Why Foreign Policy Is Never An Electoral Issue?

It is surprising that for a country like India, which likes to project itself as a global power, the foreign policy narrative during elections remains limited to Pakistan

For a nation which sees itself as a future global power, it is surprising that foreign policy is never a major talking point in the election season. What goes as foreign policy is a national security narrative focused mainly on Pakistan, terrorism and the need for a strong leader like Narendra Modi to keep India safe.

This buys into the domestic tirade against an “unpatriotic opposition” which plays to Pakistan’s tune. Indeed, this is not the first time that Pakistan comes into play during election season. The “Mia Musharraf” jibe at the Congress party was after all popularised by Narendra Modi in 2014. However, the mainstay of BJP campaign theme that year was not Pakistan, but development and good governance.

Having failed to deliver credibly on any of its poll promises made in 2014, the BJP has pounced on nationalism as the recipe to return to power. The Pulwama terror attack which killed 42 CRPF men in South Kashmir could not have come at a better time. The suicide attack outraged the country. India’s bombing of the Jaish-e Mohammed centre at Balakot gave a fillip to the BJP’s strong leader narrative. The IAF hero who was captured when his plane was shot down over PoK and his subsequent return home, enthralled the urban Indians glued before their television sets to soak up every bit of the action details.

Much of this ultra-nationalism passes off as a foreign policy achievement for the BJP in its election campaign now, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself declaring that India had got inside the enemy’s territory and hit hard. While there is still debate on the amount of losses incurred on Pakistan, the super efficient BJP election machine has ensured that all this is of no consequence. Modi’s connect with the voters is perfect. Anyone questioning the state narrative is anti-national. The opposition dare not raise any doubts for fear of being dubbed as enemies of India.

While foreign policy is rarely an electoral issue for most developing countries, the relations with neighbouring countries often raised to bolster own and vilify the opponents. South Asian nations are a case in point. For a while in Bangaldesh, India was used by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party of Khaled Zia much in the way Pakistan is being by the BJP. Sheikh Hasina was constantly attacked for being an Indian stooge. In Nepal’s last elections, the fact that Prime Minister Oli took on India for its blockade of Nepal in 2015 played a significant part in winning elections for the Communists.

India’s foreign policy has seen a continuation of the Nehruvian vision by successive governments. Even though critics have torn into Nehru’s non alignment movement, we have continued with our lip service to it. The Congress manifesto this year “affirms its firm belief in the continued relevance of the policy of friendship, peaceful co-existence, non-alignment, independence of thought and action, and increased bilateral engagement in its relations with other countries of the world” reads the party’s manifesto in response to a muscular policy allegedly adopted by the Modi government.

The one new idea offered by the Congress is establishment of a National Council on Foreign Policy, where members of the Cabinet Committee on Security would me domain experts to advise the government from time to time. The rest is pretty much the same. There is not much difference between the policies of the BJP and Congress on external affairs.

The biggest tactical shift in India’s foreign policy was brought in by the Manmohan Singh government in 2006 by signing the India-US civil nuclear deal. But the UPA government hesitated to take this either to its logical conclusion or posit it as an achievement before the electorate. The ground for changing equation with the US was set in motion by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee with the  Strobe Talbot-Jaswant Singh dialogue. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has further enhanced the Indo-US partnership by signing three of the four foundation defence agreements which would help the Indian and US troops to operate together. But do such important strategic policy decision make it to the poll campaign banners? Hardly.

In the Indian foreign policy and security establishment, as well as people psyche, there is concern about moving too close to the US. So while Delhi is cautiously moving towards the US camp, it is hesitant to take the final leap. We have little idea of either the BJP or the Congress take on this. The US is keen for India to jointly patrol the South China Sea, in a show of cooperative action against Chinese assertiveness in the region. Yet like the previous UPA government, the NDA has also so far not agreed to it for fear of escalating tension with its giant Asian neighbour.

