2 December 2020 06:18 PM

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BHARAT KARNAD | 6 MARCH, 2020

PM Modi’s Huge Strategic Mistake

PM Modi’s Huge Strategic Mistake


Prime Minister Narendra Modi had hoped to bask in the Trumpian glow during and after the US President’s short visit that was never geared from the start to be more than a publicity stunt at best. Instead he found the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act protesters raining on his parade.

The occasion for serious Modi-Trump jaw-jaw disappeared once Delhi held fast to a few sticking points, particularly ‘no US dairy exports’ to India. But having announced a trade deal as precondition for his trip, Trump had the option to call-off the trip and miss out an opportunity to super-hyperbolically boast about “millions” of Indians gathered to greet him. This last was intolerable even if in Trump’s arithmetic the 95,000 collected at the Motera stadium in Ahmedabad equals millions.

The visit itself sort of unfolded herky-jerkily — with no one taking any of it seriously except the excitable Indian print and electronic/ television media who are ever the willing handmaidens to whosoever is in power at the moment, and who dutifully and full-throatedly sang hosannas to Modi and Trump, trying desperately to make the whole event appear to be more than a gigantic photo-op that it was.

A development, potentially damaging of Modi’s reputation and India’s image as an easy going tolerant country, was taking shape. An entirely peaceful sit-down campaign was gathering momentum a dozen kilometers from South Block in the lead-up to Trump’s visit.

Considering that their demand was for a withdrawal of CAA, which the Modi government had peremptorily rejected, any realistic assessment by the Home Ministry with numerous intel and police agencies under command, would have reasonably concluded that, if the priority was to at all cost prevent the communal situation from blowing up just when the Western media was in the country in strength and Modi and Trump were sitting down for a bit of mutual backslapping, that a few things needed to be ensured.

Namely, that (1) the protest be allowed to continue undisturbed to buff up the country’s democratic credentials and, in line with this intent (2) absolutely no one and nothing be permitted to disturb an inherently tense situation from getting out of hand, and (3) armed Delhi Police, with para-military forces as backup, be instructed, to take into custody known murderous thugs and mischief-mongers, and maintain peace and order with increased armed police presence and deterrent patrols.

What was allowed to happen by the Modi government was exactly the opposite. The deep-down resolve to “teach” Muslims a lesson apparently overtook good strategic sense and young BJP leaders on the make — Anurag Thakur, Kapil Mishra, et al felt encouraged to mouth off incendiary nonsense which was matched by hotheads on the other side, in particular Waris Pathan, Maharashtra MLA of the All India Majis-e-Ittehad-ul-Muslimeen (AIMIM), the Hyderabad city party, who in a fit of unvarnished idiocy on Feb 20 mouthed inflammatory stuff like “Time has now come for us to unite and achieve freedom. Remember we are 15 crore but can dominate over 100 crores”, which was promptly dubbed a Jinnah-type war cry, and the fat was on the fire. How Asaduddin Owaisi, the immaculate barrister heading AIMIM, whom I hold in the highest regard for his emphasis on Constitutional rectitude, could allow his lieutenants to make such utterances in combustible circumstances is beyond understanding.

Whether such statements offer a clear chronology of events that led to the carnage is not the point. What is is that such fiery speeches offered apriori and/or ex-post facto sanction to both sides to go beserk, putting lone Muslims (like the one in the pic above) and Hindus caught in the wrong locality in serious jeopardy, facing death by bludgeoning.

Modi’s off-handish advice to keep peace did nothing to stay the rioters from their job. It reminded many of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat riots where too he periodically issued statements urging peace but apparently did not simply order the police to stop the mayhem, or else. So the violence continued for a couple of days until the powers that be decided the Muslims were sufficiently chastised. But then the Delhi riots were a repeat of the 1984 holocaust against the Sikhs when the then Congress party govt under Rajiv Gandhi saw the terrible mob actions as just retribution for Indira Gandhi’s assassination. What’s the difference? None. But it does emphatically suggest that Delhi Police being a creature of the central govt of the day, will do nothing the home minister doesn’t want done.

This circles back to Modi’s ability to think strategically. Didn’t he know that with Trump coming, there was every likelihood of the CAA protest cascading into a public relations disaster for himself personally and for the nation he leads if the situation was permitted by acts of omission or commission to go astray?

Even if he considered this a remote possibility, should he not have warned his party colleagues to do nothing untoward and his sword-arm, Amit Shah, to see to it that nothing bad transpired, at least not during Trump’s short trip? So the question arises: if the Prime Minister is unable to gauge his own personal future interests correctly and take appropriate prophylactic and preemptive measures, can he think strategically to shore up and advance the national strategic interests?

As mentioned in the previous post, the anti-democratic behaviour of his govt has now become grist for the Western press, and hence for the American government and politicians. If Modi had hoped to gain further traction in Washington, he can safely lay those hopes to rest.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedoms has already slammed Delhi, Bernie Sanders too has jumped in, questioning the $3 billion deal for military hardware, and UN has decried the human rights excesses. Ere long there will be US Congressional hearings where those representing the anti-CAA faction will be invited to depose, which activity Modi’s chum, Trump, can’t terminate at will.

This is only the beginning and should the Democrats displace Trump, Modi will be in bad odour once again in Washington, and India in the doghouse.

One of the themes I analyzed at length in my last book — ‘Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition’ was precisely this, that Modi will not be able to realize his strategic objective of getting India to emerge as a principal rival to China on the Asian, leave alone the world, stage if he also creates an illiberal state and society at home. It is a lesson the Prime Minister, unless he is entirely disconnected from reality, will learn because History is a hard teacher.

BHARAT KARNAD is Professor for National Security Studies, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. His most recent book, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition was published by Penguin in September 2018. His blog: Security Wise
 

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