Published daily by the Lowy Institute


India’s election is done. What about running in the next one?

Election Commission officials carry in electronic voting machines for the tally at Akshardham counting center, 4 June 2024, in New Delhi, India (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Election Commission officials carry in electronic voting machines for the tally at Akshardham counting center, 4 June 2024, in New Delhi, India (Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
Published 12 Jun 2024 03:00    0 Comments

India’s 2024 parliamentary election have reaffirmed the strength and vibrancy of the country’s democratic process, showcasing the electorate’s power to shape their government. The ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA), led by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), secured an electoral victory. While the BJP did not secure a full majority – it won 240 of 543 seats – Prime Minister Narendra Modi is back in office for a third term, leading a coalition government.

Despite a brutal summer with temperatures hovering between 45–50°C, millions of Indians participated in the elections. While the voter turnout was around 65.8%, marginally lower than the 67.4% turnout in the 2019 election, the absolute number of voters surged from approximately 614 million in 2019 to over 642 million in 2024. The Election Commission of India (ECI) noted that voter turnout was approximately “1.5 times the voters of all G7 countries and 2.5 times the voters in the EU27.”

Elections in a few districts is akin to national elections in many other parts of the world.

A notable feature of recent elections has been the active participation of women voters. An estimated 312 million women voted this year, seeing the elector gender ratio increase. Political parties have targeted this demographic with populist schemes such as the promise of cash handouts. However, the efficacy of such cash handouts and other freebies remains contentious, with concerns that they may create short-term benefits, strain public finances, and fail to empower women in the long run. While there is a debate on the policy preferences of women voters, the fact remains that women voters have emerged as a vital voting bloc. Approximately 1.4 million women also serve as elected members of local governments in rural areas, indicating a growing presence in the polity.

Elections in India are conducted according to the First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) electoral system, without a run-off. This makes gaining more than 50% of the vote share challenging for any political party. In other countries with the FPTP system, such as the United Kingdom and Canada, politics revolves around two or three major political parties. On the other hand, in India, as a recent Reuters report pointed out, approximately 744 political parties contested the elections, and of these, over 30 of these parties had won at least one seat in the 2019 elections. Moreover, the average number of candidates per constituency, which was around 4.67 in 1951, increased to 15 in 2019. Given the growing density of contestants, the BJP receiving about 236 million votes (235,973,935) accounting for just over a third of the total votes, is a noteworthy performance.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi during celebration at BJP HQ as the 2024 results are announced (Raj K Raj/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

The 2024 experience has a few important takeaways for the elections in the coming years. Due to a lack of awareness about rigorous procedures and the logistics required to participate in elections, a few candidates’ incomplete nomination papers were rejected, and some well-intentioned professionals lost elections. There is an urgent need to educate people on these aspects, specifically at the high school and undergraduate levels, to engender more enlightened conversations on the election procedure within and outside the country.

Stopping money from corrupting the vote was critical in the ECI’s efforts to ensure a clean election. However, there is a need to recognise that political parties need significant financial resources to conduct legitimate activities. The average district in India, with approximately 1.86 million people, is significantly bigger than many countries in the world. So, a collection of Zilla Parishad (local government) elections in a few districts is akin to national elections in many other parts of the world. Parties and individuals contesting require substantial financial resources.

The funding for political parties should be based on rational criteria. A European political party with “at least one Member of the European Parliament” receives funding from the European authority. However, in the Indian context, election funding based on the performance in the previous elections will privilege the established political parties. Given the extraordinary logistical requirements, state funding of political parties poses significant fiscal challenges, potentially diverting resources from essential social programs. Moreover, there’s a risk of misuse of state funding, with parties getting constituted merely to obtain subsidies. Such funding might not entirely eliminate undisclosed private funding, perpetuating transparency issues. Therefore, political reform should encourage transparent private funding that also supports new political players.

During the recent election, the selection of candidates by the political parties became an important node of conversation. There is an urgent need to foster greater internal democracy within the political parties. The ECI is already burdened with conducting numerous elections and does not have the wherewithal to conduct internal elections of over 700 political parties. Creating impartial institutions and modalities to improve internal elections within the parties (with millions as members) mandates closer attention.

India has pulled off the world’s largest democratic electoral exercise with aplomb. In the coming years, further deepening of democracy can be achieved through improved political recruitment, which requires an appreciation of the logistics required to participate in elections, relatively easy access to legitimate political funding, and a more robust inner-party democracy.


India’s proud history of anti-incumbency is back

Watching the count (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Watching the count (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 5 Jun 2024 09:30    0 Comments

It’s a lesson in not believing exit polls, or not believing breathless hype, or listening closely to reporting from the grassroots, or all of the above.

While the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party has claimed success in India’s national elections, it is somewhat of a Pyrrhic victory, with the BJP ceding significant ground to the opposition INDIA alliance. Modi’s government has secured a third term in office – but the margin is far slimmer than expected, and it looks like the BJP won’t clinch a majority in the 543-member parliament so will have to rely on the support of coalition partners.

