Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

India, the world’s largest democracy, is scheduled to hold its 17th Lok Sabha (lower house of Parliament) election this spring. Based on pre-election exit polls, political pundits surmise that the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will fail to remain in the corridors of power.

Despite his success in the 2014 election, Modi could not translate his electoral pledges into action once in power. He promised to create more than 200 million new jobs, bring billions of dollars’ worth of black money kept in offshore tax havens back to India, and prevent the rampant corruption seen during the tenure of prime minister Manmohan Singh such as the 2G spectrum scam, the Commonwealth Games scam and the coal scam.

However, Modi’s tenure turned out to be even more outrageous than Singh’s, with the nation rocked by the bank frauds of Nirav Modi, Mehul Choksi and Vijay Malaya, the Lalit Modi scam, and more recently, the fiasco over the Rafle deal, while more black money has flowed into offshore tax havens than ever before.

Not a single rupee of black money has been recouped by the high-sounding banning of 500- and 1,000-rupee banknotes on November 8, 2016. On the contrary, the growth of the Indian economy slumped significantly after Modi’s “demonetization” scheme.

In the same way, his electoral vows to clean up the River Ganga and rebuild the temple of Lord Ram in Ayodhya turned out to be hollow promises.

Islamist extremism

Despite having a 150 million-strong Muslim community and two of the world’s most significant jihadist movements, Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, operating in the region, there are comparatively few terrorist attacks on Indian soil. Political pundits believe this is because of the adherence to pluralism and the diversity inherent in the polytheist Hindu philosophy.

However, the BJP and its allies have been trying to radicalize the Indian Hindu population for their political gain. Political pundits fear there is a strong likelihood that they will sow the seeds of Islamic jihadist resistance in India due to the BJP’s Hindutva ideology. The opposition Indian National Congress’s chairman, Rahul Gandhi, and other leaders think Hindutva is a serious threat to secularism and they often describe it as a potential catalyst for the development of a “Hindu Taliban” in India.

Foreign policy record

In the midst of the government’s domestic policy failures, it may be neighborhood foreign policy debacles that keep Modi from remaining in power. Although foreign policy issues have not mattered much to Indian voters in the past, opposition parties have hinted that they are going to break that tradition in the upcoming election.

Modi invited all South Asian heads of state to attend his swearing-in ceremony on May 26, 2014. Responding to Modi’s gesture of goodwill, many attended the event.

In another gesture of goodwill, Modi made his first official visit to the tiny Himalayan nation of Bhutan on June 15-16, 2014. He visited Nepal on August 3-4, 2014, which was the first official visit by an Indian prime minister to Nepal in 17 years. He welcomed Chinese President Xi Jinping in his state of Gujarat as his first foreign guest and visited Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, too.

He even made a surprise visit to Lahore to attend the wedding ceremony of the granddaughter of his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, during an inbound flight from Kabul.

However, because of unintended consequences, breaking with the past and trying to achieve progress sometimes causes more panic than simply maintaining the status quo. That may prove to be an apt description of Modi’s “neighborhood first” foreign policy.

Because of his inexperience in foreign affairs, Modi could not understand the basic realities of foreign service mandarins and intelligence-led foreign policy in the neighborhood. As a result, the Doklam standoff happened, perhaps the most significant blow to India since the Sino-Indian war in 1962. Despite initial cordial relations, China and India faced off militarily at Doklam in 2017.

Despite his initial gesture to resolve the India-Pakistan conflict, relations between the nations now can be best described as bellicose. Meanwhile, India unprecedentedly lost its influence in Bhutan, and its good friend Tshering Togbay was defeated in the first round of the general election on September 15, 2018.

India imposed an economic blockade against Nepal after it ignored India’s diplomatic pressure to halt the promulgation of the constitution scheduled for September 20, 2015. Some 2,500 children and older people with respiratory problems died as a consequence of the shortage of fuel and medicine in the extreme winter cold. As a result, Nepal signed a trade and transit treaty with its northern neighbor, China.

Modi’s government has been devising a contradictory Pakistan policy. It tried to isolate its neighbor in the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) by halting the SAARC Summit that was to be held on November 9-10, 2016 following the Pathankot attack in January and the Uri attack in September that year. India has been trying to use the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as an alternate to SAARC.

Undoubtedly, recent developments in Sri Lanka and Maldives have provided some breathing room for Modi on the foreign policy front, but it will not be enough to assure Indian taxpayers and voters that he deserves to remain in power. National Congress leader Gandhi and other parties’ leaders have been trying to hold Modi accountable for India’s foreign policy debacles in the neighborhood. Modi and his party are going face the tough question of why India has failed on the foreign policy front when the poll takes place.

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