The political situation in India will witness new changes this year: It seems very uncertain now if incumbent Prime Minister Modi’s BJP government will be re-elected in the Parliamentary elections to be held in the first half of the year.
No high-speed growth
In part, this is because Modi all along promised high growth. This has not really been realized during the past five years. Nor have the expectations of the people been met. Though things look good in terms of statistics, such as India becoming the fastest growing economy in the world, in the eyes of the public, nothing seems to be making much headway.
(Implementation of) the contract signed between India and Japan to build the first 550-kilometer high-speed rail between Mumbai and Ahmedabad, has been tardy. It will be impossible to complete the project within the scheduled time; The power situation is still no better than in the past. In the elections in five States, including Madhya Pradesh which had until recently been governed by BJP, it lost to the Congress Party. For this reason, people doubt whether Modi will be able to maintain the magic of 2014 and secure the prospect of re-election.
Several controversial initiatives
Given the background of partisan politics in India, Modi’s five-year political performance has without doubt focused on some controversial policy measures. For example, the sudden demonetisation of high-value banknotes to combat tax evasion and official corruption , which led to turmoil in the markets temporarily; the unified taxation system (GST) resisted by the States that felt their interests were compromised; the sudden eruption of conflict in the Hindu temple in Kerala around New Year, with Modi personally accusing the State government of breaking tradition to support entry of women into the temple, resulting in large-scale demonstrations by conservatives. These methods of manufacturing issues are often adopted by the BJP during election time, and they have also been criticized by public opinion for this.
These initiatives bring out Modi’s image as one who espouses economic liberalism, but is a conservative culturally and politically. The Prime Minister himself is confident of re-election, believing that his agenda is yet to be realised. He has vowed to catapult India into the ranks of major global powers. For this reason, he exerted himself no end on the diplomatic front but Indian voters do not seem to care much about that.
Great significance of Wuhan Meeting
Modi’s great power diplomacy has won a favorable international environment for India in the past few years. It is a relatively favorable factor in his political achievements, his approaches towards the United States and China above all.
Since the confrontation between the two countries in Doklam in the summer of 2017, some Western media have exaggerated the differences between China and India into a life and death struggle, trying to discredit China’s policiy approach in its South Asian periphery and its “Belt and Road” initiative. In tune with this, the US Trump Administration officially proposed its “Indo-Pacific Strategy” at the Informal Meeting of APEC leaders hosted by Vietnam in November 2017. The US Pacific Command also changed its name to Indo-Pacific Command. One of the important reasons for this was obviously related to the US-Japan-Indo-Australian quadrilateral advocated by the United States and Japan. India is regarded as a natural member of this system and has thus become a major constituent of the new Asia strategy of the United States.
Many analysts believe that the USA’s introduction of this strategy at this juncture demonstrates a new understanding of geopolitics in the US strategic academic community, namely that India has the potential to become an ally of the United States. The chronological “coincidence” of introduction of this new strategy close on the heels of the Doklam confrontation has resulted in India suddenly being painted in new colors, the underlying theme of which is “containment of China”.
However, realpolitik did not evolve in this confrontational manner anticipated by a Cold War mentality. In April 2018, Modi visited Wuhan, a major town in central China, at the invitation of Chairman Xi Jinping and held an informal meeting with him; a rare occurrence (between leaders of the two countries) in the history of Sino-Indian relations. During this important meeting, the two sides put all the major issues between the two countries on the table for serious discussion and made great contributions for enhancing mutual trust between the two countries, not treating each other as an enemy, and jointly planning for future cooperation between China and India.
It is quite evident that the Doklam confrontation, and the fact that the two sides finally handled this incident, which was indeed a most serious one since 1962, in a peaceful manner, indicate that both sides need to examine the future direction of bilateral relations from a strategic height and keeping in view the overall situation. In this sense, the Wuhan meeting paved the way for the two sides to view each other correctly, and also provided a new way for India’s strategic choice. This is precisely the background to Modi’s keynote speech at the Shangri-La Security Cooperation Dialogue meeting held in Singapore soon after.
In this important speech on India’s foreign strategic choices, Modi answered how India views the Indo-Pacific strategy. Although India welcomes the Indian and Pacific oceans being put on par, in the same category geographically, this does not mean that it endorses incorporation of this category in (the framework of) geopolitical and strategic competitive relations; nor that it approves of India being enlisted in such a game aimed at intensifying strategic antagonism and confrontation.
Modi’s sophisticated analysis was welcomed in the Chinese strategic academic community. Although it is not anybody’s case that Modi’s reasonable remarks are indicative of all problems between China and India having been resolved, the new climate of Sino-Indian relations created by the Wuhan meeting has indeed updated the radar of India’s foreign strategy, termed as the “Wuhan spirit” in India.
Continuity in diplomacy
Looking ahead at India’s political situation in 2019 and the developing trend in China-India relations, it should be said that there are major uncertainties on the former front while the latter will remain stable.
Since India has developed rapidly in recent years, its society has been experiencing the most rapid transition period since independence. The five years of the Modi’s Government are also the five years in which the economy was increasingly opened up, with an accentuation of risk factors. On the one hand, the traditional old-fashioned ideas still find dogmatic assertion; on the other hand, new ideas are constantly emerging amongst all sections of society. The Bharatiya Janata Party has always flogged (advancement of) traditional Indian culture (card). Its populist ideology and Modi’s liberal open economy are not in synch. This often results in the world outside (India) seeing a very contradictory India.
The BJP’s election prospects this year don’t look good. It will be difficult for it to repeat the scenario of 2014, of an overwhelming victory or even the situation of the 2004 election. At that time, the ruling Bhartiya Janta Party was so confident of getting re-elected that it even held the elections ahead of time. Who would have thought (at that time) that the Congress Party would revert to its tradition of doing (good) grass-roots work and be able to stage a come-back. If that happens (again), the Indian political situation will change once more.
Modi’s diplomacy is the star feature of his five year reign, but diplomacy is usually not the main staple of Indian elections. At the same time, although there is a lot of suspense in India’s current round of elections, no matter which party turns out to be the largest party in the Parliament, even if there is a “black swan” as in Pakistan’s election last year, neither of the two traditional parties are likely to get enough seats (for forming a majority) and this will lead to a third party emerging as the prima donna. The expectation is that Indian governance is not likely to witness drastic change on the diplomatic front.
Going by the above, it can be said that Sino-Indian relations have been on a steady track since the Wuhan meeting, including resumption of talks between the Special Representatives for border negotiations, and conduct of joint anti-terrorism exercises between the two sides. Sino-Indian bilateral trade, in particular, witnessed significant increase even in 2017, the year of the Doklam confrontation, showing that in the context of the prevailing trade protectionism and unilateralism, China and India, both emerging developing countries, share much common ground and many common interests. All this indicates that the two countries are proceeding from the overall situation and in a far-reaching manner and are determined to take strong action to ensure that Sino-Indian relations improve steadily in the midst of an international pattern of instability, in accordance with the series of principles and the spirit (of the understanding) of not regarding each other as an enemy, already agreed upon by the leaders of the two countries.
(The author is a researcher at the Shanghai Institute of International Studies)