The elephant that didn’t become a lion

In 2014, Narendra Modi stormed the national and international stage like a rockstar. One of the first decisions of the nationalist BJP government was to adopt a leonine trademark containing four lions of Emperor Ashoka symbolizing strength, courage, pride and confidence. India, the elephant, now wanted to become a lion and was ready to pounce. It is not that the dancing elephant had slowed to a waddle; the new government simply didn’t want to be seen as a clumsy pachyderm. It also didn’t want to be a tiger, for there were many tiger economies in Asia itself.

Prime Minister Modi’s personalized diplomacy and his well-choreographed shows in various world capitals were seen by many as a blockbuster performance. Prophesies and pious hopes often go eerily wrong. Seven years later, India is nowhere close to becoming a lion. In fact, the Indian elephant has even stopped dancing. The world will, thus, continue to describe India as an elephant. More so,when the lion didn’t roar. Some would say it did purr. The elephant is back to lumbering its way across the world. What went wrong?

India’s biggest strength all these years was its vibrant democracy as also its multi-faceted diversity. In the 1950s and 1960s, while newly independent countries fell into the hands of the military or autocrats, India kept the banner of democracy aloft. The message that India conveyed much to the admiration of the world was that democracy and development can go together. India’s democratic success, the West believed, extended the hand of democracy globally.

Today, the economy has bombed but politics booms. Not long ago, Sunil Khilnani, scholar of history and politics, wrote that India was “the substantial bridgehead of effervescent liberty on the Asian continent.” Today, he says the credentials of the Modi government don’t stand up to the scrutiny.

India’s global footprint and adulation of its democratic credentials were a powerful endorsement until they weren’t.

The smoke and mirror games don’t make you a world power. History is non-linear, more like a chaotic pile of sand. Things look stable, and then collapse suddenly. The reality often trumps stagecraft.Diplomacy is not alliterative slogans and rhetorical bombast. It is an instrument of good governance and inclusive politics.

The Hindu nationalists’ worldview rests largely on myths and half-truths. It perhaps produces more history than it can consume. Myths do provide attractive answers to unanswerable questions but cause a lot of damage to history, making history tone-deaf to democracy. History is great but we need applied history—learning from the past to improve policy. Not an attractive proposition for the governing party.

There is a sense in the wider world that India has been a big letdown. Projected by many in the West, India was seen as “the future.” However, with battlefields of the past becoming the combat zones of today, India seems to have become captive to its past.

If democracy in India is moving in reverse gear, the economy too has lost its shine. Prime Minister Modi’s 5 trillion-dollar economy dream was always a pipedream. As they say, every dream is a pipedream before someone achieves it.Today, the Indian economy finds itself in stormy water. Many inflated bubbles have burst before our eyes.Most start ups have closed down for lack of investments. Trickle -down economics  doesn’t work.

We went to town shouting from rooftops that India was the fastest large economy in the world. But as Amartya Sen noted, India took “a quantum jump in the wrong direction.” You can’t treat the systemic malady with quack remedies. Modi promised el dorado to Indians but delivered very little of what Harvard professor Merilee Grindle calls “good enough governance.”

 India had every right to seek a great power status.  Under the Modi government, India, “the reluctant global power,” began to behave and act like an inclined great power. Nothing wrong with that. But India failed to connect strategy with execution. Sunanda K Datta-Ray, veteran journalist, believes that India became a world power in the “condescending rhetoric of American diplomats playing up to our political windbags.” The Americans wanted India to be prepared for the “global burden sharing.” India was elated when the Western powers projected it as a net security provider in the Indian Ocean and beyond.

In 2009, Hillary Clinton described India as a “global power.” Ned Price, State Department spokesperson has reaffirmed that India is “a leading global power.” Both the Congress and the BJP governments have sought to borrow shines from India’s association with the US.

Diplomacy under Modi has seen more flash than bang. Modi’s foreign policy at times appears to be what could be described as “peacock dance”—three steps forward, one step backwards and spread colourful feathers. It has suffered from mirror imaging as it resulted in gross distortions of facts to suit its exigencies, resulting in oversights and poor planning. It has also been a victim of what is called “broken biscuit effect”, that is placing greater emphasis on your own views because you think you are special.

In its quest for world power status, New Delhi spread its wings far and wide promising more than it could deliver. In 2015, India hosted the high-profile India-Africa Forum Summit which was a major departure from the low-key summits of 2008 and 2011. With the participation of 39 African heads of State and Government, this summit was touted as the biggest diplomatic event in independent India. But it could not be sustained. India’s Covid diplomacy too was doomed to fail as there was very little thinking and planning. Indian leaders love to quote Chanakya, ancient Indian philosopher, at the drop of a hat but failed to heed his advice, “by failing to plan, you are planning to fail.”

Today Africa is reeling under Covid’s new surge. It has been worsened by slow vaccination progress across the continent, owing to limited availability of vaccines and the western countries buying most of vaccines. Many blame India for its failure to deliver the vaccine.

The Modi government chose to follow a policy of multi-alignment but acted as if one mattered the most. As they say, a single rose could be your garden, but a single friend need not be your world.

The US is a major global power with which India will remain highly engaged. But with Freedom House and V-Dem Institute blaming the BJP government for the backsliding of democracy, the US will be asking uncomfortable questions. India must pay heed to what the Biden administration is telling New Delhi as much as listen to what is left unsaid.

Recently when External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar met Donald Trump’s national security adviser Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster during his visit to the US, he asked a rather uncomfortable question.  Referring to the Hindutva politics and the undermining of Indian secularism, McMaster asked, “Are India’s friends right to be concerned about some of these recent trends?”

India saw itself as an X factor in ASEAN’s growing profile. That seems no more the case. ASEAN may not have cold-soldiered India, but it has seen India’s limitations particularly after New Delhi’s refusal to join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The Indian government must take to heart the words of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore : “I see India everywhere but find it nowhere.”

All that showers is not monsoon.  How India performs as a democracy and handles its economy will remain its global calling card. Unlike the East Asian model whereby a country must first become economically fit for democracy, India insisted that it must become economically fit through democracy. India stands to gain nothing by becoming a clone of China. The world has seen the end of Pax Americana. Pax Sinica is also doomed to fail. India must assert itself as a benign power who will not fight other people’s wars and that it will maintain the big difference between expanding “strategic reach” and being “expeditionary.” Diplomacy is harder when you shout the loudest. India needs bigger ideas, strategies and traction, not careless grandstanding. Grandstanding has an expiry date.

Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy
Ash Narain Roy did his Ph.D. in Latin American Studies , Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi. He was a Visiting Scholar at El Colegio de Mexico, Mexico City for over four years in the 1980s. He later worked as Assistant Editor, Hindustan Times, Delhi. He is author of several books including The Third World in the Age of Globalisation which analyses Latin America's peculiar traits which distinguishes it from Asia and Africa. He is currently Director, Institute of Social Sciences, Delhi