After decades of notching important diplomatic victories, India is now on the receiving end of unprecedented global suspicion and hostility.
New Delhi’s diminishment of global stature has been fed by three key policies of the Narendra Modi government – a religion-based citizenship law, the abrogation of Kashmir’s special status and demonetization.
Modi won a landslide victory for a second term in the general elections held in April-May this year. But a series of major policy changes in the first few months has now put the government under siege globally.
In the historic South Block, which houses India’s venerable Ministry of External Affairs, there is deep consternation over this eroding stature.
On Tuesday morning Indians woke up to the news that a German exchange student, Jakob Lindenthal, was “orally informed” by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office to leave India.
Lindenthal was in India as an exchange student to do a masters’ course in the department of physics at the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology, Chennai campus.
He was seen on social media marching with his fellow students, protesting India’s new controversial citizenship law that uses religion as a criterion and excludes Muslims from getting fast-track citizenship.
While that is seen as a violation of India’s constitution, many fear that once a national register of citizens starts, it will end up disenfranchising Muslims
India has already started building detention centers to house those found without adequate documentation. The centers closely resemble the concentration camps built by the Nazis.
Lindenthal was seen holding up placards warning people about what happened in Germany under the Nazis between 1933 and 1945.
“I love India but I am concerned about illiberal extremes in the country,” he told the media before flying back to Germany. “In Germany, nobody is ever evicted for participating in a legal demonstration.”
It is unclear under what sections of India’s visa regime Lindenthal was deported. However, this shows how the Modi government’s recent actions are increasingly undermining its foreign policy objectives.
The controversial citizenship law that excludes Muslims has already drawn fire from India’s most important strategic partner, the United States. Two Democratic Party presidential candidates, Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg, have already expressed concern.
“India is an important friend and partner of the United States, which is why I’m concerned about the ongoing political detentions, communications blackouts, and other steps being taken by the government that could threaten its longstanding democratic traditions” Buttigieg said on Twitter.
Kamala Harris, who pulled out of the Democrat presidential race, also criticized India for the lockdown in Kashmir and the ongoing protests over the citizenship law.
Three presidential hopefuls criticizing India and its policies has rarely, if ever, happened before. But the bilateral relationship has seen more downs than ups in the past few months. Two congressional committees called for detailed hearings on Kashmir after Article 370, a special constitutional provision giving India’s only Muslim-majority state a special status, was abrogated.
US American congresswoman Pramila Jaypal also filed a report calling out India’s policies on Kashmir. Her report drew more diplomatic blood when India’s foreign minister, in Washington DC to attend the strategic 2+2 dialogue called off a scheduled meeting.
Jaishankar was slotted to meet a US Congress delegation to brief them about India’s positions on Kashmir, the new citizenship law and other bilateral matters. He insisted that Jaypal be dropped from the meeting, a demand that was immediately refused. The US State Department told Indian counterparts that Jaishankar was in no position to “dictate terms” to members of the US Congress, according to at least two Indian diplomats who are aware of the matter.
The 2+2 meeting between India’s foreign and defense ministers and their American counterparts also proved to be a non-starter. According to US State Department officials, there is a lot of frustration with India’s slow pace in making the strategic partnership stronger.
“Patience is running out in Washington and the latest move has raised major concerns for us,” a US diplomat told Asia Times.
The US Federal Commission on Religious Freedom has also proposed sanctions against India’s federal home minister, Amit Shah. (Modi himself used to be on a US visa ban list for his alleged role in the Gujarat riots that saw a number of Mulsims being killed in 2002. This was reversed after he was elected as the prime minister in 2014.)
Canada, the UK and Israel have issued travel advisories urging their citizens not to travel to India in the wake of the widespread protests across the country.
After protests broke out over the citizenship law, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe called off a long-planned trip to India. He was expected to travel to Assam, the epicenter of the protests, to announce new investments in the region. Abe was seen as one of Modi’s closest international allies.
India’s relationships with Bangladesh, one of its closest allies in South Asia and a key partner on counter-terrorism, have been hurt by the NRC and CAA.
The new reverses on the diplomatic front get some residual effect from the Modi government’s move earlier, in November 2016, to demonetize 87% of India’s cash. That damage to the economy has been severe and led to doubts about India’s potential to grow economically as the GDP has shrunk with consumption falling drastically and economists calling the slowdown “severe.”
India’s “soft power”has also been eroded as editorials and front-page reports in the Washington Post, New York Times, Guardian, Financial Times, Haatrez and other major publications have castigated the Modi government for its citizenship law and the continuing lockdown in Kashmir.
In perhaps the unkindest cut of all, NTV, a German TV channel, went so far as to depict a cartoonish Adolf Hitler holding up a baby Modi as his offspring.