(The article was originally published in Indian Express on February 03, 2024 as a part of Dr Madhav’s column titled ‘Ram Rajya’. Views expressed are personal.)
The President’s address to Parliament traditionally showcases the achievements of the government. President Droupadi Murmu’s first address in the new Parliament building this week was no exception. The Opposition’s criticism that it was like an election address lacks merit. The address aptly summed up the achievements of the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The President highlighted the economic achievements of the government, which are likely to be the mainstay of the ruling party’s upcoming electoral campaign. One of the most spectacular achievements, according to the President, was in the area of poverty alleviation. She referred to the recent NITI Aayog report, which claimed that in the last decade, a whopping 250 million Indians have been lifted out of poverty. “Since childhood, we have been hearing the slogan of ‘Garibi Hatao’. Now, for the first time in our lives, we are witnessing eradication of poverty on a massive scale”, she averred.
A day later, presenting the interim budget in the last session of the 17th Lok Sabha, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman supplemented the President’s statement by adding that the average real income of the people of the country has increased by 50 per cent. “People are living better and earning better with better expectations for the future”, she insisted.
Besides the Modi government’s economic and developmental success stories, one new feature that is likely to play an important role in the election campaign will be foreign policy. Foreign policy was always considered niche and elitist, “confined to the corridors of Delhi”. But, in the last 10 years, that conventional approach has been given a go-by by the PM and his colleagues.
Foreign policy is a popular subject with the masses. This democratisation has not happened instantly. It is a result of deliberate efforts. President Murmu alluded to that in her speech by referring to the G20-related events last year. “My government has ensured direct participation of the public in this also. We saw a great example of this during India’s G20 presidency. The way India connected the G20 with the public was unprecedented”, she stated.
We can find a glimpse of this new foreign policy enthusiasm on social media. There are dozens of YouTube channels dedicated to discussing international issues and an often cacophonous discourse happens on social media platforms.
This heightened interest is also a result of certain tectonic shifts in the geostrategic world. The US is facing a challenge to its supremacy with its influence declining, coinciding with the rising economic, technological and diplomatic heft of China. Many middle powers too are rising and forming minilateral groupings that appear to be replacing already dysfunctional multilateral organisations like the UN, UNSC and WTO.
The growing influence of heteropolar forces like big tech, MNCs, global NGOs, religious organisations and terror outfits is another important development of our times. An increasing number of flashpoints indicate the return to an era of cold war, while a new wave of nationalism is sweeping across nations in the West.
This evolving geostrategic scenario has become fodder for the foreign policy wonks on social media platforms who churn out commentaries, often uninformed. This new foreign policy fad is throwing up a challenge to the establishment.
Fortunately, India’s foreign policy leadership understands the distinction between the romanticism of the masses and the cold-blooded realism needed to deal with international issues. It is aware that to become “vishwaguru”, the government has to tread with extreme caution. It likens its efforts to Vishwa Mitra — friend of the world — as a more realistic proclamation.
The cautious, realist approach can be seen in the reluctance to get involved in the disputes raging in different parts of the world. The President’s address intelligently articulated this position stating that “in this era of global disputes and conflicts”, the government has “firmly placed India’s interests before the world”.
The new-age social media experts are gung-ho about the leadership’s ability and India’s “civilisational responsibility” in resolving every conflict — from the Israel-Hamas dispute to the Ukraine-Russia war to the latest Red Sea conundrum. There is no denying that Modi enjoys enormous goodwill among the leaders of many countries. However, the foreign policy establishment knows well the redlines that shouldn’t be crossed.
Otto van Bismarck, the great German general, had once said that “the German Nation has had enough of principles and doctrines of literary greatness and theoretical existence. But what it demands is Power, Power, Power!” It will give more honour than can be imagined “to him who gives it power”, he added. India’s leadership is vigorously pursuing the mobilisation of that comprehensive national power. Its continued insistence on strategic autonomy and refusal to take sides in an increasingly polarised world, much to the chagrin of many big powers, and its attempt at mobilising countries of the developing world under the banner of Global South are a manifestation of that national power.
Derision and dismissal of some analysts notwithstanding, the Modi government’s success is in creating a larger consensus in the country over this cautiously ambitious foreign policy. Delivering an important address in the British Parliament about India’s independence on March 15, 1946, Prime Minister Clement Atlee predicted that “in the mass of Asia ravaged by war, we have one country that has been seeking to apply the principles of democracy. I have always felt that political India might be the light of Asia”. Unprecedented popular support, coupled with a mature foreign policy leadership can help India realise its ambition of emerging as “the light of the world”.