Post Mortem

New India’s Diplomacy: A foreign policy for domestic audience

By Nagaland Post | Publish Date: 2/24/2021 1:33:54 PM IST

 When the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) released a statement on Rihanna’s tweet about the farm protests early this month, many people around the world wondered why the Indian government was picking a fight with international celebrities and pop stars.

The crisis soon snowballed into a public relations disaster for Indian diplomacy, as more voices joined the chorus from around the world. Commentators pointed out that India’s official response neglected to address the real issue Rihanna had raised.

While Rihanna had tweeted a CNN report on the government’s decision to cut internet access around New Delhi, the MEA’s statement alleged an international conspiracy against India by “vested interest groups” abroad and castigated celebrities for enabling them – all with no proof and few details. In a first, the MEA’s statement also included Twitter hashtags: #IndiaTogether and #IndiaAgainstPropaganda.

Things got worse in the wake of the MEA’s statement, when several Indian celebrities were found to be tweeting identical messages on Indian sovereignty using the MEA’s hashtags and discouraging foreign celebrities from commenting on India’s “internal matters”.

But this only led to further criticism, with many observers questioning the government for attempting to turn a tweet by a pop star into an infringement on India’s sovereignty. Meanwhile, influential global personalities – including Meena Harris, the niece of the US Vice President – reacted by shedding the spotlight on what they saw as New Delhi’s attempt to dodge questions on a humanitarian crisis.

This was far from the only gaffe that Indian diplomacy had to deal with this month.

Not long after the MEA took heat for its statement, Minister of State for Road Transport and Highways, General VK Singh, made his own shocking statement on the borderdispute with China. Talking about the ambiguity that surrounds the Line of Actual Control between the two countries, Singh said, “Let me assure you, if China has transgressed 10 times, we must have done it at least 50 times.” The Chinese foreign ministry called his statement an “unwitting confession” – a vindication of Beijing’s charge that New Delhi is the real aggressor.

Shortly thereafter, Tripura Chief Minister Biplab Deb claimed that the BJP has been planning to expand to Nepal and Sri Lanka, drawing official objection from Kathmandu.

Chest-thumping for the domestic audience at the expense of India’s foreign policy interests is always dangerous – whether it comes from the foreign ministry or from political leaders, wrangling in India’s emotionally-charged political discourse. But what made the response to Rihanna much worse is the fact that it came from India’s foreign ministry, no less.

India’s diplomatic corps has long been renowned for its professional excellence with words and messaging. India’s mastery of diplomatic rhetoric has driven New Delhi’s global soft power and credibility for decades – helping India win trust and goodwill despite raging controversies that surrounded India’s nuclear programme. Yet, India’s official diplomatic communications have increasingly begun to reflect the country’s fiery domestic political rhetoric, with serious and lasting consequences for Indian diplomacy and India’s global image.

Last October, India slammed a Special Rapporteur at the United Nations, Ahmed Shaheed, for being biased towards “one religious community.” India’s charge had followed Shaheed’s report on the controversial Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and the allegations of police brutality that followed it. Less than two months later, an Indian diplomat accused the UN General Assembly (UNGA) of selective condemnation of attacks on Abrahamic religions while ignoring religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. Media outlets later fact-checked that statement by citing various UNGA resolutions that had condemned attacks on Buddhist and Hindu temples in countries like Afghanistan.

Many of the aggressive and communally-charged statements emanating from the Indian foreign ministry seem to be directed more at Hindu nationalist voters back home than at the outside world. That objective is often easily achieved: Supporters of the government would often argue that these statements are a sign that the “new India” is now “standing up” for itself. Jingoists in Indian social media discourse have long believed that the world is collectively predisposed against India, for unclear reasons, and would like New Delhi to punch back. They often cheer the foreign ministry for echoing their words.

But diplomatic statements must aim to build influence and political capital abroad – not at home – and hot-headed statements have very real implications for India’s credibility as an emerging power. The international community is extremely diverse, and people in most countries do not harbour Hindu nationalist sentiments. Communally-charged statements on the world stage only serve, therefore, to make countries suspicious of India’s intentions, even as New Delhi tries to make its case for global leadership. Ironically, they also give fodder to the same criticism that the foreign ministry is trying to counter – voiced by international celebrities – that India is sliding into majoritarianism.

Meanwhile, expansionist comments only add to paranoia and distrust in the neighbourhood, at a time when India is competing with China for influence and goodwill. New Delhi’s shoddy handling of the Kalapani dispute with Nepal last year, which was filled with jingoistic rhetoric in India, only served to elevate a forgotten border dispute into a diplomatic crisis – uniting Kathmandu’s fractured politics and resulting in a unanimous resolution by the Nepali parliament to alter its official map. At least some part of that was driven by a comment from India’s Chief of Army Staff, General Naravane, who insinuated that Nepal was merely acting at China’s behest.

Communally-charged and jingoistic rhetoric in India’s domestic politics is unfortunate, but it’s neither new nor avoidable. But the foreign ministry’s adoption of that language in its official communications with the outside world threatens to set new standards for Indian diplomacy and compromises India’s credibility as a responsible emerging power. It should be a cause for concern for Indian strategic thinkers, diplomats and policymakers.

Mohamed Zeeshan

(The writer is a foreign affairs columnist and author of Flying Blind: India’s Quest for Global Leadership) 


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