As prominent Indian journalist Rajdeep Sardesai tweeted: “the bigger message is this: India prefers a strong opposition to a single party, single leader dominance.” India’s proud history of anti-incumbency is back.

The impact was felt almost immediately on the markets, in particular by the Adani group, the company of magnate Gautam Adani, long close Modi, which at the time of writing had lost a combined $US45 billion on Tuesday – the biggest single-day rout ever for the conglomerate. Expectations the day before of a Modi electoral landslide had driven the shares up. Adani saw his personal net wealth also plunge by $25 billion.

With a wider lens, the Indian election result could even be seen as a vindication of liberal democratic values around the world, which is notable this year in particular.

From the voting results reported, it appears that rural India voted heavily against the BJP – although it’s worth noting that each state has its own political makeup and often localised parties. For example, the party lost power in the seat that is home to the controversial Ram Temple in Ayodhya. Elsewhere, jailed Khalistani separatist leader Amritpal Singh beat the closest candidate in his Punjab seat by almost 200,000 votes. And it appears likely that the son of the man who assassinated former Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi will also win a seat in the state.

The election result can be seen as a vindication of liberal democratic values: that Indians, deep down, prefer these over an authoritarian state, no matter how charismatic the authoritarian or how loud the cheers for him. With a wider lens, the Indian election result could even be seen as a vindication of liberal democratic values around the world, which is notable this year in particular. This election result may shed more light on where global trends are headed – not because India is the only country where democratic ideals have flagged, but simply because of the timing of this poll, six-odd months before a big one in the United States.

The margin is far slimmer than expected, and it looks like the BJP won’t clinch a majority (Narinder Nanu/AFP via Getty Images)

For Australia, there are now a few things to keep watch on. Canberra is likely low-key delighted that the Modi government has been returned: virtually all of Australia’s big wins in the relationship have been under it, from the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership status in 2020, to the Australia-India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement in 2022. A new leadership may have meant rebuilding key relationships or prolonged renegotiations. For its part, India’s Ministry of External Affairs and the government appear on board with bringing Australia closer. The third term spells a degree of stability for the Australia-India relationship. However, there is always the caveat that this might be undermined if India decides to get more muscular in its foreign policy.

In Australia, it is widely known that there is a large and fast-growing Indian diaspora. (From next month, you can read writings directly from this diaspora in Growing Up Indian in Australia, which you can pre-order here). There have been some indications in recent years that the Indian government is starting to view its diaspora as a cohort of Indians that simply lives abroad, and can be harnessed for morale-influencing duties. An example is the 2022 visit here by BJP youth leader Tejasvi Surya, during which he urged the Hindu community to vote for parties that “exclusively protect Hindus”.

It is worth drilling down into some of the detail for another potential win for the Australia-India relationship: what happened in Uttar Pradesh.

The project has already had negative outcomes, such as violent clashes between Hindus and Sikhs in western Sydney in 2021. And last year, there were tensions between Sikhs and Hindus in connection with the Khalistani referendum. The election of Amritpal Singh in Punjab will doubtless give rise to escalated efforts by the Khalistani movement, and given the issue’s propensity to spill across borders, this is an issue that Australian authorities probably will want to be prepared for. Already, the government has identified domestic social cohesion in the Indian community as a major issue to contend with.

Finally, it’s worth drilling down into some of the detail for another potential win for the Australia-India relationship: what happened in Uttar Pradesh. In India’s most populous state and the so-called “cow belt”, the ruling BJP, led by Hindu monk Yogi Adityanath, widely seen as a potential successor to Modi, has lost a lot of ground to the Samajwadi Party, led by Akhilesh Yadav. The Samajwadi Party has gained 37 of the state’s 80 seats, ahead of the BJP, which has 33 at the time of writing. Yadav, from a political family, served as the state’s chief minister for five years. He also studied at the University of Sydney in environmental engineering. The connection didn’t necessarily do much for the relationship last time round, but perhaps an older and wiser Yadav in the chief ministerial office might lean into sentimentality and open the door a little wider to Australian visitors.

In coming days there will be more clarity on the formation of the ruling NDA alliance, various leadership positions – and the fate of some key leaders in particular who failed to perform well at the polls. But one thing is clear: democracy in the world’s largest democracy is as sound as it can be.

Aarti Betigeri is the editor of Growing Up Indian in Australia, which is out on July 2.


The extraordinary logistics of India’s election

Conducting an election with a voter base of more than twice the population of the European Union requires significant logistical prowess (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images)
Conducting an election with a voter base of more than twice the population of the European Union requires significant logistical prowess (Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 24 May 2024 03:00    0 Comments

The world’s largest democratic election is well underway in India, with approximately 968.8 million registered voters. That’s almost a billion people registered to vote, roughly three times the total population of the United States. The seven-phase voting will conclude on 1 June. Vote counting will commence on the morning of 4 June, and the results will be announced by late evening on the same day.

