Prophet row challenges Modi’s carefully-crafted foreign policy

By N. Sathiya Moorthy 

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) vote against Iran that India abstained from could not have come at a better — or, worse — time for New Delhi. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian’s preceding Delhi visit was a messaging in its own way after most Muslim nations had taken strong exception to a TV talk-show row over Prophet Mohammed. Yes, Shiite Iran does not represent the Islamic world, where most nations follow the Sunni school, still, it’s a beginning for India to try and douse the avoidable controversy.

Prior to all this, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar went about ticking off the West on India’s foreign policy for weeks and months. At the Bratislava Forum in Slovakia, he said just before the religious row: “Europe has to grow out of the mindset that Europe’s problems are the world’s problem but the world’s problems are not Europe’s problems. And there is a reflection of it.” Very true, strong and bold his declaration was, as was at Delhi’s very own Raisina Dialogue in April: “Rules-based order was under challenge in Asia, the advice we got was to do more trade.”

Through the past months, there was clear indication on which way Jaishankar’s European foray and the unprecedented Indian self-assertion, which did not leave out the post-Cold War American friend/ally, was going. Even Indira Gandhi’s straight talk to the Nixon-Kissinger duo ahead of the ‘Bangladesh War’ at the Oval Office was an in camera affair — but it was the first time when an Indian leader ticked off a superpower duo, without mincing words.

The Narendra Modi government in particular seemed confident that it had won over allies in the near and not-so-near neighbourhood so very systematically that it was time for New Delhi to have itself heard and acted upon in Europe and the Americas as well — not necessarily in that order. It will take time for the dust to settle down before New Delhi can assess if it has to place the building blocks from bottom up all over again or if a part of the edifice is still left intact for to build upon from somewhere near the half-way mark.

Unacknowledged truth

The end of the Cold War coincided with the forex crisis in India. Rather, India woke up to the geo-strategic reality only when geo-economic facts and factors drove home. While ushering in Economic Reforms in 1991, Prime Minister P. V. Narasimha Rao and Finance Minister Manmohan Singh also launched the ‘Look East’ policy, whose composite outcome was to obtain political backing from China’s East and South-East Asian neighbours through the economic route. It has worked well for India since, as Japan, South Korea and ASEAN nations all have been won over in political terms, overall.

It is an unacknowledged fact that since the mid-nineties, both South-East Asia and West Asia too were quietly looking for an Indian Ocean partner as they found the US ally increasingly problematic in domestic and regional politics more than any time in the post-War past. India fitted the bill, though New Delhi, given the complexity of the domestic economic problems and consequent global political situation, played safe. Today, all three groups are seen as being benign partners of the US, but not always on American terms. Along with Japan and Australia, India also forms the US-centric Quad and the Indo-Pacific, both taking full shape under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Looking back, it is becoming increasingly clear that the Modi leadership has been carefully putting together building blocks all around, making and renewing friendships across the world but focussing increasingly on the expanded neighbourhood, for India to feel safe and confident. It’s not a joke to be able to do so and record substantial achievements, with two powerful adversaries, China and Pakistan, working together, against India.

The Indian strategy was beginning to pay off. India carefully calibrated the Covid assistance to the immediate neighbourhood and beyond, to create mass constituencies, near and afar. No, creating constituencies was not the basic Indian intention. But when the developed world squirmed about helping nations badly in need of Covid test-kits, vaccines and the rest, and China as the parental home to the pandemic became the global hate-object, India stood up, driven by the altruist national value of ‘Vasudaiva Kudumbakam’, or the ‘world is one family’ that has run in every Indian vein for generations and centuries.

This has again worked for the forex-strapped Sri Lankan neighbour in more recent months, as once again India is the only nation to rush to Colombo’s help. But what is of greater significance in relative terms is the Modi leadership’s ability to win over the Gulf-Arab nations, systematically, despite the ‘anti-Muslim’ personal image and the philosophical image of his Bharatiya Janata Party -Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (BJP-RSS) bandwagon. So much so, the UAE even had a Hindu temple in Doha consecrated by the prime minister, though it was a part of the nation’s new policy of religious tolerance and acceptance.

