It’s customary to ask the neighbours

The UPA Government, it is now grudgingly admitted by its best friends and most avid supporters, suffered grievously on account of its failure to communicate. For nearly three days, or at least until a senior BJP leader stepped in to counter a wave of needless speculation and misconceptions, Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on May 26 was in serious danger of being hijacked by those who had their own version of what the change of government meant.

Let us be clear on one point. The objective behind the invitation to leaders of the neighbouring SAARC countries (and to Mauritius) was two-fold. First and most important, the invitation to neighbours was primarily to showcase a stupendous democratic achievement. India has reason to be proud that the world’s largest festival of democracy, involving nearly 700 million voters, was successfully conducted. The election may have been bitterly contested, but its outcome, leading to a change of government, was accepted with grace. Yes, there were some notables who seek to shift the goalposts with retrospective effect. But their churlishness tells us more about them than the efficacy of a system that has endured since 1952. India’s bipartisan commitment to democracy warrants broadcasting to the entire world, and especially the troubled neighbourhood. The Americans celebrate the inauguration of their Presidents. India too is well-deserving of a more austere celebration.

In India, the custom is for an auspicious event to be celebrated by not merely the family, but with the entire neighbourhood. The logic of the swearing-in follows the same custom: neighbours must also join in.

Secondly, there is an overtly political message that Prime Minister-designate Modi has sought to send both internally and externally. It is that India is witnessing more than a mere shift from the Congress-led UPA to the BJP-led NDA. What is being heralded is a completely new style of politics, whose contours will become more and more evident in the coming days. For the moment, Modi is merely setting the first of the many new precedents he will set.

There is a third dimension to Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, which is being wilfully understated, but is at the same time clearly understood: that India is at the very centre of South Asia. Critics may call it imperial assertion and suggest that this is Modi’s recreation of the Imperial Durbar of 1911, but no one deny that, modified to 21st century realities, the suggestion isn’t entirely untrue. Indeed, the more enlightened among India’s neighbours are mindful that an economic resurgence of India will impact their countries positively. India has always been the elder sister of the region and the successor regime of the mighty British Empire.

Unfortunately, overcome by its internal incoherence, the Manmohan Singh Government shied away from the ‘karta’s’ role and conceded valuable political space to a large eastern neighbour. To reclaim our inheritance will naturally involve building domestic capacity and reinforcing India’s civilisational reach — something that won’t and can’t happen overnight. But at least Modi has issued a clear statement of intent.

It is important to bear in mind that the importance of the swearing-in ceremony is potentially rich in symbolism. However, this is not to suggest that Modi will live up to the journalistic cliché of ‘hitting the ground running’ and use the forecourt of the Rashtrapati Bhavan to engage Nawaz Sharif in a discussion on the Siachen Heights. Many of India’s diplomatic correspondents and, for that matter, diplomat-politicians, have been terribly underworked in the course of an election campaign where neither foreign policy nor the commodity that passes off as ‘strategic vision’ got even a casual mention. Their irrelevance in the cut-throat world of democracy is, perhaps, lamentable. But that is no reason why they should now proclaim their own relevance by discovering hidden ‘nuanced’ meanings in the invite to SAARC leaders.

Narendra Modi wasn’t elected by the people of India to devote the energies of his government in the thankless, and perhaps, unrealisable task of rediscovering lost brothers on both sides of the Radcliffe Line. That could well be the agenda of some English language TV channels, which were dreading their loss of influence, but Indians elected Modi to improve their lives and create more opportunities for Young India. In the cloistered world of Delhi, it is often easy to live in a bubble and lose the central political plot.

The Vajpayee Government devoted disproportionate time and energy in trying to effect an enduring peace with Pakistan, with disastrous consequences in Kargil.

It is definitely a priority to strive for a tension-free neighbourhood. But expectations in that direction have to be tempered by the realisation that Pakistan must first resolve the larger existential dilemma that confronts it.

India can merely wait for its resolution and, at best, do nothing to jeopardise the process. For Modi, economic diplomacy aimed at building domestic capacity must remain at the centre of its foreign policy. If India prospers and becomes an economic power centre, the neighbourhood will automatically benefit. That is something the present regimes in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Nepal understand. Pakistan, unfortunately, is confused about its priorities and its future course. That’s a situation India doesn’t have the capacity to alter.

On Monday, the focus will be on the team that Modi has chosen to help him transform India. The foreign leaders will be there to honour India’s democracy. But they are the embellishments. The real substance will be found elsewhere.

Swapan Dasgupta

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