Is it time for India to look inward or outward?

Reuters/Adnan Abidi
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) is greeted by his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif after Modi took the oath of office at the presidential palace in New Delhi May 26, 2014. Reuters/Adnan Abidi

As freshly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his cabinet make their first visits abroad, many analysts argue India’s new government seems intent to “go regional” in order to boost India’s international profile. Modi’s swearing-in ceremony included invitations to every single SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Corporation) nation, including an historic first-time visit from Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His first visit abroad was to Bhutan (where he had an “oops moment” and accidentally referred to the country as “Nepal” while addressing the Bhutan Parliament). Meanwhile, External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj recently returned from visiting Bangladesh, a visit that’s also been touted as an “effective model of development” for strengthening ties throughout India’s South Asian neighborhood.

But as Indian columnist Nilanjana S. Roy writes, Modi’s inclination to reach out to regional neighbors isn’t just a sign of India looking outward — it’s also reflective of India’s search for a stronger Indian identity, and an inherent suspicion of the West:

“In the 1990s, Lee Kuan Yew, the former Prime Minister of Singapore, triggered a fierce debate by drawing a line between Western freedoms and human rights, on the one hand, and, on the other, an Asian vision of living in harmony, which might place individual rights in abeyance for the good of the community. In India, this ‘Asian values’ debate found its way into discussions on development, among other things, notably in arguments trying to discredit environmentalists for being too heavily influenced by the West.

“The problems with that position are the same now as they were then. As the economist Amartya Sen put it in 1997, ‘What can we take to be the values of so vast a region, with such diversity?’ As a result, invoking an Indian, or Asian, identity in such a plural country, or region, often becomes an excuse for the majority to speak over many minorities.”

According to Roy, the suspicion toward the West — which even ordinary Indians harbor in addition to politicians and businessmen — has turned “Western values” into a scapegoat in India:

“These days, the purportedly shady influence of the West is invoked not only to explain why women are victims of sexual violence, but also why Indian culture is in danger, artists should be censored or anyone who questions the costs of development is ‘anti-national.’ In other words, the return of the Asian values debate in India has already become an excuse to assault civil and political rights.”

As much as some observers note India’s suspicion toward the West and laud Modi’s efforts to reach out to neighboring nations, others still criticize the Indian government for parroting the United States and, at least thus far, not asserting a big enough role in the region. Take Suhasini Haidar, the diplomatic editor of English-language newspaper the Hindu. She argues India ought to start asserting a bigger role in the Middle East, West Asia, and the Gulf nations, and wrote the following after an address in Parliament earlier this month in which Indian President Pranab Mukherjee made no mention of the ambassadors from these regions — even though they were present at the meeting:

“The gradual decline in India’s ties with the region is baffling. Even if you discount our obvious dependence on the region for oil — about 70 per cent of all oil imports, not to mention the bulk of trade that is conducted through this region via the Suez Canal — there is still the staggering fact of the numbers of Indians employed in the countries there. Nearly seven million Indians now live and work in the Gulf and WANA, sending home about half of the $65 billion India earns in global remittances. These are Indians who will not be granted anything more than work permits, and their welfare will remain India’s responsibility. At seven million, this group of overseas workers is an integral part of India’s relations with the WANA-Gulf region, forming the equivalent of India’s ’30th State,’ with a population almost the equivalent of that of Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand.

“The missing workers and stranded nurses of Tikrit and Mosul have now brought this community into the spotlight again, but the focus, as in the past, is fleeting. Indians working in these countries suffer, just as bilateral relations do, from a lack of interest by India. Activists say that everyday in the Gulf, two Indians commit suicide on an average. They work gruelling hours for unregulated agencies, being shipped around, as the construction workers were from the United Arab Emirates to Iraq, without India speaking up for them. And one part of the problem is that India’s voice doesn’t carry the weight it once did in the region.”

Perhaps the time for India’s authority in the region has come, however. In the days following the address, the Afghanistan ambassador to India requested India’s help in fighting the war in Afghanistan, and more recently, reports indicate thousands of Indian Muslims are signing up to go to Iraq to help preserve shrines in danger of desecration in the current crisis.
Within India, though, impatience is rising within some circles. “Modi has issued a 10-point agenda to improve everything from the economy, transparency and confidence in India’s ordinarily truculent bureaucracy,” NPR’s South Asian correspondent Julie McCarthy wrote in a blog post. “The proposed changes have been cheered by the Indian public tired of a rudderless government and yearning for ‘Acche Din,’ or the ‘Good Days,’ which Modi promised to bring about in his campaign.”
But the good days haven’t quite come to India, McCarthy reports:

“[Modi has] made no public address about the abduction of Indian laborers in Iraq by militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. After pledging to make women a priority, Modi made only a glancing reference to the sexual assault and hanging of two young girls last month, a crime that shocked the nation. Police are now investigating whether the incident was a case of honor killing. There has also been an awkward silence regarding the sexual assault charges facing one of his junior ministers.”

Indeed, “acche din,” or the “good days,” has become an ironic euphemism for some Indians who are still waiting for prices to come down and other signs of real change in the country:

(“Aanewalehei” means “is coming” — “Good days are coming,” is the translation).

In his defense, Modi wrote in his blog on June 26, the 39th anniversary of India’s Emergency and the one-month anniversary of his assumption of power, that he’s been working quite hard. He hasn’t even had a “honeymoon period,” he wrote:

“Every new Government has something that friends in the media like to call a ‘honeymoon period.’ Previous governments had the luxury of extending this ‘honeymoon period’ up to a hundred days and even beyond. Not unexpectedly I don’t have any such luxury. Forget hundred days, the series of allegations began in less than a hundred hours. But when one is working with the sole aim of serving the nation determinately, these things do not matter. That is why I keep working and that is most satisfying.”


This piece was originally published on June 30, 2014, on Link TV’s World News website.

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