranian goodwill? Emulate Chinese and Russian diplomacy.

In other words, a policy of multi-alignment mandates that India needs  look beyond Europe and the United States to step up its diplomatic campaign to the emerging centers of power in the multipolar world.

The Modi government seems to recognize the seriousness of the diplomatic situation.  He’s announced a visit to the UAE as part of his itinerary for attending the G7 summitin Germany at the end of this month, according to Telangana Today, PM Modi to travel to UAE to pacify in Nupur Sharma controversy   Mere face time may not be sufficient, however. Stepped up diplomacy, particularly with an eye to looming global food shortages, might be on the cards. So far, India has suspended wheat and sugar exports, but to date, continues to export rice.

Today, the Indian Express ran an article in which BJP sources critiqued Sharma and Kumar’s comments as going too far – which only the most extreme Hindutva partisans would publicly deny, given the international uproar they’ve provoked and the domestic protests that have burgeoned (see A new red line: What Nupur Sharma moment means for the BJP). The paper followed with a story reporting on what might be construed as a gag policy on the Sharma contretemps (Nupur Sharma fallout: BJP spokespersons, leaders in states asked to steer clear of rows)

So far, not a peep out of Modi himself.

Is it perhaps time for a Sister Souljah – so named for when Bill Clinton dissed the entertainer Sister Souljah during the 1992 presidential campaign?

My Indian contacts would say it’s impossible for Modi to borrow from this playbook.

Is it? Does Modi have it in him?

Isn’t the point of a Sister Souljah moment for a politician to go where his most committed supporters never envisioned s/he would venture?

No one imagined, for example, that  Nixon would go to China, either.

One final thought: Perhaps this isn’t a good time for those in charge to be razing homes belonging to protestors, as The Wire reported officials have so ordered in Uttar Pradesh (‘Rule of Law Lost in Rubble’: Protests, Disbelief After UP Authorities Raze Afreen Fatima’s House). Merely tamping down rhetoric  and scheduling additional foreign visits by themselves may not quell tensions.

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