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India needs to be more liberal and internationalist, and worry less about what the US president thinks of it

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta | Updated: June 23, 2017 5:41 am
donald trump, narendra modi, india us relations, modi in us, trump presidency, hindutva It is not entirely a coincidence that as Trump has given short shrift to liberal values, the sense has grown in this regime that more assertive Hindutva will not have any reputational costs for India. (File Photo)

There has been no shortage of advice given to Narendra Modi about how he should approach Donald Trump. There is a touch of presumption in such advice, particularly because it is difficult to predict how the mercurial Trump will approach India. But the general tenor of the advice has been that India should be modest and transactional. It should avoid raising global issues that will annoy Trump and are incompatible with his worldview. Instead, we should be looking for modest deals under the radar, quietly advance some defence and business interests, and leave it at that. There might be a touch of helpful prudence in this advice. But there is also the suspicion that much of this advice comes from sections that have internalised a single-minded yardstick of Indian success in international relations: How does India do with an American President?

The Trump presidency should be a wake-up call on two things. India cannot give up its strategic autonomy. No one denies the importance of a deep and broad relationship with the United States. But the idea that tailoring our expectations to ingratiate ourselves to the US will solve most of our pressing strategic challenges is a pipe dream. While it is important to stress bilateral issues, the fact of the matter is that India will not be served well if the world generally becomes a more precarious place. Modi has unprecedented popular legitimacy and prides himself on his candour. It would be a shame if he did not at least communicate, without being confrontational, what should be India’s grave concerns about the emerging world order. Statesman have to be realistic. Mere sermonising will not do. But any statesman who loses the larger plot of history for small transactional gains will not do his country a service.

In one respect, Modi has already taken his gaze off that wider sweep of history. The unstated story of the Trump effect on India is the one no one is talking about. With the sheen wearing off American democracy, its reputation for openness diminishing, India had, in its own way, a chance to project itself as a potential normative exemplar. Instead, we have done the opposite. When Modi came to power, he was caught between two normative impulses. On the one hand, he had his Hindutva base. On the other he aspired to being accepted, perhaps even to lead, a community of peers on the global stage; and his outreach was fantastic. But till the Obama presidency, part of Modi’s global authority depended upon not acquiring a reputation for growing intolerance. It is much easier for India to project authority when its own foundations are liberal and secure.

The Trump presidency has altered that global norm. Liberal values, always a hypocritical currency in global affairs, can now simply be damned. It is not entirely a coincidence that as Trump has given short shrift to liberal values, the sense has grown in this regime that more assertive Hindutva will not have any reputational costs for India. We won’t get the sermons on diversity and tolerance that we got from Obama.

What India has done is to use the normative vacuum created by Trump, to advance an aggressive Hindutva agenda even more vigorously because this now has no reputational or peer displeasure attached to it. India should not get ahead of itself; its democracy has flaws. But being an exemplar of the free world is a far more befitting and ennobling ambition than using this vacuum in international affairs to damage our reputation for liberal constitutionalism with impunity. Rather than take a lead, we are following Trump’s example in frittering away our biggest strength. Modi’s handshake with Trump would be so much more a show of power if it had the imprimatur of liberal values than simply a deal for Lockheed Martin behind it.

Trump has constructed a mythology that America is now more transactional and isolationist. But neither is, strictly speaking, true. If transactional simply means business deals can trump norms, America has often been transactional. But Trump is not isolationist. The global order is more precarious, because American ad hoc interventionism is now likely to be more extensive. Trump’s forays into West Asia signal some things very clearly: The United States is not going to leave that region alone, it will continue to actively meddle, take partisan sides and will most likely create the conditions for more turmoil. The GCC, which had been insulated from the wider turmoil of the region, now risks being drawn in; America’s Syria policy seems less about ISIS and more about showing the Russians they cannot have their way; America is backsliding on its rapprochement with Iran, a key element to any hope for preventing more conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

While the immediate rhetoric from Washington is on Russia, the enduring axis of conflict and competition will remain China. Trump’s characteristically ambiguous tweet thanking China for “trying” to help in North Korea is a signal that the North Korea card will buy China goodwill only up to a point. China has also upped the stakes by pursuing a more aggressive global agenda. Trump will pivot back to the China threat sooner or later. But the global system now risks being pushed into a corner where neither China nor the US will find it easy to compromise.

