The Narendra Modi government has had depressingly few achievements so far on the domestic front. Economic reform, so greatly — and perhaps exaggeratedly — anticipated by many of Modi’s supporters on the non-Hindutva right, has scarcely had its tummy tickled.
It doesn’t help the PM to have such a rabble of intellectual lightweights in his Cabinet. There’s no one on his political team making the case for deregulation with any vim. And it hasn’t helped that the PM spends so much more of his own time campaigning at elections than on the tasks of fiscal governance for which he was so resoundingly elected.
Had the Indian government not had the accidental windfall from depressed global oil prices, the country’s economy would be giving us all some heavy-duty heartburn. But cheap oil has allowed the government to coast, and to shrink from hard decisions. India will pay a price later.
There’s a flip side to Modi’s domestic stasis. Contrary to pre-election expectations, he’s spent much of his first 15 months in office pursuing an energetic foreign policy. This has been refreshing when his focus is spot on. His consolidation of India’s alliance with the US, for instance, has been a marvel to behold.
As India confronts a marauding and mercantilist China — with its disdain for international law — the US is an invaluable strategic partner. India cannot handle China without American support, and Modi knows that. Now is the time to choose sides in the impending Mahabharata between the US and China, and in siding with Washington, India has chosen the Pandavas. Think of Xi Jinping as Duryodhana.
So full marks to Modi for America, and for his rapport with Japan, his friendship with Israel, and his constructive approach to Bangladesh. The recent India-Africa summit, too, was an acknowledgement by India that global heft involves more than a wild-goose chase after a permanent seat at the Security Council. It helps to cultivate Africa, whose nations not only offer India economic opportunities, but an arena in which to be a responsible global leader. India has none of the colonial mentality of the Chinese, and has the sensibility to help Africa develop on more symbiotic terms.
Given the sophistication that has gone into Modi’s external affairs, however, it’s distressing that his biggest failure to date is one of foreign policy. I refer to the suddenly calamitous state of relations with Nepal. Modi, an avowedly Hindu politician, has managed to lose the love of a Hindu country, the only neighbouring country with which India has open borders. The destruction of ties with Nepal has to rank as an impressive display of incompetence.
As recently as last November, Modi was in Kathmandu, feted as a man who promised to treat Nepal with the respect it hasn’t always had from India. Then came a devastating earthquake, and once more, India helped the Nepalese more generously than anyone else. The Indian media may have disgraced itself with its jingoistic coverage of India’s aid efforts, but the Indian government was unstinting in its support of our Nepalese brethren in their time of distress.
Now, after an unseemly and hamfisted attempt to interfere in Nepal’s internal constitutional affairs, India’s de facto denial to the Nepalese of essential supplies of fuel has driven Kathmandu into the arms of China. A crippled, impoverished nation has been handed a lifeline by Beijing — giftwrapped in New Delhi. History teaches us that once the Chinese get a foothold somewhere, they never leave. Does Modi really want to be remembered as the man who lost Nepal to China?
The writer is the Virginia Hobbs Carpenter Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.