Modi’s elec­toral man­date in In­dia means fur­ther pres­sure from Trump

The Washington Times Daily - - FRONT PAGE - BY DEBASISH ROY CHOWD­HURY

NEW DELHI | Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi’s thump­ing re­elec­tion vic­tory has put him in the un­en­vi­able po­si­tion of hav­ing to re­build In­dia’s bat­tered econ­omy, key to the coun­try’s emer­gence as a global power, while fi­ness­ing in­creas­ing pres­sure from Pres­i­dent Trump to en­dorse U.S. pol­icy pref­er­ences in a volatile re­gion.

Mr. Modi’s Hindu na­tion­al­ist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the seven-week na­tional elec­tion as the vote-count­ing be­gan Thursday, win­ning over 300 of the 542 directly elected seats in the In­dian Par­lia­ment. The tally bet­ters the 282 that the party notched in the first Modi wave in 2014, a feat even more re­mark­able in a rau­cous democ­racy where peo­ple of­ten vote against the rul­ing gov­ern­ment.

In a sign of the scope of the BJP’s tri­umph, Rahul Gandhi, bearer of one of the most fa­mous names in In­dian pol­i­tics and leader of the op­po­si­tion In­dian Na­tional Congress, lost his seat to a BJP ri­val in Ame­thi, a long­time Gandhi fam­ily bas­tion in the north In­dian state of Ut­tar Pradesh. He will re­main in Par­lia­ment be­cause he con­tested and won another seat in the south­ern state of Ker­ala.

Out­side the BJP’s head­quar­ters in New Delhi, hun­dreds of peo­ple cheered and shouted party slo­gans, The As­so­ci­ated Press re­ported. Some rev­el­ers lifted card­board cutouts of Mr. Modi and BJP Pres­i­dent Amit Shah into the air as oth­ers played drums and set off fire­works.

“This elec­tion was fought not by politi­cians but the peo­ple of this coun­try — and it’s the peo­ple of this coun­try who have emerged vic­to­ri­ous,” Mr.

Modi told sup­port­ers in New Delhi Thursday night. “We will never give up our ideals, our hu­mil­ity and our cul­ture.”

An­a­lysts said Mr. Modi’s pop­ulist touch and Hindu na­tion­al­ist ap­peal over­came a mixed record on the econ­omy and the anti-in­cum­bent pen­chant of In­dian vot­ers. Mr. Trump and Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping were among a stream of world lead­ers who con­grat­u­lated Mr. Modi on his un­ex­pect­edly large man­date, which will likely ce­ment his dom­i­nance of the In­dian political scene.

“Great things are in store for the U.S.In­dia part­ner­ship with the re­turn of PM Modi at the helm. I look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing our im­por­tant work to­gether!” Mr. Trump tweeted.

But be­neath the sur­face of the ap­par­ent ca­ma­raderie, the re­la­tion­ship with Washington has come un­der ma­jor stress as Mr. Trump de­mands greater mar­ket ac­cess for Amer­i­can goods to close the $20 bil­lion trade deficit with In­dia, while pres­sur­ing the Modi gov­ern­ment to curb a bur­geon­ing eco­nomic re­la­tion­ship with Iran. Mr. Trump has also threat­ened to end the pref­er­en­tial treatment for many In­dian prod­ucts, which al­lows duty-free en­try into the U.S. mar­ket from de­vel­op­ing coun­tries.

Mr. Modi over­came an econ­omy that has yet to re­spond to re­forms he has tried to pass, leav­ing In­dia in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on the U.S. for its de­fense and strate­gic re­quire­ments.

That eco­nomic weak­ness has ag­gra­vated In­dia’s diplo­matic vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties, an­a­lysts say, and will present a sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenge for the gov­ern­ment. The coun­try is fac­ing a slow­ing econ­omy, a se­vere un­em­ploy­ment cri­sis, deep­en­ing agrar­ian dis­tress as half of its dis­tricts face drought, shrink­ing in­dus­trial out­put, stag­nant in­vest­ments, tepid con­sump­tion, muted ex­ports and per­sis­tently wide fis­cal and trade deficits.

Mr. Gandhi and other op­po­si­tion par­ties tried to fo­cus on Mr. Modi’s lack­lus­ter eco­nomic record, once con­sid­ered his strong point, but the prime min­is­ter fought his re­elec­tion cam­paign on the theme of mus­cu­lar na­tion­al­ism that drowned out the noise over the econ­omy.

Mr. Modi re­sponded to a ter­ror­ist strike on In­dian sol­diers in the restive Kash­mir re­gion in Fe­bru­ary just be­fore the elec­tions by or­der­ing covert airstrikes on ter­ror­ist cells across the bor­der in Pak­istan. The suc­cess of what the In­dian gov­ern­ment termed “sur­gi­cal strikes” built on Mr. Modi’s im­age of an un­com­pro­mis­ing na­tion­al­ist leader, which his party put to suc­cess­ful use in his cam­paign.