The international community should note that conducting an election with a voter base of more than twice the population of the European Union requires significant logistical prowess.

Getting approximately a billion people registered as voters in a country with extraordinary linguistic heterogeneity and varied educational competencies was a consequence of sustained voter enumeration exercises. The Election Commission of India (ECI) set up a dedicated portal making it easy to register as a voter using the Aadhaar unique identity card. Special efforts were needed to reach out to the marginalised, such as tribal communities and persons with disabilities. There has been a significant increase in the enrolment of women voters as well. In addition, the voter rolls (polling station-wise) for all 543 parliamentary constituencies are available on the ECI website, ensuring smooth stakeholder verification.

Voting was often marred by incidents wherein miscreants used to capture a few polling stations to forcibly stamp the ballot papers in favour of their preferred candidate and scoot before the police could arrive.

To enable easy voting, more than a million polling stations (1,048,202 to be precise) have been set up. It has also meant that political parties have had a lot of work to do. Assume that a national political party decided to contest all the parliamentary constituencies. Typically, it will have to deploy at least three workers per polling station, which is a very modest number given that these workers will have to mobilise the local support for their party and also monitor the voting process in a polling station as a party representative. Three workers per polling station for one million polling stations implies, to contest all seats, a national party will have to mobilise three million workers, who have a fair understanding of the rules and regulations of the election process. So, in addition to the ECI, the political parties in India also perform a mammoth task of mobilising millions of workers and designing communication material in over two dozen languages.

The fourth phase of voting in India's general election, in Karjat of Maharashtra state on 13 May 2024 (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images)

A significant innovation in Indian elections is the deployment of electronic voting machines. While these “EVMs” underwent multiple testing phases, the 2004 general election and subsequent elections were completely organised using such machines. Before their introduction, voting was often marred by incidents wherein miscreants used to capture a few polling stations to forcibly stamp the ballot papers in favour of their preferred candidate and scoot before the police could arrive. While a few such incidents, called “booth capturing”, may not have altered the people’s verdict, the repeated occurrence vitiated the electoral process. The advent of sturdy battery-driven EVMs that record a maximum of four votes per minute has dramatically reduced instances of vandalism in polling stations. Furthermore, video surveillance and webcasting of the voting process at many polling stations has been introduced to deter violent actions and to increase transparency.

There were concerns in some quarters that the EVMs could be digitally tampered with. To dispel such concerns, the ECI organised a hackathon challenging detractors to prove that the EVMs could be manipulated, but no evidence was produced to show the system was vulnerable. To increase the confidence in the EVMs, a Voter Verifiable Paper Audit Trail (VVPAT) machine was introduced, which enabled the electors to see a printout of their vote. The printouts of VVPAT machines are randomly counted to ensure that they tally with votes in EVMs. In every polling station, a mock test of the EVM and VVPAT is conducted, and only after the agents of various political parties express satisfaction with the machines’ functioning will the formal election process be initiated.

Comprehensive legislation to ensure an easy and transparent flow of financial resources to political parties in the years ahead is an urgent necessity.

Despite robust safety measures, petitions were filed in the Supreme Court of India expressing apprehensions about the possible manipulation of the EVMs. After due examination, the country’s top court declared that “the EVMs are simple, secure and user-friendly” and went on to add that “the incorporation of the VVPAT system fortifies the principle of vote verifiability.”

This is not to say that there are no challenges in the conduct of elections in India. Given that political parties have to mobilise millions of party workers and also carry out communication campaigns across the country, they require considerable financial resources. Since India does not have state funding for elections, political parties have to depend on donations from private corporations and individuals. In order to streamline donations to political parties, the Electoral Bond Scheme, which promised anonymity to donors to political parties, was introduced in 2017. However, the scheme did not survive the legal scrutiny of the supreme court. Comprehensive legislation to ensure an easy and transparent flow of financial resources to political parties in the years ahead is an urgent necessity.

The successful organisation of general elections demonstrates the Indian state’s capacity to pull off mega-initiatives if it operates in a “mission mode” – i.e., achieving a clearly defined objective in a time-bound manner. The Indian state has demonstrated a similar capacity during the polio and Covid-19 vaccination campaigns. The challenge will be to convert such mission mode abilities into daily governance at the grassroots to meet the multiple needs of ordinary citizens. The recent e-governance initiatives and improvements in ease of doing business provide reasons to be hopeful.

The experience of conducting elections in India, a developing country with remarkable diversity, merits a closer examination by other countries. It should be noted that in 1953, the ECI officials assisted Sudan in organising its first elections. Perhaps India can take a more nuanced approach to democracy promotion by sharing its experience of organising elections with various national and subnational entities in other parts of the world.


