Verdict 2024: A huge asset for foreign policy

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By Mahtab Ahmad


India’s electoral outcome is the best thing that could have happened to Indian foreign policy. The composition of the new National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government sends a signal of continuity to India’s friends. But there is, as Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has repeatedly emphasised in speeches over the past decade, a difference between a single-party majority government and a coalition government. The space available to the executive in some domains (for instance, deepening security and technology partnerships with the United States (US), France, and Japan) may remain the same in the context of a wider consensus on where India needs to develop its capabilities and the friends it must work with. The space available in other domains (for instance, the relatively secretive approach to China and specifics of the border issue) may shrink in the context of a more divided polity with stronger Opposition forces in Parliament demanding more public information, if not answers, on India’s principal strategic adversary.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, front right, Australia's Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, front left, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, back left, and U.S. President Joe Biden walk as they hold a Quad meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit, at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima, Japan(AP)
Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, front right, Australia’s Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, front left, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, back left, and U.S. President Joe Biden walk as they hold a Quad meeting on the sidelines of the G7 summit, at the Grand Prince Hotel in Hiroshima, Japan(AP)

Indeed, Delhi-based foreign diplomats would have, by now, sent dozens of diplomatic cables to their capitals on what the verdict means for Indian foreign policy in general and India’s respective bilateral partnerships with their countries in particular. But all of this is largely in the realm of speculation, for specific policy questions can only be assessed over time.

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What is a reality, however, is that irrespective of what foreign diplomats told their capitals about the challenges confronting Indian democracy till this point, the verdict has led to renewed international respect for the vitality, vibrancy, and robustness of democratic political competition on the ground in India.

In an open society, political forces put forth their ideas and campaigned. Indian citizens expressed their preferences in polling booths. These preferences were systematically and honestly collected and tabulated. Collectively, citizens rearranged the balance of power in Delhi, partly if not substantially. A seemingly all-powerful political hegemon faced setbacks, and a seemingly all-powerful PM was humbled. The ruling party had to make adjustments to get to the majority mark. Based on this new mandate, which was for continuity but with balance and restraint, a new government took office, all within a week of result day. There was no violence.

This process, in itself, offers at least five big advantages for India externally.

One, it offers a boost to global democracies under siege from dictatorships externally and authoritarian figures unwilling to accept election verdicts internally. The democracy versus authoritarianism frame that Joe Biden uses for contemporary geopolitical competition is too simplistic. But there is an ideological battle underway about the kind of political system that works best, and India, even if it doesn’t go about loudly proclaiming and promoting it, is in the democratic camp. In India’s neighbourhood itself, China has sought to back the most undemocratic regimes in recent years while Delhi has tilted towards democratic formations. The victory of Indian democracy is an ideological victory for the idea of democracy; it shows diverse societies, facing acute development and security challenges, can go through regular electoral churns, offer citizens a voice, witness changes in varying degrees, check executive excesses, and yet remain stable.

Two, Verdict 2024 gives India’s external friends in Western capitals, who have had to face questions about India’s “democratic backsliding” from others in their own systems, compelling evidence to show that India remains a robust, open and plural polity. Friendly officials in Washington DC, London, Paris and Brussels have had to confront lobbies that have framed any deepening of ties with India as violating their respective system’s commitment to human rights. The verdict will strengthen the hands of those committed to a stronger India partnership, and hopefully encourage those who believed that India’s domestic political developments warranted a dilution of bilateral strategic ties to rethink their positions.

Three, after a few years of facing relentlessly tough questions about what could be termed the divisive rhetoric, laws, and actions of Indian government figures and ruling party members, the verdict gives Indian diplomats a really powerful talking point about the resilience of Indian democracy and its self-correcting mechanisms. So far, diplomats on the ground had to come up with the spin that they barely believed in or engage in whataboutery — which wasn’t too difficult given the state of democracy in the West itself. But now, they can confidently point to verdict 2024, and suggest that Indian voters know best and have the freedom to express this choice.

Four, the election offers an opportunity for India to rebuild its credibility with the second generation liberal Indian diaspora as well as with Indian minorities in the diaspora. The extent of alienation of younger liberal Indians in the US and the United Kingdom from the Indian political mainstream is often underestimated. The fact that the Indian diaspora is divided today, with large segments of Sikhs, Muslims, and Christians in the diaspora communities unhappy about the nature of Indian politics hasn’t helped Indian national interest. These segments may not be thrilled at the outcome — and it is not up to them in any case to decide who governs India. But they are powerful in their own ways and the fact that they can see hope in Indian democracy offers a chance to Indian diplomats to proactively reach out to sceptical constituencies and build bridges.

And finally, the verdict may help stem the hubris that seemed to have afflicted parts of the Indian national security establishment, of which the allegations of a plot to engage in extrajudicial killings on foreign soil are the most stark example. Actions such as these complicated Indian foreign policy; less hubris and more restraint will create space for both smarter intelligence work and more effective diplomacy.

Indian democracy contributes immeasurably to Indian power externally. Recovering that advantage is the biggest foreign policy win of 2024. As PM Modi meets G7 leaders in Italy, his electoral strength may be diluted, but India’s democratic strength stands enhanced.

The views expressed are personal



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