Modi Seeks to Shake International Censure Over Kashmir

Apparently cooperative moves with Kashmiri leaders amid Covid implosion

By: John Elliott

Narendra Modi, India’s Hindu nationalist prime minister, and his hardline home minister Amit Shah made a tentative move last week towards rebuilding international acceptability and credibility when they held a seemingly cooperative meeting with leading politicians from Jammu and Kashmir, many of whom they arrested in August 2019.

The meeting was a first step towards holding assembly elections in the state following the moves announced nearly two years ago that reduced the constitutional standing of J&K, demoting it from being a full state to a union territory administered by Delhi. Special rights and privileges contained in article 370 of India’s constitution were also removed.

Hundreds of political leaders and activists were detained for many months, some for more than a year. There was a massive security lockdown, which is still partly in force. Internet links were shut down for several months as part of a communications blackout.

The clampdown on Muslim-dominated Kashmir was broadly supported by India’s majority Hindus, but was widely criticized by foreign governments.

Last week’s move by Modi and Shah has been widely interpreted as a diplomatic initiative aimed primarily at improving relations with neighboring Pakistan at a time when India’s other foreign policy problems include a year-long Himalayan border confrontation with China. There is also a risk of Taliban-linked regional instability when the US withdraws from Afghanistan in the next few weeks.

The bigger question however is whether the Kashmir meeting on July 24 is an initial indication that the prime minister and Shah are willing to soften their broader nationalist agenda in an attempt to rebuild India’s international recognition.

The country has taken a series of knocks in the past year that has stymied Modi’s triumphal parade across the world stage as the charismatic leader of the world’s most important and successful growing economy and democracy.

With Donald Trump out of office, Modi no longer has a fellow populist as an ally in the White House. His Hindu nationalist confrontational approach to dealing with minorities, especially Muslims, doesn’t sit well with the Biden administration, so the excesses of Hindutva risk being challenged, even though the US needs India as a buffer partner against China.

Most importantly, India’s basic weaknesses have been exposed by the government’s failure to cope with the Covid-19 pandemic, revealing significant institutional and organizational incapacity.

Many countries have stumbled in the past year when dealing with Covid. But the devastating impact of the second wave in India over the past four months was largely the result of a gradual decline in the effectiveness of the Indian state over many years that has led to the risk of systems and organizations imploding.

It was exacerbated by Modi’s failure to act quickly enough in April when he was electioneering in West Bengal, leading to official (understated) figures for new cases rising to a peak of over 400,000 a day and deaths to over 4,000.

Seven years ago I wrote a book on India called IMPLOSION – India’s Tryst with Reality. It explored how institutions were crumbling as the increasing speed and complexity of current events, coupled with organizational and political limitations, were eating away at the country’s foundations along with inefficient bureaucracy, widespread corruption, and scant respect for laws and regulations,

That is what happened with Covid because India’s governance and systems failed to provide what the country needed. The health service failed to work across vast swathes of the country and the private sector failed to work effectively with the government on the production of vaccines. Rampant profiteering and corruption added to the chaos as the pandemic took hold.

The political system also failed when Modi, Shah and others decided electioneering in West Bengal was more important than dealing with the pandemic. Without Modi actively in charge, Delhi froze under his centralized system of government till he returned from West Bengal. Modi and Shah then vanished from public appearances, leading to speculation that they had been shocked into silence. When Modi has appeared with public statements, he has failed to accept responsibility.

The lineup at Modi’s meeting with Kashmir leaders

Diplomacy also tripped up when S.Jaishankar, the foreign minister failed, along with top diplomats posted abroad, to talk down India’s debacle and persuade foreign capitals that the high figures were not so serious when compared with the size of the 1.4 billion population.

India has therefore lost a substantial amount of the international credibility that it had been building in recent years. India-sceptics around the world, especially in Washington DC, have for years derided India’s inefficiencies and doubted whether it could ever operate as a world power.

They now have specific examples stemming from the Covid pandemic to add to the regular examples of inefficiency – the latest being the absence of a plan to guard military installations against drone attacks that emerged over the weekend when there was an attack emanating from Pakistan on an airbase in Jammu.

Image abroad

Modi now urgently needs to rebuild India’s image abroad and prevent concern about its embedded limitations leading to the country being both downgraded in the eyes of foreign capitals and being criticized for its wider domestic policies.

The Jammu & Kashmir initiative last week will help because Modi can claim that, as promised earlier, he intends to restore democratic institutions that were suspended in 2019, and provide the state with a new and prosperous future. This might stem from foreign criticisms that have been aired by the US Congress, the European Union, and elsewhere.

Certainly, the optics at last week’s meeting were good. The formerly imprisoned (mostly house arrest or dentation in a hotel) politicians from long-established parties lined up to meet Modi and Shah, even though they had been insulted and mocked over the past two years.

They knew however that this was a climb-down for the government, which has failed to fulfill its declared intention to replace them with new parties.

These moves are closely linked with behind-the-scenes contacts between India and Pakistan that are aimed at easing tensions between the two nuclear powers. Pakistan claims J&K as part of its territory and was affronted by the August 2019 change in the state’s constitutional basis.

But progress will be slow. Modi wants to hold elections while J&K remains a largely Delhi-administered union territory. Local politicians however want full statehood to be restored before elections, not later, and they want all political prisoners to be released. Some are also demanding that the special Article 370 rights be restored, though they know there is no chance of Modi agreeing to this.

This is the first time in his seven years in power that Modi has given ground and tried a rapprochement with politicians and political parties he has opposed and threatened to crush. It indicates that he and Shah realize the world has changed in the past years for all the reasons discussed here and that they too might have to tone down their Hindutva rhetoric for a time.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.

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