India’s crackdown on journalists a sour note in the festival of democracy

A member of the media wears a placard as he speaks during a protest for the press freedom in India, New Delhi, 16 October 2023 (Kabir Jhangiani/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A member of the media wears a placard as he speaks during a protest for the press freedom in India, New Delhi, 16 October 2023 (Kabir Jhangiani/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 3 May 2024 23:30    0 Comments

As India goes to the polls to consider re-electing the Bharatiya Janata Party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the country’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy is looking increasingly shaky.

Australian journalist Avani Dias, the India correspondent for the ABC since January 2022, has revealed she is the latest foreign correspondent to fall foul of the government. Dias says she was forced to abruptly leave the country, after a government official told her she’d crossed a line with reporting a Sikh separatist story, which aired on the ABC’s Foreign Correspondent, and her podcast, Looking for Modi.

The Indian government has denied the claims that it had made it difficult for her to cover the general elections and delayed her visa. The ABC will replace Dias shortly, with ABC South Asia Correspondent Meghna Bali already in Delhi.

But the furore over Dias is just another in a long list of actions taken by the Indian government against journalists, particularly those who provide anything less than coverage supportive of Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

The media is polarised with a clear divide between Indian nationalist media and those who are characterised as anti-national media.

Although the election results won’t be declared until June, Modi is expected to be re-elected, continuing a prime ministership that has been marked by an escalation of nationalist fervour, not only within the country but extending abroad. Hindus represent about 80 per cent of India’s population, and while the values of secularism and religious tolerance are enshrined in the country’s constitution, the rise of nationalism under Modi has increased tensions between Hindus and religious minorities. India’s large Muslim community suffered most from a resurgence in communal violence.

Some analysts also argue the alleged Indian government involvement in the assassination of a Canadian/Indian citizen in Canada, along with a failed plot in the United States,  demonstrate a general belief that the country’s rulers can act with impunity. Add to this the revelations this week about the discovery in 2020 of India setting up a “nest of spies” in Australia.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks to the press upon his arrival with other cabinet ministers to attend the opening day of monsoon session in parliament, 20 July 2023 (Imtiyaz Khan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Media polarisation

The media landscape in India is huge, with more than 100,000 newspapers and 380 TV news channels. The Indian press had been seen as progressive, but an increased concentration of ownership by those supportive of Modi’s government has made it a difficult environment for the objective journalism central to democracy to exist.

The media is polarised with a clear divide between Indian nationalist media and those who are characterised as anti-national media. Journalists considered too critical of the government are subjected to harassment by Modi devotees, known as bhakts.

The Committee for the Protection of Journalists has noted a record number of journalists being arrested or facing criminal charges since the last election and news outlets targeted by government raids for tax evasion. Journalists across the country have reported that their work has been censored, editors have been forced to resign, and formerly independent news outlets have been bought by politically connected conglomerates.

Foreign news outlets have also faced increasing control over their reporting. Two BBC offices were raided by tax authorities after a broadcast that examined Modi’s role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat in which almost 800 Muslims were killed. At the time, he was the state’s chief minister.

Foreign correspondents are not sent to another country to act as cheerleaders for the place they temporarily call home.

Several foreign journalists working in the country have had their right to work as journalists cancelled after producing reports critical of the government. French journalist Vanessa Dougnac said she was forced out of the country in January after 22 years because her reports were considered to be creating a “biased negative perception of India”.

Despite constitutional guarantees in India to freedom of speech and expression, Reporters Without Borders dropped India’s press freedom rank to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023 – a fall of 11 places from the year before. The atmosphere for journalists covering the general elections this year is so toxic that the Committee for Protecting Journalists has headlined a story about the polls, “Journalists brace for attacks during India election”.

Deep fakes and violence

A particularly troubling feature of this election is the deep fakes generated by artificial intelligence that are dominating the social media in India and leading to violence.

In 2020, riots in Delhi left dozens of journalists injured or harassed, and many reporters fear that they will not get adequate protection from their editors if sent to dangerous assignments.

Just this week, the Indian Home Affairs Minister was forced to play a real video and the doctored one to the media to help clear the air after a deep fake video went viral saying the opposite of what was actually said.

Foreign correspondents in trouble

Of course, Dias’ removal from India is hardly the first time an Australian journalist working as a foreign correspondent has found themselves unwelcome.

It was just a few years ago when the ABC’s Bill Birtles and the Australian Financial Review’s Mike Smith and their families were spirited out of China amid diplomatic tensions. It left Australia without any journalists in China for the first time in nearly 50 years.

Foreign correspondents are not sent to another country to act as cheerleaders for the place they temporarily call home. They are there to report for Australia, and Australians.

For that reason, it was heartening to hear the ABC’s managing director, David Anderson, say the national broadcaster continues to believe strongly in the role of independent journalism across the globe and freedom of the press outside Australia.

It’s important that the ABC remains funded to do that vital international work.


