Summitry in India, as Lok Sabha polls approach

Summitry in India, as Lok Sabha polls approach

Can theatrical spectacle and moral sloganeering beget a better world? Not unless the government begins by making India more inclusive, less unequal and non-majoritarian

K C SinghUpdated: Friday, May 05, 2023, 11:44 PM IST
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Summitry in India, as Lok Sabha polls approach | representative pic

Three news streams have dominated television and print media over the last week. One, the protest by top-rated women wrestlers at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, alleging sexual harassment or worse by the Wrestling Federation of India boss Brij Bhushan Sharan Singh. He is a BJP politician in Uttar Pradesh (UP) with a muscle-man image. 

Two, the pre-poll crescendo in Karnataka displaying an aggressive Congress attacking the prime minister personally and promising to ban the Bajrang Dal. Congress later tried to walk back the latter. This defies past experience that BJP gains when directly pilloried. 

And finally, the season of diplomatic summitry kicking-off with ministerial meetings of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). While the SCO summit is on July 3-4, the G-20 gathering of the most powerful nations is billed for September 9-10. 

The Lok Sabha election, less than a year away, is a factor in all three. BJP’s UP strongman is needed for his influence over half a dozen seats. Hence his kid-gloved handling, compared to what an opposition party politician in similar circumstances would have received. Karnataka election is crucial for the BJP, being the only southern state where its model of majoritarian and divisive politics, laced liberally with usual post-election cajolements and threats, has worked. A Congress win so near the national elections can darken BJP’s chances in the entire eastern and southern states. 

The summitry can enable the prime minister to mesmerise the Indian voters as he hosts the most powerful global leaders. By comparison his opposition rivals would appear parochial and colourless. However, multiple hurdles lurk, especially India’s neighbours and the disruptive Ukraine war. 

Two neighbours that can ruin BJP’s parade are China and Pakistan. The meeting of SCO foreign ministers on May 4-5 was preceded by their defense ministers’ meeting on April 28. BJP’s carefully built image of a nationalist-majoritarian party gets undercut by its inability to eject Chinese troops from all the territory in Ladakh which PLA troops occupied post-Galwan standoff in May 2020. The 18th round of Sino-Indian corps commander level talks were held five days before the defence ministers of India and China met on the sidelines of the SCO gathering. China’s hawkish English language paper Global Times cautioned India not to be unrealistic. It advised that “the two sides meet each other halfway”. It concluded that India should ignore US’ strategic thinking as it provokes offshore conflicts to benefit itself. In plain English it means the Chinese have no plans to go beyond the troop adjustments they have conceded in four places. In particular they are unprepared to roll back their deep intrusion in Depsang Plains, endangering India’s road-link to the Karakoram Pass. 

If Chinese president Xi Jinping attends the summits, Prime Minister Narendra Modi cannot omit bilateral meetings. Any formal bilateral sit-down would bring the focus on the persisting Chinese intrusions. India would need some face saver, months before the Lok Sabha election. Otherwise, the opposition can rake up India’s failure to retrieve territory where the Indian army always had patrolling rights. 

In turn, China is undoubtedly closely monitoring India’s developing strategic links and defence and intelligence cooperation with the US. Those rest on shared concerns about China’s rise and aggressiveness, especially over Taiwan and the South China Sea. Writing in Foreign Affairs Ashley Tellis, a senior US analyst of Indian origin, postulated that the US must recognise that while India is happy to obtain high technology transfers, it is unlikely to jump into any Sino-US military confrontation. China probably also believes this as it can deter India by the threat of hostilities across the Line of Actual Control (LAC). But it obviously resents India benefiting from US technology and military upgrades. 

A similar conundrum affects Indo-Pak relations. Pakistan’s youthful foreign minister Bilawal Bhutto arrived in Goa for the SCO ministerial amidst repeated denials by his Indian host S Jaishankar of any separate meeting between them. With Pakistan facing national elections before October and former prime minister Imran Khan rabble-rousing the masses with a mix of nationalism and Islam, neither nation can risk attempting a diplomatic thaw. India demands concrete counterterrorism action while Pakistan seeks restoration of status quo ante in Jammu and Kashmir. Neither is possible in the current scenario. 

The last stumbling block is the Ukraine war. Russia will use the SCO meetings to project that it is not isolated and a diplomatic pariah. Meanwhile Ukraine’s fresh offensive is starting, as the spring mud dries. Until this phase of the war has played out, neither side will countenance a ceasefire. Thus the G-20 summit in September cannot escape the toxicity flowing from the war. India has chosen Vasudev Kutambkam as the summit motto, encompassing ancient Indian dictum on human kinship and global oneness.

Can theatrical spectacle and moral sloganeering beget a better world? Not unless the government begins by making India more inclusive, less unequal and non-majoritarian. 

KC Singh is former secretary, Ministry of External Affairs

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