Minhaz Merchant

Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla and author of The New Clash of Civilizations (Rupa, 2014). He is founder of Sterling Newspapers Pvt. Ltd. which was acquired by the Indian Express group

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Modi: The Next Two Years

Modi will have an opportunity to reset the India-Russia relationship when he travels to St. Petersburg

In my last column (‘Narendra Modi at Three’), I looked at the hits and misses of the Prime Minister’s first three years in office. It’s time now to look ahead. What do the next two years hold? What should be the Prime Minister’s priorities?

After a rousing six months at home capped by stunning election victories in Uttar Pradesh, Delhi and elsewhere, Modi returns in June to back-to-back foreign diplomacy. First up is a bilateral meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in St. Petersburg on 1 June.

A key Indian worry has been the drift in relations with Russia. Moscow’s growing affinity for the China-Pakistan axis is based on pragmatism. Western sanctions and low oil prices have hit Russia’s economy. Moscow also views with suspicion India’s strategic defence partnership with Washington. Modi will have an opportunity to reset the India-Russia relationship when he travels to St. Petersburg. Modi and Putin will flag off a motor rally that highlights India’s connectivity effort in the region: the International North South Transportation Corridor (INSTC).

The INSTC is a counter to China’s One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project. It will connect India, Iran and Russia and set up Chabahar port in Iran as a rival to Gwadar port in Balochistan where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) begins. Later, INSTC can link up with connectivity projects in Central Asia and Eurasia to expand India’s economic and geopolitical footprint.

Modi will then attend the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summit in Astana, Kazakhstan on June 8-9. He will run into Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif who is mired in deep trouble at home. The Panama Papers case is closing in on him. The Army is furious with Sharif following Islamabad’s defeat at the International Court of Justice (ICJ).

Beyond a handshake, a Modi-Sharif meeting in Kazakhstan is unlikely. The shadow of Kulbhushan Jadhav and frequent Pakistan-instigated terrorist strikes across the LoC hangs over India-Pakistan relations. For Modi the bigger question is: what next with Pakistan? He has tried diplomacy by inviting Sharif to his inauguration on 26 May 2014 and dropping in at Sharif’s opulent home in Lahore on his birthday on 25 December 2015. The Pakistani Army killed both overtures.

The Pakistani Army needs permanent low-intensity conflict with India in order to preserve its primacy within Pakistan. It does so by invoking the (false) fear of an Indian threat to Pakistan’s sovereignty. The Pakistani Army controls nearly 35 per cent of the country’s GDP with Benami business and land holdings. It does not want war with India (that would disrupt business), just low-cost, low-intensity terrorism. Indian policymakers have not fully understood the Pakistani Army’s psyche and regard relations in black and white, ignoring the several shades of grey. That is why every Indian Prime Minister — and especially Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr Manmohan Singh — have misread Pakistan. The result: tough talk, timid action.

Modi must reset his Pakistan policy. Taking the Kulbhushan Jadhav case to the ICJ was the right decision. As the case wends its way through the judicial process, it will focus international attention on Pakistan’s appalling human rights record and jihadi mindset. Legal action alone on a rogue State though, is not enough. Retaliation on the LoC, surgical strikes (including the use of the Airforce to hit terror launch pads inside Pakistan), as well as tough economic and diplomatic measures are necessary.

India should take a leaf out of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s playbook. Xi will be at the SCO in Kazakhstan, watching benignly over Sharif and Modi. Behind the half-smile lies an implacable mind. Xi has clamped down so hard on Islamist terrorists in Xinjiang that new-born babies are not allowed to be even named Mohammad. A month after the tense meetings at the SCO, Modi will gather with world leaders on July 7-8 at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. It will be an opportunity to refresh the Prime Minister’s global strategy to put India at the centre of international economic and security concerns. That strategy has stalled in 2017.

New leaders in Europe provide new challenges — and opportunities. Modi will meet France’s centrist Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron for the first time. The British snap general election will meanwhile, be held on 8 June 2017. Modi will therefore, re-engage with Centre-Right Prime Minister Theresa May, whose Conservative Party currently has a lead (though a diminishing one) over the Labour Party, led by the hard-Left ideologue Jeremy Corbyn. Donald Trump will be the elephant in the room at the G-20 summit in Hamburg. He has much on his mind. The Washington establishment has him in its crosshairs. Trump will be too distracted to strike up a meaningful relationship with Modi — a relationship soured by the H1B visa controversy and tightening immigration. Yet America remains India’s most important long-term ally to counter the China-Pakistan axis in South Asia and the Indian Ocean.

Apart from re-energising India’s foreign policy, Modi’s priorities over the next two critical years should focus on implementing the multiple schemes initiated over the past three years. The NDA government must also bring to closure UPA-era corruption cases which have meandered for years. The Karti Chidambaram and Robert Vadra cases will be litmus tests of the government’s intent and sense of purpose.

Governance reforms are crucial. The judiciary needs more judges and better infrastructure. A Lokpal must be appointed soon. Healthcare and education both require greater resources and priority. The government’s proactive measures to control the price of medical equipment and branded drugs is welcome. But the quality of academics heading educational institutions clearly must improve. Some recent appointments have been based on ideology, not merit. They do the government no credit and harm Indian scholarship.

For a Prime Minister who is a consummate communicator, it is unfathomable why the government’s messaging is so poor. Without a daily media briefing by the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) that takes issues of the day head-on, disinformation fills the vacuum. A structured daily media briefing protocol should be established by the PMO comprising one minister (by rotation), one bureaucrat (again by rotation), and a professional media officer. They can provide details of the government’s schemes, tackle current issues in real-time and refute media distortions as soon as they occur.  

Information is power. The government needs to recognise this now as it moves into the final two-year stretch ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

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