Party time: The foreign policy promises as India’s election gets underway

Bipartisanship begone: this election reveals India’s major political parties are emphasising the differences in approach (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images)
Bipartisanship begone: this election reveals India’s major political parties are emphasising the differences in approach (Indranil Mukherjee/AFP via Getty Images)
Published 19 Apr 2024 03:00    0 Comments

Voting in India’s national elections opens today and the domestic electorate shows an increasing interest in foreign policies. The election manifestos of three national political parties – the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Indian National Congress, and the Communist Party of India (Marxist) or CPI(M) – tell a story of distinct ideological positions – right, centre, and left respectively. Each set out contending visions for voters to decide.

The BJP, seeking a third consecutive term, has been in-charge of India’s foreign policy for the last 10 years, so its manifesto contains the most comprehensive section on foreign policy and national security agenda. There is consequently more detail to unpack. Congress, which has previously ruled for more than 50 years, has a rich legacy of framing and articulating the major tenets of India’s foreign policy since independence and represents the principal opposition voice. The CPI(M), on the other hand, despite a striking decline in its electoral fortunes, occupies a critical intellectual position and has historically offered a leftist ideological critique of India’s foreign policy, most prominently during the nuclear deal struck with the United States in the 2000s.

The BJP is seeking a third consecutive term (David Talukdar/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

The BJP portrays India as a “consensus builder, first responder and a voice of the Global South”. India’s G20 leadership last year is expectedly hailed as a success. Yet the rhetoric of  India as a “Vishwaguru” (teacher of the world), the talk of the town in Delhi leading up to the G20 summit, seems to have given way to a more toned down rhetoric of “Vishwabandhu” (friend of the world). Notably, the name “Bharat” seems to have replaced “India” in the official discourse, and the BJP manifesto promises to follow a Bharat First foreign policy, but without the isolationist tendencies exhibited in the “America First” policy of Donald Trump.

The BJP manifesto also contains the staples of Indian foreign policy, such as a claim to permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council, an emphasis on the neighbourhood, freedom of navigation in the Indian Ocean, fighting terrorism, and expanding India’s diplomatic reach worldwide. The commitment to establishing the India Middle-East Economic Corridor (IMEC) suggests that its announcement wasn’t just a photo-op at the G20 summit.

The most interesting part of the BJP’s manifesto is an unmistakable emphasis on India’s soft power diplomacy.

But surprisingly, unlike its 2019 manifesto, there is no mention of BRICS, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, or the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. Also missing is a direct reference to Pakistan or China as India’s major security threats, with a focus instead on non-state security threats such as terrorism and left-wing extremism. Despite recognising the need to shore up infrastructure along the borders, there is no direct reference to China’s territorial incursions.

The most interesting part of the BJP’s manifesto is an unmistakable emphasis on India’s soft power diplomacy, with a separate sub-section dedicated to this. The present government’s achievements related to its soft power are highlighted one by one: its vaccine diplomacy during the Covid pandemic; Chandrayaan-III, which became the first lander to touch down on the lunar south pole; India’s role in establishing an international day of yoga, and 2023 as the international year of millets; the global acceptance of India’s digital payment solution through the UPI; and commitments such as the International Solar Alliance and the Biofuel Alliance. The manifesto credits these achievements with instilling a sense of pride not only among citizens but also the diaspora.

Moreover, the manifesto commits to establishing Thiruvalluvar Cultural Centres across the world to promote India’s cultural heritage and democratic traditions. Without naming specific target countries, the BJP has also committed to bringing back Indian artefacts illegally taken away. This civilisational angle is further highlighted through its proposal to collaborate with other countries for the restoration and renovation of sites representing India’s heritage. Building upon the Ram Mandir inauguration in Ayodhya in January 2024, the BJP promises to launch a global outreach program to celebrate the legacy of Lord Rama.

Congress seeks a return to Nehruvian principles in Indian foreign policy (Abhishek Chinnappa/Getty Images)

It is typical for the incumbent ruling party to highlight the successes and overlook any alleged failures. That’s where the opposition parties take their cue.

Congress points to failures of the government, most notably, the Chinese intrusions in Ladakh and the Galwan clash in 2020, which represent the “biggest setbacks to Indian national security in decades”. It blames the lack of a comprehensive national security strategy and a government tendency for “chest thumping and exaggerated claims”. Congress promises to restore the status-quo ante along the Indo-China border, while also pledging to “repair” India’s image which it sees as damaged due to the present government’s record on human rights and social intolerance. It seeks a return to Nehruvian principles in Indian foreign policy, assuring that it will repair ties with Nepal, Bhutan, and especially Maldives, which have been strained in recent years.

Surprisingly, none of the three manifestos mentions Russia.

Both Congress and CPI(M) accuse the government of undermining India’s commitment to following an independent, non-aligned foreign policy in the Gaza conflict by siding with Israel. The critique by the CPI(M) is stronger in tone and is reflected in its unmistakable anti-US and anti-Israel stance, which calls for scrapping all security and military ties with Israel and withdrawing from the US partnerships, including the Quad, which also involves Australia and Japan, and the I2U2, with Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

The CPI(M) also opposes the presence of any foreign military bases in the Indian Ocean as well as allowing access to Indian naval, air and military facilities for refuelling and stationing purposes to other countries. It takes a more balanced approach towards India’s neighbours, calling for a negotiated settlement with China, being open to resuming talks with Pakistan, and persuading Sri Lanka to devolve more powers to its Tamil-speaking regions.