Good cop, bad cop

It has all worked for India, especially since Modi became prime minister. His masculine image balanced part of his perceived over-indulgence as witnessed in his hug-and-click public diplomacy involving counterparts elsewhere. His use of the first name like Barack and Donald did sound jarring to the average Indian ears, steeped in tradition and culture. However, for both Modi the prime minister and India the nation, it was the 21st century ‘arrival statement’. In recent months, Modi continues to play the good cop, where Minister Jaishankar has volunteered to be the proverbial bad cop, to the world outside.

It’s a strategy possibly curated by National Security Advisor (NSA) A. K. Doval in the long run-up to Elections-2014, whose result was predictable for long. At the time, India had only two models to choose from. One was the successful ‘American model’, where the US made friends with most, if not all neighbours, before venturing out more than already in geo-political, geo-economic and geo-strategic spheres. The other was the failed ‘Soviet model’, as Moscow had bulldozed its way into the neighbourhood, only to crash under its own weight. Even after leaving out the ongoing Ukraine War, there was much for India to learn from the failed ‘Soviet model’ and adapt from the relatively successful ‘US model’, which alone survived.

Hate politics, hate crimes

In responding to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken’s recent assertion/reiteration about ‘hate politics’ in India, Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) spokesperson, Arindam Bagchi, referred to ‘hate-crimes’ in the US, fed by the kind of ‘gun culture’ that had not remained anywhere else in the ‘civilized world’. It was not the first time that Modi’s India was reacting this strongly on sustained allegations of the nation’s human rights violations, centred on cow slaughter ban and mass lynching, Article 370 abrogation and the CAA (Citizenship Amendment Act).

A masculine nation can resort to muscle-flexing of the kind Jaishankar and MEA’s Bagchi have been doing. Like Modi’s, they are good rhetoric and also very logical. But the world is not ruled by political logic or moral fibre. It is inter-connected and is ruled by realpolitik, where might is right, and at times ‘might alone is right’. It happened to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq even when most allies of the US and all adversaries acknowledged that the Iraqi dictator did not possess Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) as claimed by Washington.

Self-worth, self-confidence

In the wake of the Nupur Sharma-Navin Jindal controversy, the defining moment would be the way the West and West Asia want to perceive Modi’s India, jointly and severally. Leave aside New Delhi’s strident ‘nationalist stance’ on the Ukraine war, where India refused to yield to the US-led Western pressures to ‘isolate’ Russia, in the current perception and evaluation of self-worth, and consequent self-confidence, India may have still taken the same decision even if it was not dependent on Russian oil — whoever was in power.

The fact still is that unlike the East – or, is it the South? – the West/North does not let an ‘international insult’ go unpunished. After all, on the need to isolate Russia, the West applied every weapon in its diplomatic armour on India than they did while seeking to stop the ‘Bangladesh War’ and yet came a cropper, on both. Leave the US alone, Europe, to which Minister Jaishankar made not so very complimentary references at Bratislava, is not going to forget it all and move forward.

The Rupur Sharma-Navin Jindal row is God-send for all of India’s current crop of detractors, as different from traditional adversaries. India needs to remember that the US may look like ignoring its own charge-sheets against particular nations after reading them out. But they have the wonderful habit of storing them away in the collective memory of the West, until when they think the time is ripe to strike, or at least put the other in the place they have designated for the latter.

On the current issue, the West would let the Arab world take the lead, but both would commence cataloguing India’s so-called commissions and omissions, more feverishly than ever—call it religious freedom or blaspheming Islam. There is a 23-member Arab bloc in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA), which has been trusted friends of India on most issues. The bloc also controls 13 of the 47 votes (by rotation) in the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC).

On issues of Islam, particularly with reference to the Quran and Prophet Mohammed, most if not all 57 members of the Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) stay together. For them, it is also a common ‘identity issue’, in these times of perceived and propagated strife.

If and when the chips are down — and hopefully, it won’t come to that — much as it may be argued that the Gulf nations need India for massive quantities of food items, including, rice, wheat maize and meat, if and when the chips are down, the question will be this: Can they do without India by diversifying their sources of supply — and can India do without the Arab oil, jobs, inward remittances and family incomes?

-N. Sathiya Moorthy is a Chennai-based policy analyst and commentator and this article was originally featured on


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