One more chance

Despite Mr. Modi’s fail­ure on the eco­nomic front, the vot­ers chose to give him one more chance. The more dif­fi­cult task of liv­ing up to this trust begins now.

“It is only eco­nomic strength that can bring In­dia power and real in­flu­ence,” said Niru­pama Rao, the coun­try’s for­mer top diplo­mat who also served as am­bas­sador to the United States and China.

“Mr. Modi should be In­dia’s Deng Xiaop­ing, and his sec­ond term should be all about de­vel­op­ment,” said the for­mer diplo­mat. “Na­tional se­cu­rity draws its sustenance from eco­nomic strength. This is still work in progress for In­dia.”

Mr. Modi, 68, has also carved out a more prom­i­nent role in re­gional and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs than his pre­de­ces­sors, seek­ing to raise In­dia’s global pro­file and clout in in­ter­na­tional in­sti­tu­tions. He has un­der­taken 92 for­eign trips to 57 coun­tries since tak­ing the helm, twice as many as Man­mo­han Singh dur­ing his five years in power.

Be­yond the rou­tine hand­shak­ing and starched meet­ings, he has of­ten con­verted these trips into oc­ca­sions for un­con­ven­tional power pro­jec­tion. Months af­ter be­com­ing prime min­is­ter in 2014, he ad­dressed 18,000 In­dian Amer­i­cans at New York’s Madi­son Square Gar­den in a glit­ter­ing show be­fit­ting a rock star. The next year, he re­peated the per­for­mance

at Lon­don’s Wem­b­ley Sta­dium, in a 4½hour

show at­tended by 60,000 peo­ple.

“Ev­ery lit­tle foray be­yond In­dia that he un­der­takes is ac­com­pa­nied by the sound of trum­pets and hosan­nas from his ever-en­larg­ing do­mes­tic con­stituency. There is sus­pen­sion of dis­be­lief. So, his pol­icy on the United States is seen as be­ing in a good place, his re­la­tion­ship with Pres­i­dent Trump is re­garded as pos­i­tive,” Ms. Rao said.

But the Madi­son Square Gar­den cel­e­bra­tion was held dur­ing the Obama pres­i­dency, when In­dia was an im­por­tant com­po­nent of America’s “Pivot to Asia” strat­egy. That fo­cus has been re­ced­ing since Mr. Trump’s elec­tion in 2016.

In­dia and the U.S. have for two decades been edg­ing closer as a hedge against a ris­ing China. The U.S. sees in In­dia a demo­cratic Asian power with a grow­ing econ­omy that can help con­tain China. In­dia, on the other hand, seeks Amer­i­can part­ner­ship to fend off the su­per­power next door.

But Mr. Trump is test­ing the cozy re­la­tion­ship. Even though In­dia and the U.S. have moved strate­gi­cally closer with ma­jor de­fense agree­ments un­der Mr. Trump and Mr. Modi, the U.S. pres­i­dent has been de­mand­ing that In­dia bring more to the ta­ble.

“Re­cent years have seen un­usual pres­sure on In­dia to con­form to er­ratic U.S. for­eign poli­cies that run con­trary to In­dia’s long-term in­ter­ests, par­tic­u­larly on questions such as In­dia’s re­la­tions with Iran, China and Russia as well as In­dia’s broader trade poli­cies,” said Zo­rawar Daulet Singh, au­thor of “Power and Di­plo­macy: In­dian For­eign Poli­cies Dur­ing the Cold War,” and a fel­low at In­dia’s Cen­ter for Pol­icy Re­search.

Apart from Ira­nian oil, Mr. Trump re­cently warned In­dia of sanc­tions if it bought an S-400 air de­fense missile sys­tem from Russia, a de­mand that In­dia ig­nored.

“It’s more like an un­equal re­la­tion­ship where In­dia of­fers con­ces­sions sim­ply to main­tain pos­i­tive ties with the U.S. What In­dia should strive for is a mod­est strate­gic part­ner­ship that doesn’t en­tan­gle In­dia in U.S. Cold War style poli­cies,” Mr. Daulet Singh said. “The key chal­lenge for Mr. Modi’s sec­ond term is to re­sist U.S. pur­suit of an overly trans­ac­tional re­la­tion­ship with In­dia. A pop­u­lar na­tional man­date should pro­vide New Delhi with the political will to hold its ground.”

Ten­sion over Iran

The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s tight­en­ing sanc­tions on Ira­nian oil is the lat­est ir­ri­tant be­tween the two sides.

