Asmat Ullah Malik (Director Research and development, Integrated Health Services, Islamabad, Pakistan), Shishir Dahal (EV 2010, from Nepal), Asm Shahabuddin (ITM Pre-doctoral Researcher, from Bangladesh)
‘If the country looks strong, then even its companions will change, neighbors will change and the atmosphere will change’. This is how Narendra Modi unfolded his long term agenda when his party was gunning to reshape the political and ideological landscape in India. After an electoral landslide, an emboldened Modi is expected to rise above of the national issues in order to play a major role at the global level.
It is a bit early to predict how this massive political change will influence regional politics. However, if words are the only means to gauge future ambitions, neighbouring countries could possibly see themselves pitched against a rather ‘muscular’ India. We focus here on Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal.
While running an intense election campaign, the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP) leadership argued for a strong focus on economic growth and development, rooting out corruption and addressing weaknesses in the governance system. The BJP leaders also stirred up nationalism via political slogans of protecting national boundaries and stopping cross-border terrorism, by taking an aggressive approach towards China and Pakistan respectively. Most ordinary people in countries in the region have no problem with the BJP leadership’s nationalist sentiment but its religious sentiment is quite controversial and has turned Modi into a polarizing figure.
His silence during communal riots while being the Chief Minister of the Indian State of Gujarat, his home state, in 2002, and his notorious Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS ) credentials, already created a strong anti-Modi sentiment in some neighbouring countries with a predominantly Muslim population, especially in Pakistan and Bangladesh. Modi’s campaign rhetoric, where he spoke against illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, mostly Muslims, has further fueled this sentiment. It will be difficult to overcome this sentiment while making efforts to resolve the bilateral conflicts India has with Pakistan (Jammu and Kashmir and the Indus Water Treaty) and Bangladesh (Teesta river ‘sharing water’ accord, rationalization of the international border and exchange of enclaves). There’s also a sizeable Muslim population in India, as is well known. In a situation where none of the newly elected BJP Members of Parliament are Muslim, it is difficult see who will advocate for the concerns of Indian Muslims.
The BJP’s controversial religious stance is not limited to its opposition to Muslims alone. In Nepal, a civil war that had lasted for ten years and claimed thousands of lives finally ended with a 12-point peace agreement between Maoist rebels and seven political parties in 2006, under mediation of the Indian government. Maoist rebels, who almost controlled more than 50% of the country’s territory at the time, laid down their arms and participated in two democratic elections. Many people in Nepal and India including some people very close to Modi believe this peace accord was a conspiracy against Majority Hindus crafted by nonbelievers (Maoist) and infidels – Sonia Gandhi (Catholic) and Manmohan Singh (Sikh) – with a key role for the EU and the US as well. Some BJP leaders have openly expressed their disapproval of Nepal’s decision to abolish the Hindu kingdom and establish a secular republic. Because India has a great interest in and influence over Nepalese politics (and thus in the decision making process as well), it is likely that the nature of Modi’s foreign policy in the coming years will determine the fate of the Nepalese peace process.
Against this backdrop of regional tensions and reservations, Modi will be eyeing major economic reforms. He is also expected to emerge as a new global leader. Even if nobody knows the future, let’s already ponder potential implications for human development and global health. Investments in the pharmaceutical industry, health innovations and medical tourism industry are the areas which will suit his economic policies just fine. India is already the largest vaccine manufacturer in the world. Its huge pharmaceutical industry has also helped in bringing down the prices of HIV/AIDS drugs. However, as far as leadership in human development and health is concerned, these are areas where India does not enjoy a good track record. India’s health indicators lag far behind many of its neighbours’. There is widespread poverty and millions of Indians lack access to basic health care. India has the highest global burden of TB, some other infectious diseases, and persistent maternal, neonatal and child health problems.
Whether Modi’s economic policies will substantially improve India’s human development and health statistics, remains to be seen. His many fans surely believe so, his opponents have serious doubts. They worry – like us – that the BJP’s reform policies will be primarily being driven by an economic (i.e. GDP focused) agenda, with little attention for inequality, in spite of the fact that trickle-down economics has been strongly refuted in recent years. Human rights of marginalized people might suffer too, in the process. So we have our doubts whether the new government will be able play a substantial role for human development in India, and beyond, or will show new leadership in the health sector.
In any case, as we explained before, the pre-election rhetoric of a ‘muscular India’ has already made some neighbours nervous. They may actually think twice before joining hands with the new Indian government. So it seems that Modi has already lost some ground even before taking the first step. Time will tell whether India will become a role model in the region, or, instead, a muscular neighbour that is more feared than admired.