[This excerpt is from an article appearing in the current edition of The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
Foreign Policy and Domestic Perceptions
The air strikes and ‘Mission Shakti’ seemed to give Modi and his government a boost, with some polls reporting a so-called ‘Balakot bounce’ in the week after the military action. But it is arguable whether these incidents – dramatic though they were – would have helped deliver a sizable election win had Modi and the BJP not succeeded beforehand in constructing a clear image of themselves as those best suited to secure India, defend its ‘honour’, and realise its greatness.
That effort began early, literally in the hours after the BJP won government in May 2014. Many had thought that the new Prime Minister’s relative inexperience in foreign policy would keep him focused on domestic issues, at least for a time. Modi, of course, sprang a surprise on both those commentators and the Ministry of External Affairs, requesting that invitations be sent to all the heads of government of neighbouring states, including Pakistan, to attend his swearing in. He then plunged headlong into seven whirlwind months of personal diplomacy involving one-on-one meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, and United States President Barack Obama, trips to several subcontinental capitals, four major multilateral summits, and an address to the United Nations General Assembly. In the interstices, he spoke in Sydney to a jubilant gathering of the diaspora, who chanted his name; ordered the longstanding ‘Look East’ policy reenergised and renamed ‘Act East’; and rubbed shoulders with Hugh Jackman (of all people) at a festival in Central Park.
This frenzy of activity looked vain, to some, but it was not frivolous. Ostensibly, it aimed to reset relations with the major powers, to allow Modi to see their leaders up close, to convey the message, loudly and clearly, that India had a new government that was open to business, and especially to foreign direct investment (FDI), a key element in its economic strategy. But this high-profile personal diplomacy was also designed to remake Modi himself. It was designed swiftly to turn him, in the eyes of Indians and foreigners, from an erstwhile Gujarat Chief Minister with somewhat faltering English – an essentially local leader – into an international statesperson and a symbol of India’s resurgent pride and confidence. It was about rapidly turning a weakness – Modi’s perceived inexperience in foreign policy – into a strength, and identifying his reception by the world with India’s standing overseas.
This effort was made plain by both the Resolution on foreign policy passed by the BJP’s National Executive in early April 2015 and the slew of articles and books from sympathetic authors promoting the notion of a ‘Modi Doctrine’ that followed. In each, Modi was remade as more than a mere local politician – now, he was a world leader, holding India’s flag high. The Resolution, drafted by the senior BJP functionary Ram Madhav, lauded Modi’s ‘dynamic and visionary leadership’ in international affairs, and linked it directly to the restoration of what Madhav called India’s samman, translated as ‘dignity and honour’. Moreover, it observed, the Prime Minister has restored pride in Bharat’s [that is, India’s] civilisational identity and cultural traditions and drawn global attention to it in a manner that befits this oldest civilisation of the world.
Bharat enjoys an enhanced international stature today. There is not a single important global forum where our country’s stirring civilizational message has not reached and echoed. [The] Prime Minister’s first speech at the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in Hindi revived the memory of Shri Atal Behari Vajpayee and energised the great national pride that all the countrymen feel, whether living in Bharat or any other part of the world.
The Resolution discussed a number of other achievements, from refocusing diplomatic attention on economic development to engaging the diaspora, but this core message was clear: without Modi, India would struggle to attain ‘our national ambition of Bharat’s rise as a strong and respected world power’.
This effort of identifying Modi with India, and his personal diplomacy with respect for the country, echoed, of course, an earlier attempt at reinventing himself for electoral gain, also by way of identity politics. In the aftermath of the Godhra riots in January 2002, following his public upbraiding by then-Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and amidst accusations that he and his government could and should have done more to prevent the violence, Modi worked hard to reposition himself as Chief Minister of Gujarat. He reworked his image, seeking to emerge not just as a vikas purush – a champion of a more business-friendly mode of government and deliverer of higher living standards – but also as a guardian of Gujarati asmita, or (loosely) identity. This allowed him to reinterpret attacks on him and his administration over Godhra or communalism as slurs on Gujarat, and, at the same time, to pose as a defender of the state and its people against the ‘enemy nation’ – his words – of New Delhi, ruled over by the Nehru/Gandhi ‘Sultanate’. Just like Indira was India, and India was Indira, the old slogan went; now Modi was Gujarat, and Gujarat was Modi.
Terrorism, air strikes, and missile tests overshadowed India’s general election in 2019, but did not determine its outcome. It is clear that the BJP outclassed its opponents organisationally and out-spent them financially. It is clear too that Modi’s principal opponent, Rahul Gandhi, struggled to connect with the electorate or to convince them to place their trust in him to deliver on the Congress Party’s considerable promises. Arguments will run for some time about other issues, including the Election Commission’s decisions not to rebuke Modi and others for the use of communal rhetoric and other alleged breaches of the rules, the Indian media’s coverage of the campaign, and the extent to which India’s journalists were reluctant to be as publically critical as they should have been of the Prime Minister and his party.
Above all, however, the 2019 election was a second poll about Modi. The first, back in 2014, was about whether to trust a politician with a chequered past and a recent record of perceived success to deliver rapid economic development to an aspirational India that was tired of a lethargic and sometime corrupt administration. This one was about something different. The BJP-led government’s record on jobs and growth was patchy – and recognised as such in opinion polls running up to the election. But in the end, it did not matter. Through his frenetic personal diplomacy over five years and embrace of foreign policy, as well as his more recent management of the Balakot crisis, Modi had succeeded in consolidating his image as much more than a mere politician. He won because his many backers accepted the claim that he is the symbol and protector of the resurgent national pride of their ‘New India’, a force to be respected and reckoned with in the contemporary world.
Dr Ian Hall is a Professor in the School of Government and International Relations, Griffith University, Brisbane, Australia, Deputy Director at the Griffith Asia Institute and co-editor of the Australian Journal of International Affairs. He is also a former winner of the Peter Lyon Prize.