Washington’s im­po­si­tion of harsh sanc­tions on Ira­nian crude ex­ports went into ef­fect in Novem­ber, but the sanc­tions were waived for eight coun­tries, in­clud­ing In­dia, China, Turkey and Ja­pan. On April 22, Washington an­nounced that the waivers would be revoked ef­fec­tive May 1. In­dia, in the mid­dle of an elec­tion cam­paign, ap­pealed for an ex­ten­sion, which was not granted.

Kick­ing off a new term, Mr. Modi will have to tackle this de­mand, which comes as a ma­jor shock to In­dia. The coun­try im­ports 80% of its crude, and Iran is its third-big­gest sup­plier. Many In­dian oil re­finer­ies are also de­signed to process Ira­nian crude. Any change of the source will re­quire a costly re­cal­i­bra­tion of the re­finer­ies.

Iran is also one of In­dia’s val­ued strate­gic part­ners. In­dia has spent mil­lions of dol­lars build­ing a port in Iran to by­pass archri­val Pak­istan, which now con­trols all ma­jor sup­ply routes to land­locked Afghanista­n.

Nee­lam Deo, a for­mer am­bas­sador and the di­rec­tor of In­dian for­eign pol­icy think tank Gate­way House, sees Mr. Modi’s vic­tory lead­ing to a deep­en­ing of the re­la­tion­ship with the U.S. in de­fense and tech­nol­ogy trans­fer but said the trade re­la­tion­ship remains “dif­fi­cult and trou­bled.”

“The Iran sanc­tions are par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult,” she said, adding that it may lead to a clos­ing of ranks be­tween In­dia and China.

“There is def­i­nitely more scope for co­or­di­na­tion be­tween In­dia and China as a group of Ira­nian oil buy­ers, though we will have to take into ac­count the re­ac­tion of the U.S. when deal­ing with China,” she said.

China’s state-run me­dia have hinted that Bei­jing might be open to work­ing with In­dia to take on Mr. Trump’s Iran gam­bit.

“China should op­pose the hege­monic ap­proach of the U.S., but it can’t take the lead in con­fronting the U.S. on is­sues in­volv­ing Iran. Bei­jing needs to co­or­di­nate with other ma­jor pow­ers to re­spond to U.S. sanc­tions against Iran,” said a Global Times opin­ion piece pub­lished last month.

Mr. Xi is ex­pected to visit In­dia soon as a fol­low-up of a high-level “in­for­mal sum­mit” last year be­tween him and Mr. Modi in the Chi­nese city of Wuhan. The two lead­ers were mak­ing a ma­jor course cor­rec­tion af­ter a two-month mil­i­tary stand­off in 2017 in the Dok­lam area on the Sikkim-BhutanTi­bet bor­der. Af­ter re­la­tions be­tween the two Asian giants reached the nadir, they have been re­cal­i­brat­ing their po­si­tions to deepen trade ties as a re­sponse to Mr. Trump’s of­fen­sives.

Mr. Modi’s crush­ing elec­tion vic­tory and the vir­tual dec­i­ma­tion of the op­po­si­tion now al­low him bold pol­icy ini­tia­tives such as closer ties with China and take the thaw in re­la­tions with China to the next level.

Jabin Ja­cob, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at the Shiv Nadar Uni­ver­sity in Delhi, sees greater align­ment be­tween In­dian and Chi­nese po­si­tions in cer­tain ar­eas, such as Ira­nian oil and the Chi­nese tech gi­ant Huawei, fac­ing se­vere U.S. sanc­tions over its close­ness to the gov­ern­ment in Bei­jing. But he is skep­ti­cal of an over­haul in In­dia’s re­la­tions with China af­ter Mr. Modi’s vic­tory be­cause of their fun­da­men­tal power asym­me­try. Though China and In­dia are of­ten seen as ri­vals, the Chi­nese econ­omy is five times the size of In­dia’s.

“In our re­la­tion­ship with China, they have op­tions as they have greater state ca­pac­ity and diplo­matic mus­cle,” said Mr. Ja­cob. “We need to first fix our in­ter­nal is­sues — es­sen­tially the econ­omy. We have to gen­er­ate jobs, im­prove the qual­ity of man­u­fac­tur­ing and re­vi­tal­ize agri­cul­ture. We have to go back to the ba­sics.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

FIVE MORE YEARS: In­dian Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, a pro-busi­ness Hindu na­tion­al­ist leader, was de­clared the win­ner af­ter seven weeks of vot­ing when fi­nal bal­lots were counted.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Sup­port­ers of In­dia’s Bharatiya Janata Party cel­e­brated the re­elec­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi on Thursday. Mr. Modi, 68, has carved out a prom­i­nent role in re­gional and in­ter­na­tional af­fairs to raise his coun­try’s pro­file and clout around the world.

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