So far both the Congress and the BJP has continued with the policy of going ahead with co operation with China despite the boundary issue not having being resolved. All this is pragmatic but now with the Belt and Road Initiative of President Xi Jinping, the question is should Delhi continue to stay away? The answers are not simple but need to be debated in public. Should India go ahead and take part in certain projects which would enhance connectivitiy or oppose the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor? Does India have a realistic chance of getting back POK? All of India’s neighbours except Bhutan, have signed in. Italy has too. That should be an eye opener. The foreign policy debate in India should have been much more robust. Can India continue to ignore SAARC? How long will this boycott continue?  But on every question on SAARC, Pakistan props up and the debate goes nowhere till relations improve. We need Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi to talk all this though.

There are reasons why foreign policy is not a part of the election discourse. In a country still struggling to lift millions of people from grinding poverty, unemployment, caste and religious divisions, foreign policy does not resonate among the general voters. It is a subject confined to strategic experts and academic and power circles. India is not an advanced democracy like either Britain or the US or France. It is a democracy in the sense it holds national and state elections every five years and very little else. Questions of human rights, transparency and seldom raised except by intellectuals and activists. It does not concern the general public.

It would be of some concern to people living in border villages along the LoC who are suffering Pakistani artillery in Kashmir or Punjab. In Tripura, Meghalaya, Nagaland and Manipur and Assam, the one point agenda is to detect and deport the alleged Bangladeshi migrants who have entered the north east. All together these states carry less than 40 Lok Sabha seats in a 543-member of the Lower House. For the states that carry the lion’s share of constituencies, like Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, or Madhya Pradesh or Andhra Pradesh, where villagers struggle to make ends meet, does India’s foreign policy really impact their lives?

Thus, it will be quite some time before foreign policy discourses become part of India’s election debate. Till that happens, the electoral debate will circle around either ‘jumlas’ or basic livelihood issues.


#RealChowkidar – ‘BJP's New Lollypop’

Mahender Singh, 72, is an ex-serviceman employed at a mid-size hotel in Gwalior. He believes the chowkidar slogan is a political lollypop. Having said that, he believes that Indian Air Force strikes inside Pakistan territory have turned the tide in favour of the BJP.

A few days back my grandson showed me a video clip on his phone. It showed people from all walks of society singing ‘Main Bhi Chowkidar’, because they were inspired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi calling himself a chowkidar. Kuch jyada hi ho gaya (It was a bit over the top). Little do those hero-heroines in the video realise what it takes to be a security guard. Can anyone of them keep a watch for 12 hours every day, or work the whole night in rain and cold out in the open?

In the real world, outside political jumlebazi, people have little regard for a security guard. Have those men and women ever spoken to a guard politely? They merely expect us to open their car door and greet them with respect, without even bothering to return a smile. So there is little to get carried away by such videos; this is just advsertisement.

Like other governments, the Narendra Modi regime too has no great concern for people’s suffering. They work less but publicise big. I have faced tough times and training during my career in the Indian Army more than 35 years back. I am proud of the force and the way they have the welfare of its own people. That jazba (spirit) is missing in our political class.

But one thing has worked in favour of Narendra Modi – you can call it a stroke of luck if you want. Terrorists in Kashmir provided him an opportunity to prove his mettle to the country. After the Pulwama attack, the people were angry and Modi government sanctioned out brave Air Force to carry out strikes into Pakistan terror camps. This has had great effect on the voter’s mind. In our village and neighbouring areas, people says he is a strong leader and India needs him.

The large number of people who attended the last rites of CRPF jawans martyred in Kashmir is a point in case. The mahaul (atmosphere) of the nation wanted a counter attack on Pakistan and Modi delivered just that. You will see him return to power after 2019 Lok Sabha elections. But, let me tell you, little will change after that. Life for the common man will continue as ever. Sab aise hi chalegea.


#PulwamaRevenge – ‘War Isn't An Option’

I am away from home in a faraway country. There are times I get homesick and I long to be home.  This itch to be home really reaches a pinnacle, during incidents like the Pulwama attack. The moment the news came up on my Facebook feed, I felt a sudden wave of anger and shock, but when it subsided after a few minutes, I began to join the dots together as an aware youngster, who has a mind of his own. And I began to wonder how a slip-up of this level could take place from our intelligence agencies. The security system in Delhi (even in Delhi Metro or the markets is so tight), how could things have gone unnoticed in Kashmir, where metaphorically speaking, perhaps even a bird can’t flap its wings without permission?