Surprisingly, none of the three manifestos mentions Russia, perhaps as an acknowledgement of the awkwardness arising out of Russia’s tricky position in the contemporary global order.

It is generally believed that foreign policy stands out as a rare area of bipartisan agreement, unlike economic or social issues that are much more contentious and that dominate electoral debates. But reflective of the prominence of international affairs in modern life, this election reveals India’s major political parties are emphasising the differences in approach.

The CPI(M) opposes the presence of any foreign military bases in the Indian Ocean (Arun Sankar/AFP via Getty Images)

India: What a Modi win means for relations with Malaysia

The recent flurry of diplomatic visits each way provide much-needed optics to the significance of ties (Syaiful Redzuan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
The recent flurry of diplomatic visits each way provide much-needed optics to the significance of ties (Syaiful Redzuan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Published 28 Mar 2024 12:00    0 Comments

With India going to the polls in April, the buzz is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is set to win a third term. The question that remains is how decisive the victory will be. Modi’s unfettered popularity among the electorate, a hugely fragmented and uninspired opposition, and citizens’ desire for continuity are some reasons why a Modi win is highly likely.

Foreign policy-wise, a Modi win would ensure that future approaches build on existing momentum and stay on its current trajectory. There will be continued focus on the Indo-Pacific, targeted action to mobilise the Global South for greater inclusion in international cooperation mechanisms, a more assertive push for United Nations reform and even greater participation in the region through existing policies (Act East Policy, Neighbourhood First Policy), Indian-led mechanisms (International Solar Alliance, Biofuel Alliance), and minilateral mechanisms that India is part of (Quad, I2U2).

For Malaysia, a country with almost seven decades of bilateral ties with India, a Modi win would mean continuity. After the brief impasse in 2019, the last few years since 2020 saw a pandemic-induced reset in ties with visible effort on both sides to enhance cooperation and elevate relations.

Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s visit to Malaysia this week just before elections could be interpreted as a reaffirmation of how important Putrajaya is to New Delhi, and vice-versa.

With the enhanced strategic partnership guiding relations since 2015, the year Modi visited Malaysia, the time is ripe to contextualise ties and ensure that they are functional in the emerging regional order – and indeed, there are existing enablers for this.

The recent flurry of diplomatic visits by Indian ministers to Malaysia and a visit by the Malaysian foreign minister to India at the end of last year provide much-needed optics to the significance of ties. Indian External Affairs Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar’s visit to Malaysia this week just before elections could be interpreted as a reaffirmation of how important Putrajaya is to New Delhi, and vice versa. The visit also suggests imminent continuity and consolidation in India’s approach to Southeast Asia – which is useful messaging for Malaysia, the 2025 ASEAN chair.

Also important is how Malaysia fits into India’s deeply entrenched “personality and personal relationship-driven foreign policy mechanism” – an aspect of foreign policy that is incidentally based on Jaishankar’s diplomatic prowess on the international stage and Modi’s projection of close friendships with his international counterparts. In that sense, Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s warm camaraderie with Modi is and will be an important factor for deeper bilateral ties.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, second left, shakes hands with Malaysian counterpart Anwar Ibrahim at the September 2023 East Asia Summit (Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images)

The resumption of regular defence exercises post-2019 is an important enabler for deeper strategic ties. Recently, Malaysia participated in the Milan exercises as one of the 50 navies in the Indian Navy’s largest-ever multilateral naval exercise. Despite the symbolic nature of Malaysia-India defence cooperation, this aspect of relations reinforces the active and conscious trust-building process.

This forms the bedrock of new-era ties and in many ways deters future diplomatic rows. The defence exercises with India also underscore Putrajaya’s efforts to address perceived parochialism in its strategic relations in the region.

Lastly, the “proliferation” of bilateral mechanisms and initiatives in recent years demonstrates two-way commitment to ensuring cooperation is aimed at addressing contemporary challenges, thereby reiterating the importance of ties. Some examples are the Malaysia-India start-up bridge and the provision extended to Malaysia to trade in Indian rupee.

These Modi-era enablers also serve to stabilise and preserve amicable, functional relations in the face of many points of contention. The basis for the Putrajaya-New Delhi relationship, hence, has been quite clearly, a strategic and calculated silence on issues that could upend this working dynamic. A third term for Modi, however, could encourage a maturing of bilateral ties beyond this selective inattention. This should involve open, targeted and honest interventions restricted to matters unique to the bilateral relationship – mindful that this is not interpreted as interference in internal matters.

