THE Delhi assembly election has attracted the keen attention of foreign diplomats, India-watchers and the international media. Mostly because the BJP leadership chose to invest it with a significance that it intrinsically did not deserve. The complete rout of the BJP has also raised questions about the election’s impact on national politics.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s spectacular and decisive victory in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections convinced the international community that he had emerged as the country’s tallest political leader, without a real rival. As Modi’s star rose in national politics, many countries shed their earlier inhibitions and started to engage with him. After his electoral success last year, important foreign leaders displayed eagerness to accept him as a peer and do business with him. Modi, in turn, showed great interest in foreign affairs and met his international counterparts with ease and a sure touch.
The international community only truly respects heads of government who have real power and are politically durable. It recognises that only they can actually deliver on assurances and implement decisions. It swiftly realised that Modi was the first such leader to emerge in India in over two decades — his political success exceeds Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Sonia Gandhi’s. This view was confirmed as the BJP won state elections in Haryana, Jharkhand and Maharashtra as well as vastly improved its performance in Jammu and Kashmir. Modi’s decisions to change the land acquisition law and allow greater foreign investment in critical sectors like insurance were signals of his intent to move purposefully to overcome the impediments to implementing his vision for India. But he still has to navigate the ordinances through Parliament.
But international observers and Modi’s peers will now pause to assess the impact of the Delhi election on the Indian political scene, especially on Modi. They are likely to focus attention not only on what led Modi to stake his reputation against Arvind Kejriwal, who was in no way his political equal, but also, more importantly, on how he would absorb this reverse and move ahead. Will it bring changes to his economic and foreign policies? Will he move to a more collegial style of functioning? Will he seek to curb the sharp rhetoric and actions of Hindutva elements in the Sangh Parivar? If, in the coming months, they conclude that Modi has taken this defeat in his stride and not allowed it to change his economic and development agenda, they will continue to actively engage with him. But they will focus, in particular, on his moves to ensure the maintenance of social harmony. If these happen, the Delhi elections would be considered as no more than a blip in his five-year prime ministerial term.
Kejriwal evokes intense curiosity among Delhi-based foreign diplomats and India-watchers. They would have been impressed with his remarkable ability to overcome crippling political reverses in a very short time. They would also feel his party had the potential to appeal to vast sections across India, depending on its ability to deliver on electoral commitments in Delhi.
But the international community has great interest in a political party’s economic policies, approach to global issues and national security concerns. It is on these matters that countries spar or cooperate. Governance issues that directly impact people’s lives and domestic economic policies win or lose elections but are not of direct interest to global players. But Kejriwal has not spelt out his views on these international matters and would need to do so before the world can form an opinion of him.
The Congress party seems to have fallen into the political precipice. Rahul Gandhi has failed every significant electoral test in the past few years. The party is so closely identified with the Gandhi family that it seems not to have a future without them at the helm. Will the international community write off the Congress — in the Delhi election, it did not win a single seat and its vote share fell below 10 per cent? This is unlikely. Global leaders know the Congress party well and have, in the past, been comfortable dealing with it. Besides, let’s not forget, it is still the single largest opposition party in the Lok Sabha.
The Delhi election will make India-watching more interesting and complex for the international community.
The writer is a former diplomat