Questions are being raised about this massive intelligence failure and the government is answerable to all the people, who are asking these questions. I did a follow-up of all the Pulwama-related news. I was glued to the news websites and stayed away from news channels.  

The next thing I knew, India had conducted a ‘surgical strike’ at Balakot in Pakistan. Though, it might have come across as a decisive step, I have also begun to notice some chinks in BJP’s armour. I feel that they often advertise more than what they actually do at the ground-level, and that might be the undoing of the party. But the janta watches everything. Even though some are not so vocal about their opinion as others, you cannot fool everyone all the ever time.

Over the years, I have understood that war is not the solution. We need mass sensitization of people at ground level. We need genuine engagement with all parties involved in the Kashmir issue, otherwise it might be the end of us all. It is time to end power-games from both sides (India and Pakistan) and genuinely think about solving the issue. We, who were born in the 90s, have no memory of the Kargil War. But we do have memories of the 2008 Mumbai attacks and I believe we really need to put all our energies in finding a solution.

Yes, I do feel important issues have been side-lined in the wake of what happened after Pulwama. People are so busy with the idea of war that they forget the repercussions of a war. But before all the war mongering and calling war a ‘decisive action’ — just picture the bloodied face of Wg Cdr Abhinandan Varthaman or think about the people who have lost their lives. A war between two nuclear powers spells doom for all.

The government needs to address other important issues. It seriously needs to work on job creation, or the youth will become directionless, which is not a good thing for any country. I have come to Canada in the hope of a better future, but I want to go back to India and contribute to the strengthening of its infrastructure (I am pursuing an MBA in Construction Management). We need to strengthen our home so much that no one can dare touch it. And for that, all of us need to individually contribute with our skills.

I haven’t been able to vote so far and sadly this time also it looks improbable because I have just come to Canada and can’t go back home to vote. But if I could, I would still choose to go with Modi, just because I see no other alternative. Here, I interact with people from Pakistan regularly and I must say the world is a better place with love and understanding in it. Hope the Opposition in our country can channelise the power of love and stand up strong and give us alternatives to vote for.


#PulwamaRevenge – ‘Give Peace A Chance’

Losing 44 men in a matter of a few minutes and seeing their bodies and belongings blown to smithereens was too much to process the day it happened. From that day onwards, I made it a point that I wouldn’t watch television to get news updates on the Pulwama attack, I decided to rely on news websites.

If at 18, an individual gets voting rights, it means his/her intellect regarding a matter should be trusted. My gut feeling is that it was impossible to believe that an attack of this scale could have been planned and executed without anyone sensing anything. As far as the ‘surgical strike’ at Balakot goes, I am quite skeptical about that also:  if not the act per se, then at least about its impact. However, when I saw Wg Cdr Abhinandan in captivity, it hurt. It just showed how futile wars are. We need to plan and strategize better as a nation to tackle terrorism. War is not the solution, you cannot douse fire with fire.

I was amused, when I saw a group of people burn an effigy of Pakistan. They did not even wait for the effigy to burn completely, they simply walked off as if their share of patriotism ended with a few matchsticks and loud slogans. It was as if everyone wanted to show ‘ke dekho bhaiya humne bhi desh prem ki  formality poori kar li.’ Love for the nation isn’t a formality, it is a beautiful feeling that brings about a sense of belonging within you. You don’t need to wear it on your sleeves and show it off on the streets. I think this makes quite clear what I think of candlelight vigils for peace. Each individual needs to take responsibility to maintain peace around him/her and it is enough most of the times.

Many of my friends gave me gyan about which television channel to watch, what line of thought I should follow, but I stood my ground and refrained from television.  I am glad I didn’t get swayed easily. I am proud that I always use my power of discernment to assess a situation as a responsible citizen of the country.

