Yogi blips on radar of envoys

Amid signs of civic strife, some diplomats express concern about CM pick and its message

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 27.03.17
A performer takes a selfie with Modi at an event organised on Sunday at the Delhi residence of Union minister M Venkaiah Naidu on the occasion of Telugu New Year Ugadi. (PTI)

New Delhi, March 26: The congratulatory messages for Prime Minister Narendra Modi from international leaders flowed in for a week after the BJP's landslide victory in Uttar Pradesh.

That trend stalled on the evening of March 18 when Yogi Adityanath was unveiled as Uttar Pradesh chief minister.

The choice has stirred concerns within sections of the international community that civic tensions may deepen in the region's most stable country, diplomats from six countries separately told The Telegraph. The diplomats spoke to the newspaper when the controversy over abattoirs in Uttar Pradesh had just broken but before it had assumed the current proportions.

Reports of sporadic resistance to a drive to shut down abattoirs and an apparent argument over the issue leading to at least one murder are trickling in from various places in Uttar Pradesh. Meat sellers across the state have threatened an indefinite strike from tomorrow and fish vendors are also said to be in favour of joining the agitation. 

None of these countries, the diplomats said, wanted to prejudge the new chief minister's work in Uttar Pradesh, and remained hopeful that Modi would ensure that a stable investment climate continue as the most prominent emblem of India's economic rise globally.

But Adityanath's anointment has tempered the initial confidence with which many foreign offices read the BJP's victory as a catalyst for greater political stability and easier investments, the diplomats said.

Sections within the Indian foreign policy establishment too are concerned that Adityanath's history - he has repeatedly targeted Muslims in his speeches and faces charges of rioting - could embolden New Delhi's critics within the international community.

Even isolated hate crimes in Uttar Pradesh, an Indian official said, could be linked to Adityanath and used to portray India as a tinderbox. Amnesty International has already demanded that Adityanath "publicly retract" his comments against Muslims.

"Indian parties do not choose their politicians with a view to what the world might conclude, but there is no denying the signal this pick sends," Alyssa Ayres, former US deputy assistant secretary of state for South Asia, has written for the Washington-based Council for Foreign Relations, where she is now a senior fellow. "With a huge mandate, the BJP has decided to lead with the face of religious nationalism - not the forward-looking, twenty-first century face of the New India - in their most important state."

For some countries, like Nepal, Adityanath's history of aggressively supporting the restoration of the monarchy there complicates an already tricky relationship with traditional friend India.

Diplomats in the New Delhi missions of at least two countries in India's immediate neighbourhood have rushed cables home to alert headquarters about Adityanath's history.

Despite their misgivings over the pace of reforms under Modi, most foreign diplomats here acknowledge that the Prime Minister's emphasis on the "ease of doing business" has improved the Indian investment climate.

Modi's Make in India initiative - aimed at transforming the country into a manufacturing hub - has had only limited success so far. But in some sectors like defence, the US, France, Russia and Israel - India's biggest partners - have either demonstrated interest or have already begun investing in projects here.

"The Modi government has prioritised economic growth to fulfil its electoral promises and to address the Indian electorate's high expectations," the US state department's bureau of economic and business affairs wrote in a July 2016 report.

"However, the government has been slow to propose other economic reforms that would match its rhetoric, and many of the reforms it did propose have struggled to pass through Parliament."

But the perceptions about an improved investment climate are deeply linked to political stability and the limited acts of political violence.

"There have been no significant incidents involving political violence (under Modi as Prime Minister)," the state department report said.

Many foreign investors and their countries have for years lamented the challenges they face navigating India's multi-party system, and the BJP's massive electoral wins this month appeared to have eased those worries.

On March 13, the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, Sheikh Mohammad bin Zayed al Nahyan - who was chief guest at this year's Republic Day - dialled Modi to congratulate him for the victories.

Over the next five days, French President Francois Hollande, Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al Thani and Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak called up Modi to congratulate him.

Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper also called Modi to offer "felicitations" - and Hollande's predecessor Nicolas Sarkozy, who was visiting, met the Indian Prime Minister late morning on March 18 to congratulate him.

But hours later, the BJP picked Adityanath as their chief minister in Uttar Pradesh, sparking a scramble within foreign embassies here to research the new state leader and then the stirrings of worry.

One senior diplomat from a European Union member state, posted here, said his first reaction on reading up about Adityanath online was: "Really? This guy?"

Another European diplomat said the EU had long recognised India's plurality as among its biggest strengths - but also a source of potential vulnerability at times of internal strife.

"The security of India also largely depends on ethnic and religious stability, as the country is home to a large variety of ethnic and religious groups," a September 2016 European Parliament report on India-EU relations said.

Many EU member state governments, the second European diplomat said, had overridden domestic concerns from human rights lobbies to aggressively embrace Modi, based on his commitment to fast economic growth as a principal goal. Ambassadors here lobbied for greater investments in India.

With Adityanath's elevation as chief minister, he said, that "faith" had taken the tiniest of dents.

It is unlikely that the Indian foreign policy establishment is unaware of the perceptions. Which is why, perhaps, the foreign office did not take kindly to the critical opinion by The New York Times last week on Adityanath's anointment.