70 years after Independence, has Modi increased India’s brand value?

Kate Sullivan de Estrada

PM Narendra Modi at the Indian National Army Memorial Marker in Singapore, 2015. Credit: Narendra Modi via Flickr.

This week, as India celebrates its 70th anniversary of independence from two centuries of colonial rule, the country’s many successes and several of its persistent challenges are filling column space and air time around the globe — sometimes controversially, as criticism of the UK’s ‘Partition overdose’ suggests. As Seema Anand notes, ‘we are celebrating 70 years of Indian independence and it seems like the only thing we have to show for it is Partition’. The tenor and focus of India@70 coverage aside, septuagenarian India has in many ways exceeded the early prediction of its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, that ‘we are potentially a great nation and a big Power’. A rising nuclear state with the third largest standing army and a faster growing economy than even China in 2015, for some India is set to play a pivotal role in the Asian story of the twenty-first century.

Significantly, anticipation of India’s global ascent remains mostly heady three years after Narendra Modi, a controversial political figure at home and abroad, rose to the Indian premiership in May 2014. Just as in 2016 analysts and politicians were divided on whether Brexit and Trump would make or break Britain and America, from 2014 India-watchers debated possible futures for an India under Modi. His image as an unpredictable Hindu nationalist leader and a self-styled ‘strongman’ who had pledged to reinvent India’s economy and take a firm line on national security led to prognoses that India’s domestic and foreign policies would substantially change direction.

Image Credit: Getty.

Can India’s many causes for celebration at 70 assuage concerns about Modi’s leadership and vindicate the hopes of his supporters? Certainly those politically close to the Prime Minister would argue ‘yes’. In May, the president of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Amit Shah, claimed of the Modi government’s track record that ‘some things, which had not been achieved in 70 years have been done in these three years.’ India’s prestige on the world stage had soared under Modi, Shah contended.

Such lofty claims will come as no surprise to those familiar with Modi’s public relations machinery and what Jatin Gandhi has dubbed the Prime Minister’s ‘mythology of superhuman accomplishments’ (not least his history of crocodile wrestling). A great deal of effort lies behind Modi’s unprecedented ‘performance’ as Prime Minister: indeed, in the month before marking his third year in office, India’s Information and Broadcasting Minister circulated a letter instructing colleagues to ‘prepare concrete action plan [sic] and be ready with facts, figures, data to propagate the government’s achievements in a big way.’

Beyond the hype, three years into his rule, views of Modi’s India remain as polarized as ever. Pankaj Mishra’s verdict on India’s seven decades in the New York Times last week was damning: ‘Mr. Modi’s rule represents the most devastating, and perhaps final, defeat of India’s noble postcolonial ambition to create a moral world order’, he argued.

Mishra’s disappointment centres on at least two failures. The first is that of memory: the failure to remember that ‘India’s freedom heralded the liberation … of a majority of the world’s population from the degradations of racist imperialism.’ The second failure is one of delivery: ‘The new world order — just, peaceful, equal — that India’s leaders promised at independence… is nowhere in sight.’

India’s global role under Modi

Where contributions to peace and international justice are concerned, how has India fared under Modi’s tenure? In 2016, the Indian media and some analysts made much — perhaps too much — of Modi’s non-attendance at the non-aligned summit in Margarita, Venezuela, seeing in his absence a break with India’s long-time commitment to this counter-order country grouping. Modi’s July 2017 visit to Israel, too, the first by an Indian prime minister, was described by some as backed by ‘overwhelming support’ in India while being declared as ‘a repudiation of the cardinal tenets of India’s foreign policy’ by others. Less well publicized was the (re)invocation of India’s commitment to decolonization in June 2017, when India’s UN representative voted in favour of a Mauritian-led UN resolution that raised questions about Britain’s future control of the Chagos Islands. The Modi government’s solidarity with developing countries also remained central — rhetorically at least — to India’s inputs and responses to the 2015 Paris climate agreement.

Internationally, an abrupt abandonment of India’s core moral commitments is far from obvious. Domestically, however, India’s moral example to the world of a composite culture — strength in social diversity and a unique ability to synthesize multiple traditions — has been shaken under Modi. Rising violence against India’s minorities have made it a less safe place for Muslim and Dalit communities. As Sumit Ganguly notes, the Modi government ‘has tolerated, even abetted, a dangerous, parochial social agenda at home’. It has also presided over a significant curbing of press freedom.

For those who might dismiss Mishra’s post-colonial disappointment as little more than Leftist nostalgia, the Modi government’s track record on those other great Indian assets, economic growth and positive relations with significant powers remains far from exemplary.

The Indian economy under Modi

Even while Modi ran for election on a pro-growth platform, the Indian economy has not flourished as many would have hoped. Early claims — by India’s own Central Statistics Office — of a strong upturn in GDP during the first months of Modi’s leadership in 2014 appeared to be the result of tweaks in accounting methodology rather than a genuinely improved performance. Modi’s surprise demonetization of 500 and 1000 rupee banknotes in late 2016, ostensibly in an effort to clamp down on black money, has almost certainly been damaging to India’s GDP in the short term, and potentially also in the long term. As development economist Barbara Harriss-White notes, ‘India’s real economy thrives on the energies of scores of millions of tiny firms and their small, precarious labour forces’ — those who were hit hardest by the negative fallout of demonetization. The Economist’s recent assessment is that so far this year, the Indian economy is growing ‘more slowly than when Mr Modi came to power’.

The geopolitical outlook

Geopolitically, as India faces what Ashley Tellis has termed a ‘new bipolarity’ — with US unipolarity in decline and China emerging as Asia’s predominant power — India’s relations with the United States appear strong. Harsh Pant and Yogesh Joshi argue that the Modi leadership is decisively responding to US overtures to India like no leader before him. However, others consider that the real transformation of the bilateral relationship took place well before Modi’s time, when India concluded a civil nuclear agreement with the United States. Modi’s efforts, seen in this context, have brought little if anything new to the relationship. Meanwhile, on Modi’s watch, relations with China have grown fraught: the two Asian giants are eight weeks into a border standoff that already has a burgeoning Wikipedia entry.

As Manjari Chatterjee Miller and I argue in our introduction to the recent special issue of International Affairs, if a rising India becomes ever more pivotal in the international system, Modi will have played only a modest part in this emergence. Any take-home from this week’s celebration of 70 years of Indian independence should be that both India’s ascent to international power and its decline from an international moral high ground predate Narendra Modi’s three-year tenure, and both processes are far from complete. The responsibility for India’s growing domestic intolerance and curbs on individual freedoms, however, must lie primarily with his government.

Kate Sullivan de Estrada is Lecturer in Modern Indian Studies and incoming Associate Professor in the International Relations of South Asia at the University of Oxford.

Alongside Manjari Chatterjee Miller (Associate Professor of International Relations at Boston University) she guest-edited the January 2017 issue of International Affairs, titled ‘India’s rise at 70’.

Read the full issue here.

Their article in the issue is titled ‘Pragmatism in Indian foreign policy: how ideas constrain Modi’.

Read the article for free here.