By Dr. Shashi Tharoor
If there were ever to be an object lesson in the fundamental political wisdom that opposing is different from governing, Narendra Modi and the BJP epitomize it.
We have already seen the Modi government reverse half a dozen domestic positions of the Modi campaign. Our new BJP rulers now support GST (the proposed Goods and Services Tax), sugar subsidies, railway and diesel price hikes, FDI in insurance and other key UPA budget measures, all of which they had ferociously denounced, obstructed and prevented progress on when they were in Opposition.
Nowhere is the U-turn more apparent, though, than in foreign policy. One of the first acts of the newly-elected Prime Minister was to invite Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration, after attacking the Congress Party and his predecessor Manmohan Singh for being too soft on our neighbour. Modi, who had excoriated the Congress for “serving chicken biriyani” to a Pakistani visitor, now exchanges shawls and saris with his Islamabad counterpart. (I mischievously tweeted my hope that chicken biriyani would be on Modi’s dinner menu for his Pakistani guest: it wasn’t.)
In the election campaign, Modi had breathed fire and brimstone about Bangladesh, accusing it of sending millions of illegal immigrants into India and promising that the moment he won the election, they would all have to “pack their bags” and leave India for home. Bangladeshi officials had publicly and privately expressed their disquiet that any attempt to do this could be deeply destabilizing for their politically fragile state. Within weeks of his victory, however, Modi’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj was all smiles on her first official visit abroad – to Bangladesh. Illegal immigration wasn’t even mentioned in Dhaka.
The Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh concluded by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, which Indian diplomats had considered vital to removing bilateral irritants, had never been implemented because UPA couldn’t win the BJP’s support in Parliament to ratify the territorial swaps required. Now the Modi Government is the biggest votary of the Land Boundary Agreement, with the BJP leadership calling for it to be ratified.
The BJP had been virulently critical of the Indo-US nuclear deal, Manmohan Singh’s signature foreign policy triumph. They had even supported a no-confidence motion against the UPA government on the issue of the deal. Yet, in a quiet and under-reported move, the Modi government wisely ratified the India-specific Additional Protocol, a UPA undertaking to grant greater access to India’s civilian nuclear sites to the UN’s International Atomic Energy Agency.
In the lead-up to and during his election campaign, Modi and the BJP had constantly berated the government of India for being unable to do anything about frequent Chinese incursions across the disputed frontier. Today, the same Modi has not only had effusive meetings with both the Chinese President and Foreign Minister, but is inviting China to help modernize the Indian railways. As to the border incursions, the BJP government echoes the very line it had denounced when the Congress government uttered it – that since the two countries have differing perceptions of where the border lies, each patrols in areas the other considers to be theirs. What was excoriated by Modi as pusillanimity and appeasement in the Congress has become wisdom and statesmanship in the BJP.
The most poignant issue relates, of course, to the most sensitive: the killings of Indian jawans in shooting incidents on our Line of Control with Pakistan. Every time any such tragedy occurred, Modi and the BJP used to savage the Congress. Their campaigners frequently said that if Modi won, the killings would stop because Islamabad knew that a Modi government would retaliate ruthlessly in taking ten Pakistani heads for every Indian one that fell.
The first killings occurred immediately after the BJP victory, but before Modi had been sworn in: the victors’ silence was understandably not held against them. But this week, when news again came in of a jawan being killed on the LoC, the silence of the Modi government was deafening.
In a tweet on August 11, 2013, Narendra Modi had declared with typical bravado: “India is going through a troubled situation. China intrudes our borders, Pakistan kills our soldiers time and again but Centre doesn’t act!” The implication was clear to his fans: this won’t happen on my watch.
Well, it just has. As one critic sarcastically posted on the social media site this week: Completely Agree with Narendra Modi. China Intrudes border, Pakistan Kills Soldiers. Centre doesn’t act.
Prime Minister Modi has wisely chosen not to rise to the bait. Where you stand on foreign policy, in other words, depends on where you sit. Your stand is different when you’re sitting in South Block and not in Gandhinagar.
The cerebral American politician, New York Governor Mario Cuomo, once memorably observed that you campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. Hard reality, he suggested, replaces the fights of policy fantasy that afflict those without power.
With power comes responsibility. And with responsibility, Modiji, comes realism. Welcome to Indraprastha.
(Dr. Shashi Tharoor, a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram and the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development, is the author of 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)