|01 February, 2020

Is India's Modi losing his mojo?

Modi's image abroad has begun to lose its lustre in the past few months, despite the overwhelming victory of his BJP in the last general election

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks after paying homage at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial on the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi at Rajghat in New Delhi, India October 2, 2019.

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi walks after paying homage at the Mahatma Gandhi memorial on the 150th birth anniversary of Gandhi at Rajghat in New Delhi, India October 2, 2019.

REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

It seems only the other day that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was basking in the adulation of tens of thousands of cheering ethnic Indians in a football stadium in Houston, Texas. At his side was US President Donald Trump, keen to get the support of Indians residing and working in his country, for his re-election. The event got the nickname "Howdy Mody". It was one of the high points of Modi's prime ministership.

And to imagine that there was a time, not so long ago, that he had been denied an American visa on account of his alleged role in the communal anti-Muslim riots in his home state of Gujarat, when he was the chief minister of that state! That denial of the visa must have stung Modi badly.

Indeed, during his first term as prime minister, he travelled ceaselessly and widely all over the world, probably more than any other Indian prime minister had done. Having made his mark as a formidably popular leader at home, he was determined to be recognised as a respected international statesman abroad, in the mould of India's first prime minister, the hugely admired Jawaharlal Nehru, whose traits and ideological leaning left a lasting imprint on India.

Sadly, Modi's image abroad has begun to lose its lustre in the past few months, despite the overwhelming victory of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the last general election.

The slippage began with the Indian government's decision to abrogate Article 370 of the Indian constitution, which had given Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in the Indian union, a special - and more autonomous - status than other states. In fact, Kashmir had acceded to India, mainly because of the provisions embedded in Article 370. Protests followed the abrogation, leading to a crackdown and the arrest of prominent opposition politicians. A communications blackout was also imposed, including the shutting down of the internet. This was taken badly, even outside India, since it amounted to curtailing, albeit temporarily, a fundamental democratic right, that of freedom of expression.

Worse followed, with the amendment of the Citizenship Act (CAA). This was seen by many, not just in India but in several other countries as well, as a move targeting - and discriminating against - India's 200 million Muslims, the largest number of Muslims in any one country, except Indonesia. In the first place, the new Act had no logic behind it, since it left out the largest number of stateless refugees living in India, namely Tamils from Sri Lanka, most of whom are Hindus. Why were they not included in the CAA? The Indian government had no satisfactory answer. And come to think of it, what about the refugees from Afghanistan, many of them Muslims, fleeing from the despotic Taleban? Would only non-Muslims be given citizenship? The Act clearly militated against India's proud secular tradition, in that it singled out only one religion, Islam. In other words, it reeked of bigotry, though giving a false impression of moving only against illegal infiltrators into India. Critics of the Act claimed that the BJP was trying to turn India into a Hindu version of Islamic Pakistan.

The first leader of a country outside India, to voice his criticism was Malaysia's Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad. New Delhi retaliated in the pettiest and most vindictive way imaginable. It halted palm oil imports from Malaysia. As India is the world's largest vegetable oils buyer and Malaysia, the second largest palm oil manufacturer, this hurt Kuala Lumpur economically. The leaders of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, and Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, were also critical of New Delhi's move in Kashmir and the passing of the CAA. Hasina wondered aloud why the Act had been passed in the first place, while Erdogan openly sided with Pakistan's Prime Minister, Imran Khan, on the Kashmir issue. In fact, though it must have upset Modi supporters in India and abroad, the Pakistani leader received considerable praise in the international media, while India was castigated. The Economist magazine recently carried a cover story titled "Intolerant India". On its front page was a telling drawing of the lotus flower, the symbol of the BJP, with barbed wire on either side. The message was loud and clear.

But it is not just Islamic countries that have been voicing their concern and criticising the Modi government's recent actions. Washington has shown its unease and the European Parliament tabled a strongly worded resolution against the CAA, just the other day. The resolution, which represented a wide spectrum of views, from the political left to the right, said that it deeply regretted the adoption and implementation of CAA, which it said was "discriminatory in nature and divisive". The resolution went further by saying that the CAA violated India's international obligations and warned against "increasing nationalism which has fuelled religious intolerance against Muslims." The message could not have been more blunt. New Delhi has claimed victory by saying that it succeeded in postponing a vote on the resolution. But the very fact that such a resolution was tabled in the first place and that it represents the feeling of the overwhelming majority of EU parliamentarians speaks for itself. Tourism to India has plummeted. Goa, a major tourist attraction, has seen 50 per cent less foreign visitors this season.

Modi has much rebuilding to do to restore his and India's image in the world. He could make a start by not implementing the unimplementable CAA. It takes a great man to admit that he has made a mistake. Does Modi have that kind of greatness in him?

Rahul Singh is a former editor of Khaleej Times

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