Important issues are being sidelined, because of all this war mongering. We youngsters especially need to keep track of the development work, of employment opportunities, for it is our generation’s future at stake. The next five years will be the most crucial phase of our lives. The building blocks of our future will be laid. It is therefore, important for us to make sure that the government we bring into power ensures equitable and sustainable development.  

Recently I personally witnessed how nearly thousands of post-graduates and PhDs were applying for Category ‘D’ government jobs. If this is the condition of the well educated, degree-holders, what job opportunities are left for those, who could not avail of better education facilities in the first place? On the other hand, I also feel many youngsters lack courage. If you really have passion for any particular activity or art form, one is bound to make a name for themselves.

But that doesn’t mean that the government can be let off the hook. There are many people, whose family conditions don’t allow them the luxury of following their passions. The government needs to answer on all fronts, ours is a democracy. I have so far voted only once during Vidhan Sabha elections and this would be the first time I would vote during Lok Sabha elections. I would like to make an informed decision, right before the elections so that I have a clearer picture regarding important issues.


Pulwama: Pre-emptive strike, counter-strike and after

By Amitabh Mathur

Tension between India and Pakistan, following the Pulwama terror attack on February 14 and its aftermath, seems to be subsiding. Pakistan has begun some sort of crackdown on terrorist organisations; banning some and arresting a few elements related to the Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) leader Masood Azhar.

Time will tell whether what is being done is cosmetic and tactical, as on earlier occasions, or is it because of international pressure and Pakistan’s precarious economic situation has led to more lasting action.

Some basic questions surrounding the turn of events that triggered the face-off between the two neighbours have however got lost in the political squabble over electoral gain. To recap, Adil Ahmad Dar, an unemployed indoctrinated Kashmiri youth, posted a video of communal rant and deadly intent. On February 14 he carried out his threat by ramming his explosive-laden vehicle into a convoy of the CRPF Jawans near Pulwama- killing over 40.

The JeM, a proscribed terrorist organisation that operates with impunity, if not also immunity from Pakistan, claims responsibility for the carnage. Given the well-known ties between Pakistan’s intelligence agencies and JeM, the understandable assumption is that Rawalpindi has been complicit in the dastardly attack and Islamabad answerable for what has been conceived, planned and executed by Pakistan-based handlers of Dar.

That India would retaliate to this grave provocation, so close to the Lok Sabha polls, was inevitable. Having suffered Mumbai in 2008 without anything more than appeals to the international community no government now could merely beat its chest and wring its hands in helplessness- certainly not the one led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and advised by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

In a muscular message on February 26, Indian Air Force went deep into Pakistan, successfully bombed a JeM training camp in Balakot and returned safely.

Pakistan Army and Prime Minister Imran Khan too could not take the Indian action lying down. They simply could not afford a repeat of the Operation Geronimo, which took out Osama bin Laden from Abbottabad in Pakistan.

Islamabad responded, albeit feebly, on February 27 when its Air Force crept into Indian airspace and when challenged by air defence and interceptors, hurriedly dropped bombs in stray isolated areas before trying to return to safety.

In the ensuing dog fight, though a Pakistan aircraft was downed, dynamics of unfolding events changed as India lost a MIG 27 and its pilot was captured by Pakistan. Imperatives for New Delhi altered to bring the pilot back as the narrative of a successful muscular message to Pakistan would not have washed with images of the brave young Wing Commander in enemy hands.

This provided the international community with an opportunity to put pressure on Pakistan and defuse the rising tensions. Realising his limited options, Imran Khan quickly made the best of a difficult situation. Appearing magnanimous and conciliatory, he ordered unconditional release of the pilot, returning him on March 1 in civilian clothes quickly stitched by some Pindi tailor.

Pakistan has pleaded, with some support from China, that it has been implicated in the suicide bombing prematurely. Its apologists point to the country’s impoverished state which has led Khan to go around with a begging bowl to potential benefactors.

They argue such a provocation risking war would be most untimely and so Indian accusations are implausible. This has found no takers. The entire operation of spotting a disgruntled Kashmiri, targeting, cultivating, motivating, training him and arranging the explosives and vehicle is beyond the capability of indigenous militants.

