What the world wants from India’s polls
As India becomes caught in electoral frenzy, there is the odd interest among a few of the citizenry about whom the rest of the world would like to see win the polls. This is often coupled with a conspiracy theory or another largely because the truth is that most foreign governments don’t really have a favourite candidate in mind – though many Indians one meets find that hard to believe.
So one hears about strange theories making the rounds of the political parties. Congressmen who think that the long lag in the United States granting Narendra Modi a visa meant Washington was anti-saffron because of some curious Persian Gulf policy requirement. Bharatiya Janata Party supporters who assume Beijing and Islamabad are sticking pins in Modi vodun fetishes (the right description of a voodoo doll).
But the reality is that governments don’t have individuals in mind. Why? Because governments want to pursue policy interests with other governments, whether in trade or security. This means they want a government in New Delhi that can actually implement such policies.
In theory, if different political parties had violently different foreign policy agenda then their would be partisan preferences in certain foreign capitals. But the truth is that in foreign policy there are minimal differences between the two main parties, while regional parties barely give any thought to foreign policy at all. The difference between the Congress and the BJP is more about nuance and style. And specifically when it comes to Manmohan Singh or a Narendra Modi, as Modi’s own aides admit, there is less difference than there is between Singh and the more left-leaning Sonia Gandhi.
Even Pakistan is largely unbothered at the thought of a Modi government, far all of his anti-Muslim image. After all, their experience with Atal Bihari Vajpayee government was extremely positive. Many Pakistanis believe that only a Hindu nationalist government could resolve anything like the Kashmir problem.
In China, concerns about specific parties are even less. India’s China policy has been a constant and unchanged from government to government. A Chinese diplomat noted, not unlike the Pakistanis, that his country was well served when the BJP were last in power.
The strongest resistance to Modi has come from the West, with the British leading a European-American campaign of trying to isolate him over the 2002 riots. This was partly feasible when Modi was a state politician but has fallen apart once he entered the national stage. The US surprised many by holding out longer than the rest but that also reflects that the White House is not paying attention to India, so small special interest issues like human rights are being allowed to dominate policy.
The real issue for most governments is policy implementation. This is where I notice a distinct preference for a Modi government. “We want an Indian government with which we can do business. That means a government with a stable functional majority. Modi looks like he’s the most likely person to deliver that — so we want Modi,” is broadly the refrain I am getting. This is true for India’s friends as well as India’s strategic rivals: they want a New Delhi that can do stuff.
Which is why the departure of Manmohan Singh, though he is widely admired in the international arena by Barack Obama or Angela Merkel, is eagerly awaited by many governments. If he goes, things may actually happen. Singh is a nice guy, but my government wants its agenda with India to be implemented. Obama’s attitude to India was a perfect example of that. The evidence, backed by Obama aides, is that the US president had a great liking for Singh’s quiet and intellectual ways. But Singh failed to deliver, most notably on buying US nuclear reactors. After that Obama let the relationship with Singh — and India — slide.
Individuals don’t matter, interests do. So, yes, most governments want a Modi victory but for reasons that have nothing to do with him, his ideology or his policies. They want him because they want an interlocutor in New Delhi who can deliver.