Throw in two more elements arising out of domestic politics in America, and the world system is looking riskier. Trump does not have much pushback from the Republicans. His own political survival will also require keeping the spectre of global conflict alive even more than has been the case with past presidents. The American military industrial complex is about to get even more active and interventionist, not isolationist. While India can sense some strategic opportunities in these tensions, surely it behoves it to say very candidly, that the US is playing with fire in stoking more conflict. These conflicts are not ours; but it is in our interests to throw cold water on them. On a range of other issues that we have been told to avoid, from climate change to multilateralism, India has a strong hand; it should play them with any eye to posterity.

Modi likes to be a cool prime minister. History will remember him more kindly if India performed the function of a cool and cooling power in the international system. We need to be more liberal, less transactional and more internationalist. Worry about history, not about getting the approval of Trump.

The writer is president, CPR Delhi and contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'

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    Abraham Joseph
    Jul 15, 2017 at 10:05 pm
    ( cntd from previous post) World badly needs a different philosophy of life, to deal with own self and others. Self-interest theory, that even our India's own holy book Gita supports in a strange way, (even if who stands before you in the battle field is your own blood, kill him, as now he stands there as your enemy)needs a thorough rethought! Love to share with all, a different outlook, at link: : communicationonnewworldorder. /2015/12/an-open-letter-to-every-man-of-mind-in A philosophy of life different from RIGHT LEFT is at Link: : newphilosophyoflife. /2010/11/vacuum-in-world-for-new-philosophy-of
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      Abraham Joseph
      Jul 15, 2017 at 9:53 pm
      From a person like Bhanu Pratap Mehta, readers expect more not such typical journalistic piece! International relations can not be seen different from interpersonal relations, that is between individuals in society, one of the darkest area of life and existence. Rousseau had no doubt, that countries are but 'individuals' in their ambitions, behavior, and fate.Human relationship has a close relationship with the very meaning of human existence. Adam Smith had speculated, that it is fundamentally based on, and controlled by 'self-interest' property of man. But the world now stands totally exposed to the FAILURE of this assessment her Capitalistic experiments stands failed world is crying aloud to be less globalist, less of such progress, but mind more for 'own' and own Nation's interests. People forgot that it was the same 'self-interest'of the industrialists that created this situation, that they now dissent. The same model adopted to a local setting also will not be different.
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        Bert Brech
        Jun 24, 2017 at 1:44 am
        The Nehruites have been in control of India for 6 out of 7 decades of independent India. Where did they get the country? End of debate.
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          Bert Brech
          Jun 24, 2017 at 1:42 am
          Firm rule for Modi: Ignore Prakash Bhanu Mehta and his like. They couldn't care less about the fate of the Hindus or of India.
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            Ramesh Nittoor
            Jun 24, 2017 at 5:21 am
            PM Modi is not the problem, not once has he spoken about favoring Hindutva since he became PM. Earlier prior to Lok Sabha election, he identified himself as Hindu Nationlist to NY Times, but the new NYT had always referred to BJP as Hindu Nationalist Party, so a shade of sarcasm may have been at work there. The real contention is with state level CMs particularly UP and Haryana, who have been unabashed exponent of Hindutva. This is most dangerous and disturbing trend. Think UP CM refers to Hindutva not in Savarkarite manner, but the usage of the term itself, instead of Bharatiyata is disconcerting . The cow politics of both CMs is also risky and likely to hurt economy. Maharashtra CM is an exception, he clearly spoke to about following the Atal Bihari Vajpayee, implying he distanced himself from Hindutva.
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            Ramesh Nittoor
            Jun 24, 2017 at 1:36 am
            advance an aggressive Hindutva agenda even more vigorously ----- Hindutva has no real intellectual basis, it is more about invocation of symbols to rouse emotions for solidarit, there is no discernment capability in this Hindutva ideology, nor any real basis to formulate strategy. To draw upon the vast resources of Indian heritage and synthesize those with ideas and concepts of modern world to be more creative in arts and sciences, right term is Bharatiyata. This word, Bharatiyata, is an ancient Hindu word which is thousands of years old, unlike the Hindutva word coined from Islamic roots by Savarkar. RSS uses the term Hindutva in the sense which mostly means Bharatiyata, but not so is true about Shiv Sena or the various Rakshak sena, for them Hindutva is a militant, political assertion, about Hindu Rashtra. The international linkages which Mr. Mehta aspires for is feasible with Bharatiyata ethos. RSS can gain international acceptance and embrace आधुनिकता with भारतीयता ।