It has the imprint of Pakistan’s spy agency Inter-Services Intelligence. Pressured by Indian security forces, especially in south Kashmir, sagging morale of the militants needed boosting. Confident of China’s support and smug over Washington’s desperation for Pakistan’s help to exit Afghanistan with its face intact, Rawalpindi thought it could get away with cheekiness once again. So when frequent convoys presented opportunity, the green signal would have been given.

Fall out of this episode has not been to Pakistan’s advantage. Its nuclear bluff has been called. It did not receive the kind of support it expected from China which asked it to cool things down.

The US accepted India’s right to defence implying Pakistan was the aggressor. It realised prolonging the standoff was not to its advantage. Yet, by retaliating to the Indian strike on Balakot, downing and taking an Indian pilot prisoner, Pakistan has been able to claim it stood up to India. It has once again brought the world’s focus on Kashmir. How much it will succumb to international pressure to crack down on Islamic terror groups that target India remains to be seen.

For India too it has been a mixed bag. Measures announced to punish Pakistan such as cancellation of the MFN status and withholding water in excess of the Indus Treaty are meaningless. Export of a mere $400 million is not about to cripple the security apparatus in Pakistan. It will only hurt businessmen who have a vested interest in trade with India. Nor does India have the infrastructure to store excess water or divert it to its arid areas.

All claims of isolating Pakistan too should be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. While there was no condemnation of India’s foray into Pakistan and bombing the JEM camp, also some acknowledgement of its right to self-defence and pressure on Islamabad to cool down, no country is about to disturb normal relations with Pakistan- certainly not China, US or Saudi Arabia, who all have a vested interest in stable Pakistan. The Organisation of Islamic Cooperation may have overruled Pakistan’s objections in inviting Sushma Swaraj but that did not prevent it from crediting Imran for diffusing the faceoff and condemning “Indian terrorism” in Kashmir!

The important point is India has discarded its policy hitherto of appealing to the world and seeking the high moral ground whenever provoked by Pakistan. It has announced that it will take care of its own security and deal with its recalcitrant neighbour in the manner it chooses.

This will make some tanzeems fear reprisal the next time they indulge in trans-border terror. Yet, one strike across the border may placate domestic public opinion but it is unlikely to deter Pakistan and Islamic terror outfits operating from there. Brokers of the world order will have to be convinced India will not hesitate to raise the ante. Only that will impel them to pressure Pakistan into rolling the terror network down.

Lastly, there needs to be an acknowledgement that Pakistan is only taking advantage of our own cleavages in the Valley and such incidents will recur. Adil Dar, the perpetrator of the dastardly suicide bombing, was a Kashmiri youth who was indoctrinated by radical Islam.

The Youtube video he posted is disturbingly communal and reference to Ghazwa-e-Hind is particularly frightening. As noted by the keen observer Arshad Alam, with rampant unemployment in the valley, the alienated youth is caught between a coercive security apparatus on one hand and a very conservative interpretation of Islam on the other.

This leaves him very little space to indulge in any creative pursuit of his choice. There is disaster looming if he is not engaged. Hopefully, Pakistan, chastened if only temporarily, will provide the opportunity to do so which policymakers will not miss. 



'Modi Politicised Pulwama, Not Cong'

Congress President Rahul Gandhi on Thursday said it wasn’t Congress that politicised the Pulwama terror attack on CRPF convoy but Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The attack set off aerial strikes in Pakistan by Indian Air Force jets.

“We did not politicise the Pulwama attack in the days following the incident. We held a press conference and said that the Congress party stands with the Defence forces and the government. But it’s unfortunate that when the Congress and other parties were standing in solidarity with the government, the Prime Minister politicised the issue,” Rahul said while addressing party’s campaign for the Lok Sabha election due in April-May.

On February 14, around 40 CRPF personnel were killed when a suicide bomber rammed into a convoy while moving from Jammu to Srinagar in Lethpora area of South Kashmir’s Pulwama district. Pakistan based terror outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) claimed the responsibility of the attack.

