WASHINGTON: The Modi government’s public mischaracterisation of the February 2019 Balakot air strike raises questions about India’s ability to deal with an exceptionally dangerous regional situation, warns a recently released research paper.

The paper — “Strategic Implications of India’s liberalism and Democratic Erosion” — argues that under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, “India’s commitment to democracy is increasingly in doubt” and this “erosion is most obvious in the areas of tightened media controls, limits on civil society organisations, and reduced protections for minorities.”

The author, Daniel Markey, a Senior Adviser on South Asia at the United States of Peace, wrote this paper for the National Bureau of Asian Research, which is a non-profit think-tank based in Seattle and Washington DC.

The author believes that the evolving character of India’s domestic politics “is likely to influence its foreign policy aims and decision-making processes, hard-power capabilities, and the way India relates to other states, including the US”.

Mr Markey points out that the Balakot airstrike, subsequent skirmishes and India’s “debunked claims of a destroyed terrorist camp inside Pakistan and downing of a Pakistani F-16 jet, have already raised questions in the United States about New Delhi’s credibility and communications strategy during an exceptionally dangerous regional context”.

Although India still refuses to accept its failure in intimidating Pakistan, US scholars and defence experts only confirm the downing of an Indian aircraft whose pilot was captured and later returned to India at Wagah border.

The paper urges US policymakers to recognise that if India’s leaders “feel less constrained by a free press and domestic audience costs, they may be more willing to run risks for tactical and political advantage”.

The paper also reviews India’s anti-Muslim policies, noting that when India’s policies disadvantage Muslims or other minority groups, perceptions of India suffer and India’s neighbours stop viewing the country as a pluralistic democracy.

This, the author warns, will reduce India’s ability to contest for regional influence while China can continue to increase its influence, “afforded by sheer financial heft”, in South Asia.

The paper argues that India’s huge Muslim population could conceivably serve as a natural bridge-building opportunity for New Delhi to facilitate closer relations with Muslim-majority states around the world. But an increasingly majoritarian, Hindutva India is more likely to find itself at odds -- or at least struggling to manage relations — with the rest of the Muslim world.

“At the very least, India misses an opportunity to score diplomatic points against its regional adversary Pakistan, a state nominally created as a homeland for South Asia’s Muslims that would be denied that animating purpose if India proved itself equally welcoming,” the paper adds.

The paper also points out that in 2019, publicly reported policing costs in occupied Jammu and Kashmir doubled after the Modi government preemptively imposed a heavy security presence to detain activists and quell any violent protest against its decision to revoke the state’s special semi-autonomous constitutional status.

Noting that “large-scale demonstrations destroy lives and property, harming the economy and reducing state tax revenues”, the author points out that “New Delhi’s 2020 communal riots were the worst in decades and reportedly destroyed over $3 billion in property. Four months of state-imposed lockdown in Jammu and Kashmir cost an estimated $2bn in lost GDP.”

The paper also cites a March 2021 letter written by Senator Robert Menendez, chairman of the US Foreign Relations Committee, expressing similar concerns. A self-described supporter of close US-India ties, Senator Menendez wrote that the US-India “partnership is strongest when based on shared democratic values and the Indian government has been trending away from those values”.

Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2022

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