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Unchecked communal rhetoric will have implications for India’s foreign policy

Messages, and communal narratives - and even state-sanctioned actions - targeting Muslims reach audiences in the Muslim countries in real time and will produce resentment against India and its diaspora community living there. These sentiments will eventually make it a bit harder for their governments to embrace New Delhi and do business with it, at least in the open.

Shraddha Nand Bhatnagar Jun 07, 2022
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi with Gulf leaders

This week India faced a diplomatic storm from Muslim countries— some of which are New Delhi’s close economic and even strategic partners like UAE, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar, the Maldives, and Indonesia among others—almost a week after two of the BJP’s now suspended spokespersons, Nupur Sharma and Naveen Kumar Jindal, made insulting remarks against Prophet Mohammad.

The entire fiasco, whose international consequences were underestimated by the party, brought two key lessons.

First, in the age of social media, where geographical distance and language are hardly considered a barrier to messaging, the old days of political narratives meant only for local consumption are over, at least for the party in government. The remarks in an Indian TV channel were quickly picked up by social media in the Gulf, where ripples soon because a maelstrom, leading to diplomatic outcry in the Islamic world, including in South and Southeast Asia, where India has been trying to cultivate friends and strategic allies like Indonesia and Maldives among Muslim countries.

Even Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, where an Indian delegation is trying to gain some diplomatic foothold, slammed India and advised it not to "provoke Muslims".

Many of these countries would have simply avoided reacting to such remarks—considering their close ties with India—if it was not for the sheer anger generated within their societies through multiple hashtags on social media. The push came, not from those on the top of the power echelon in these countries, but from the ground, which forced their governments to register a strong protest.  

Second, the growing communal rhetoric at home will have implications for India’s foreign policy. The ruling BJP might have managed so far to isolate its foreign policy from its domestic political rhetoric and Muslim bashing, but that seems to have ended now, with a sharper global focus on its growing polarization that went against the country's constitutional secularism.

Growing resentment

Messages, and communal narratives - and even state-sanctioned actions - targeting Muslims reach audiences in the Muslim countries in real time and will produce resentment against India and its diaspora community living there. These sentiments will eventually make it a bit harder for their governments to embrace New Delhi and do business with it, at least in the open.

That the UAE, the Maldives, and Indonesia, India’s closest partners, were forced to react confirms the thinking gone wrong in the ruling party establishment led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In the case of West Asian countries—most of which are not democratic and always remain concerned over any popular unrest—regimes, quite naturally, avoid going against popular sentiments, more so when it comes to sensitive issues like blasphemy.

That Qatar didn’t even wait for the visiting Indian Vice President M Venkaiah Naidu’s trip to end - and even cancelled an official lunch for him - to summon the Indian envoy in Doha and register a protest signifies the level of resentment that exploded in its society through social media.   

Even most vocal critics of Prime Minister Modi would acknowledge the impetus his government has provided to India’s relations with West Asian countries. But the foundation of that success was laid well in advance by the previous governments, through the country’s economic rise, and its demonstrable soft power of plurality and co-existence of all religions, which made India's place unique in the world.

Protect plurality

Many critics pointed out to the hypocrisy of Muslim countries, citing examples of Israel and China. In latter’s cases, most Muslim countries chose to remain silent when Beijing allegedly locked over a million Uyghur Muslims in re-education camps. Let's not be delusional over the nature of geopolitics, which, after all, is a game of ruthless pursuit of national interest by states.

Unlike China, India as a constitutional democracy cannot censor domestic information and narratives from going outside nor does it has the economic might to match China. We also don’t have a common enemy and existential threat like Iran, which is bringing Israel and other powerful Muslim countries closer.

So for India, wisdom lies not in calling out the double standards of the Muslim countries but in protecting our unique and distinctive plurality, both for our domestic stability and our foreign policy interests.

(The author is Research Associate, Society for Policy Studies. Views are personal)

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