Indian prime minister Modi failed miserably in neighborhood creadibility
Nepalis are burning the Indian flag and effigies of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. These blots on India’s image cannot be erased by Modi’s speeches in Washington, New York and San Jose, lobbying for a permanent seat in the United Nations Security Council or even by hosting the upcoming India-Africa Summit on a grand scale to dazzle the dark continent. Modi today stands thoroughly exposed for shirking his sacred duty of guarding the nation’s honor. Instead of dousing the fire in his backyard, he was shaking hands with US President Barrack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Francois Hollande and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg — exercises as meaningless as skiing in the Alps or rafting down the Gangotri when you should be in fire-fighting mode.
Modi is personally responsible for India’s huge loss of face in Nepal as he directly handled Nepal elbowing out the foreign minister and foreign secretary. It’s the only country, besides the US, Modi has visited twice as prime minister. After gifting Katmandu’s Pashupatinath Temple 2,500 kg of sandalwood worth Rs20 million during his first visit, Modi thought that he had Nepal eating out of his hand. Firstly Modi tried to influence Nepali politicians by helping them draft a new constitution that declared Nepal a Hindu state. He also hoped to cajole Nepal’s original inhabitants living in the hills, many of them Buddhists, into granting equal constitutional rights to Madhesis, who are predominantly Hindu settlers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in Nepal’s southern plains and whose cause India espouses much like the Tamils in Sri Lanka.
The Indian prime minister failed miserably on both fronts. The new constitution defined Nepal as a secular republic and guaranteed certain privileges for the hills people who are citizens by “descent” compared to Madhesis who have acquired citizenship either by “birth” or “naturalization” and therefore barred from holding high constitutional posts or heading security organizations. While countries like China and Pakistan congratulated Nepal on its Constitution, India merely took “note” of its promulgation to convey its displeasure. Moreover, it clamped an economic blockade starving Nepal of fuel, medicines and food even as Madhesis, who India was batting for, killed 10 policemen during protests which left over 40 dead. But Katmandu refused to buckle down. It blocked 42 Indian television channels, banned Hindi films, accused India of arming Madhesis and turned to China for essential supplies. India’s Foreign Office issued as many as five statements attacking the constitution and stridently advocating talks with Madhesis. But Nepal leaders shrugged it off and elected Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli, a staunch secularist known for being pro-China and anti-India besides being uncompromising on the Madhesi issue, as the new prime minister. Oli, interestingly, was ensconced with Wu Chuntai, China’s ambassador to Nepal, when Modi telephoned to congratulate and invite him to India. It’s now left to be seen which capital — New Delhi or Beijing — Oli visits first.
Today Modi cuts a rather sorry figure in India’s immediate neighborhood which appeared to be the core of his foreign policy. His coercive approach has backfired badly denting India’s image in its so-called zone of influence. Relations with Nepal and Pakistan have hit rock bottom. While ties with Sri Lanka seem to be stabilizing, Bangladesh is trying hard to conceal its unhappiness over unfulfilled promises even as educated Bhutanese resent their leaders’ subservience to India and demand establishment of diplomatic relations with China in Bhutan’s national interest. Modi seems to have got it all wrong in Maldives too.
In March he called off his trip to Male after pro-Indian former President Mohammad Nasheed was thrown into prison on terrorism charges. India tried to browbeat Maldives but the pressure tactics only cemented the Indian Ocean archipelago’s ties with China. Realizing his mistake, Modi last week dispatched Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj to soothe President Abdullah Yameen’s ruffled feathers. But Yameen is clearly in no mood to kiss and make up. After holding talks with Swaraj, Yameen’s office issued a statement putting on record that the President told her he would not tolerate “foreign interference in domestic issues” of Maldives. The snub however found no mention in the Indian External Affair Ministry’s press release on the meeting.
New Delhi later tried to explain that Yameen’s message was for a larger audience and not just India. But Modi’s aggression is boomeranging even in the most unlikely places. Nobel Peace Prize winner, Aung San Kyi, whose National League for Democracy in a major contender for power in Myanmar, which shares a 1624 km long border with India, says that India’s cross-border June raid in hot pursuit of Naga rebels lacked “transparency,” creating “suspicions that erode the very foundations of friendship.”