Rahul promised that if the Congress is voted to power after the 2019 general elections, the party will give “martyr status” to all paramilitary personnel who have sacrificed their lives for the country.

“I believe that any paramilitary personnel who have sacrificed his life for the country should be given the status of a martyr, irrespective of the force he belongs to. We have decided to give the status of martyr to any security person who sacrifices his life for the country after we form a government in 2019 elections,” he said.

Hitting out at Modi over controversial Rafale deal, Rahul accused the Prime Minister of changing the fighter jets deal on his own.

 “Rafale was biggest defence contract in the world, PM Modi changed the contract on his own”, he said adding that Modi gave the contract of Rs 30,000 crore to business tycoon Anil Ambani, who has no experience of manufacturing the fighter aircraft.

The Congress chief said, “Prime Minister Modi promised a special package to Himachal. Congress has waived off farmers’ loans in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. But the Centre has waived off loans of 15 big industrialists, but not of the farmers.”

Continuing his tirade against the Modi government over demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST), Rahul claimed that only poor people stood in line at banks during the demonetisation. He added if the Congress is voted to power, the party will change the GST structure. 

“Only poor people stood in line at banks, not rich people, during demonetisation. The money went to banks and from there it went to these rich people’s pockets. Unemployment is highest in 40 years. Modi ji imposed the GST at midnight. Ask any small trader if GST helped them. The GST infact helped the rich businessmen. We will change the GST structure. We will give you simple GST once voted to power in 2019 Lok Sabha polls,” he claimed.

Talking about the farmers, the Congress chief said, “Farmers pay insurance, but the government gave this money to the businessmen. Congress will give a minimum income guarantee to all poor people in the country.”

Concluding his speech, Rahul thanked people of Himachal Pradesh for fighting for the ideology of the Congress.

“On one side there is anger and hatred, on the other side there is Congress. You will be the winner. The Congress will win all the four Lok Sabha seats in Himachal. Congress thank you for fighting for our ideology,” he said.



Digvijay Calls Pulwama Accident, Trolled

Senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh on Tuesday courted controversy by terming the dastardly Pulwama terror attack an “accident”, drawing a sharp retort from BJP which said his statement was making headlines in Pakistan.

Tweeting in Hindi, he said after the Pulwama “durghatna” (accident) and the Indian Air Force (IAF) strike, “sandeh” (doubt) is being expressed in some foreign media reports following which “vishwasniyata” (credibility) of the Government of India is under question.

The former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister, who has made controversial statements in the past, also questioned the casualty claim in the February 26 air raid and demanded Prime Minister Narendra Modi to come clear on the same.

“Prime Minister, some ministers of your government say 300 terrorists killed, BJP president says 250 are killed, Yogi Adityanath says 400 people were killed and your minister SS Ahluwalia says that no one died. And you are silent about this issue. The country wants to know who is a liar in this,” Digvijaya Singh said.

The Rajya Sabha member’s statement comes at a time when many opposition leaders are raising questions on the Balakot strike by IAF and are asking for proof on the exact casualty inflicted on terrorists.

He later told reporters here, “What else will you call a terrorist attack.”

Hitting out at Digvijaya Singh, BJP leader and Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said the Congress leader’s remarks were making headline news in Pakistan.

Another BJP leader and Union Minister VK Singh asked him whether the assassination of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was a terror incident or just an “accident”.

Prasad said, “Has Digvijaya Singh reduced himself to such a low level that he will call the most heinous terrorist attack on 45 CRPF jawans an accident? This is his thinking.”

At a press conference here, he said that there is a “growing competition” among Congress leaders as to who is “more vocal in lowering the morale of the security forces”.

“I would appeal to Congress that for the sake of India, please don’t reduce the morale, courage and prestige of our forces for your extraneous political interest. They neither have faith in the Army, nor the Air Force. And this is all for votes. We will like to know is all this tweeting a part of the conspiracy. The statement of the Congress spokesperson is making headline news in Pakistan,” he said.