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              Ramesh Nittoor
              Jun 24, 2017 at 1:52 am
              Bharatiya is the उदार भावना , which has the right kind of sensibility to embrace the international order, and be accepted sans dissonance by it. It is difficult to change the views of any person, unless person is willing to change. But ins utions are easier to change for the role relationship rewards can make people see reason in the role context. So there is some hope that we will see changes in RSS to make Bhartiyata its core value in our lifetime.
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                Ramesh Nittoor
                Jun 24, 2017 at 2:00 am
                Bharatiyata is the उदार भावना , which has the right kind of sensibility to embrace ...
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                  Thrinethran T
                  Jun 24, 2017 at 5:54 am
                  Just a single other point, that the liberal universal concept has to be internalised by other faiths as well it would be destructive to follow the path of compe ion, conflict and confrontation within a traditionally accepting and respectful culture. It is foolhardy to expect Dharma to be followed exclusively by some, it would contract to something akin to Aapad Dharma.
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                  Thrinethran T
                  Jun 24, 2017 at 5:19 am
                  Indeed, a reactive self-description adopted in a period in which the Dharmic Indian-origin faiths were attacked and denigrated by other faiths and ideologies, and the nation itself was occupied then divided, these faiths decimated in the separated parts: We have to be forward-looking, inclusive, evolutionary, imaginative...all in good time and with real native scholarship, not motivated alien narratives, which carry the " Egyptologist's interest in Egypt".
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                    Ramesh Nittoor
                    Jun 24, 2017 at 5:30 am
                    Speaking of Egypt, I see another parallel, in current times. The biggest perception risk is RSS being equated with Muslim brotherhood in western world, this will be a great setback for Indian security. ABV understood this likely confusion and in his famous Kerala musing sought to define Bharatiyata and stressed that in RSS context, it equated with their interpretation of Hindutva, but RSS did not listen. Later when LKA seeking to improve the security context within subcontinent sought to interpret Jinnah as secular, he was run down by RSS. It is not easy to make RSS folks steeped in their worldview, an alternate paradigm and how world perceives India. Shall stop this relentless troll hereafter, seeking to make them see reason.
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                  Ananth
                  Jun 23, 2017 at 11:36 pm
                  Mr.Mehta, how ironical the situation is that you get space in IE but have none with people to whom your advice is being made. What exactly is wrong with Hindutva agenda just because you leftists and Nehruvites have from independence followed a path to suppress it totally. The definition given to Hindutva is all inclusive one of people following the Indian way of life. What exactly has the path followed earlier has fetched the country. to my mind nothing except it was only pandering to our egos thinking others are taking cognisance of it though it was all only a show from their end. If Trump today feels isolation will fetch their country dividends so Modi too knows what will be good for India. We don't need History written by fiction writers as has been a practice for some time, far away from reality or of historical events as is popularly known. Modi has already created history in our land and is bound to do so worldwide too.
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                    Prakash Iyer
                    Jun 23, 2017 at 10:34 pm
                    We have had enoughof internationalism and liberalism under Nehru. Let us look after us well before playing the good Samaritan. Trump is perfectly right in putting America first but the self serving military industrial and political class is fettering him. It remains to be seen if Trump has 56" chest to fight them.
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                      Facts anyone
                      Jun 23, 2017 at 9:54 pm
                      Funny how the liberals assume a lot of things and then blame the other side of assuming things. Who fed you all this jargon that you have spewed out about the GOI??
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                        ak dev
                        Jun 24, 2017 at 12:39 am
                        The education system created by Britishers that Nehru and Leftists retained because he himself was product of western education. Indians stopped learning their own history and are enslaved by English.
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