How might this happen? For starters, a summit between Anwar and Modi must come to fruition. This is perhaps the most visible missing piece in efforts to reinvigorate bilateral ties. Should Modi take office again, Putrajaya and New Delhi must ensure this meeting takes place – necessary optics for the region but more importantly, key messaging for Malaysians and Indians alike. This is because misperceptions about both countries and the Malaysia-India relationship are particularly known to percolate to societal and individual levels, which then affect bilateral ties.

A meeting between both leaders would reaffirm that there is indeed a shared strategic future with scope for tangible cooperation despite existing ideological divergences and contentions. This summit would also, for Malaysia, be taking place in a fairly stable political environment without “subtext”, compared to last time, between former prime minister Najib Razak and Modi. The summit must also be complemented with enhanced two-way engagement through track 1.5 and track 2 dialogues, coupled with movement of media delegations, which are crucial to address sentiment-related misinformation.

Sophisticated ties would also mean that Putrajaya is open to “buying what New Delhi is selling” on the multilateralism front. Collaborating within newer India-led initiatives such as the International Solar Alliance, Coalition for Disaster Resilient Infrastructure, and Global Biofuels Alliance, which are aimed at tackling global challenges, should be high on Malaysia’s list if headway is to be made to enhance bilateral relations.

For Putrajaya and New Delhi, a Modi win presents an opportunity to find new homeostasis in relations. It allows for a conscious understanding of what conditions are deterring a potential “perpetually stable” relationship. Malaysia must hence plan its long-term approach to a post-election India. Passive symbolism and “pseudo-strategic” ties will no longer do.


Reverse colonialism? India and Britain’s free trade agreements

UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are keen to get the best deals for Indians in Britain (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak (L) and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi are keen to get the best deals for Indians in Britain (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Published 18 Mar 2024 14:30    0 Comments

As elections loom, India is in free trade agreement mode. Hot on the heels of announcing the signing of a “landmark” deal with a group of non-EU European countries, India has also been deep in negotiations with the United Kingdom. Those talks concluded last week, failing to clinch a long-awaited deal – a sad outcome for UK trade negotiators who have now conducted 14 rounds of trade talks with New Delhi, but something that has Canberra trade officials breathing a sigh of relief, seeing reprieve and more opportunity for Australia to gain a strong market foothold.

This is a turnaround for India from its previous position of protectionism, particularly when it walked away from the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership in 2019. After signing trade deals with the United Arab Emirates and Australia, this one is the first for Europe. India’s government now wants to hit US$1 trillion in annual exports by 2030, so recognises it needs to open up its own market for that to happen. 

Moves to enter the Indian market by Australian companies have been cautious, stymied by factors such as a general lack of India literacy and the ability to scale fast.

Next month marks two years since Australia signed its long-sought free trade agreement with India. Known as ECTA (Australia–India Economic Cooperation and Trade Agreement), it allowed for tariff reduction on a wide range of Australian goods exports, including wool, oats, produce, wine, minerals and resources, cosmetics and railway equipment. Services under the agreement include higher education, various business services and construction.

Since then, moves to enter the Indian market by Australian companies have been cautious, stymied by factors such as a general lack of India literacy and the ability to scale fast.

Major organisations including ANZ, Wesfarmers and Telstra are in India, as well as technology firms Acusensus, Rubicon Water and Atlassian.

Indian companies operating in Australia include online marketplace Cars24, rideshare app Ola, and a number of IT companies such as Infosys and Wipro. 

Sydney Uni

Last fortnight’s deal with the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), which includes Iceland, Lichtenstein, Norway and Switzerland, involves US$100 billion worth of investments across a range of sectors in India, including manufacturing. It also offers more room for Indian services firms to enter their markets, such as in the audit and accounting, legal, IT and healthcare sectors. 

The deal also includes a commitment by the EFTA to generate a million jobs in India over 15 years, which would go some way towards easing the persistent challenge of unemployment there. And importantly, it also allows for more relaxed visa requirements for Indians working in Europe.

When it comes to negotiations over the UK free trade agreement, visas for Indian workers in Britain have also been a key condition. This is something that more than likely has put UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in an unenviable bind in which he is forced to tread a path between the desire to gain agreement with New Delhi and accede to domestic concerns around migration, particularly strident in conservative quarters.

A few hundred years after the East India Company tapped the subcontinent for its goods and cheap labour, the UK government is now coming, cap in hand, to India seeking market access for its goods.

In fact, the atmosphere around migration is a tinder box, and is not expected to ease ahead of general elections later this year. But India–UK migration is apparently a sticking point that will not go away. Access to visas for highly skilled Indian professionals and for social security payments to be returned are, it is said, the most politically sensitive elements of the proposed deal.

However, the calling of India’s own general elections, which will take place between April and June, has put the trade talks on hold. It has also been said that India is holding out to be able to negotiate with a UK Labour government, which may be more amenable on the visa conditions.

For its part, Britain wants India to reduce or remove tariffs on alcohol – particularly Scotch whisky (a vital part of the Indian post-midday diet), dairy, automobiles, confectionery, produce and more. The United Kingdom also wants to be able to bid on projects in Indian states. 

There is, admittedly, something rather poignant about this situation, though. A few hundred years after the East India Company tapped the subcontinent for its goods and cheap labour, the UK government is now coming, cap in hand, to India seeking market access for its goods. And two Indian men, both leaders of their respective countries, discussing how to get the best deal for Indians in Britain. Now that’s a reversal of colonialism if there ever was one. 

The failure to reach a deal, though, is a boon for Australia, as it now has more time to gain a solid foothold into India. What Australia is best placed to deliver are high-value products, whether cosmetics or wine, clean energy or even, say, helicopters. What holds Australia back is a lack of skills, work force and India literacy. When more Australians start to understand India as a place beyond the headlines and cliches, the rewards will flow.


Great power ambitions: India’s aim at the UN Security Council

India continuously pushes for a multilateral world order across international forums (Getty Images)
India continuously pushes for a multilateral world order across international forums (Getty Images)
Published 13 Mar 2024 03:00    0 Comments

India has, time and again, been questioned by Europe on its commitment to buying Russian oil despite the sanctions on Moscow, against the backdrop of the ongoing armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine. This question came up again at last month’s Munich Security Conference. India’s External Affairs Minister rightfully said that in the contemporary world, having a unidimensional approach to building relationships is not as sensible as having multiple options, reaffirming New Delhi’s multi-alignment approach.

India continuously pushes for a multilateral world order across international forums, which is essential given the historic divide between the Global North and Global South. This is something that the Indian government has been trying to establish within the UN Security Council as well as through its reformed multilateralism agenda. While there is merit in India’s multi-alignment approach, it is also counterintuitive to securing and carrying out the responsibilities of permanent membership of the Council.

India’s efforts to bring about a systematic transition to multipolarity at the United Nations will aim to change the balance of power dynamics and how power is measured in contemporary global politics.

To a certain extent, UN Security Council permanent membership defines the power structure of the global order. India’s efforts to bring about a systematic transition to multipolarity at the United Nations will aim to change the balance of power dynamics and how power is measured in contemporary global politics. However, such a change in the status quo of power structures can only be brought about by system-determining states.

Building upon the systems theory of international relations, Robert Keohane in 1969 described system-determining states as those that play a critical role in shaping the system, such as the two great powers in a bipolar system. A paper published in 2022 by Edström and Westberg contextualised the system-determining concept in contemporary times, highlighting the UN’s P5 or “the big five” – the United States, China, France, Russia and the United Kingdom – as the system-determining states of today.

In this respect, India fits well with the description of a system-influencing state. Keohane describes these as states that cannot expect individually to dominate a system but that may nevertheless be able to significantly influence its nature through unilateral as well as multilateral actions. New Delhi’s influence in making the Global South relevant and becoming the voice of the Global South are key examples here. Under its G20 presidency, being able to add the African Union as a full-time member was one of New Delhi’s most influential recent acts.

UN Security Council chamber

Thus, India, due to its multi-alignment approach, has been able to garner an influential status in the current global system. However, this might not be enough to fulfil the characteristics of a permanent representative at the UN Security Council. India’s position on the two major armed conflicts that the globe has witnessed in a post-Covid world order raises concerns that New Delhi’s multi-alignment approach hinders its system-determining decision making.

On many occasions, when a permanent member of the UN Security Council exercises its veto, that instance could be frustrating for global peace. This has been witnessed during the conflict between Russia and Ukraine and also recently between Israel and Hamas. However, a non-abstention voting approach confirms that a permanent member of the UN Security Council is taking a step towards determining the rules of the global system.

New Delhi has positioned itself as the voice of the Global South and taken its reformed multilateralism agenda forward. But this can only take India so far.

India went on to abstain from all resolutions relating to the armed conflict between Russia and Ukraine at the UN General Assembly Emergency Special Session (UNGA ESS), despite all its resolutions requesting the aggressor to withdraw its forces from Ukraine. This voting behaviour continued when the UNGA ESS voted on a resolution on the Israel–Hamas situation on 27 October last year. Such abstention-oriented voting is rooted in a multi-alignment policy, which aims to keep all the stakeholders content for India’s strategic interests.

India’s Permanent Representative to the UN, Ruchira Kamboj, while delivering the explanation of New Delhi’s vote on UNGA ESS resolution ES-11/6 asked, “Has the UN system, and particularly its principal organ, the UN Security Council, based on a 1945-world construct, not been rendered ineffective to address contemporary challenges to global peace and security?” Kamboj’s remark indicated the need for reforms within the UN Security Council, given the Council has several times reached a deadlock on crucial matters of international security and peace. However, India’s abstention route wouldn’t change the outcomes in the Council, given an abstention will not play a determining factor.

Back in 2011–12, during its seventh term as a non-permanent member, it was argued that “India did not succeed in acting as a bridge between the concerns of the western powers and the developing world or between east and the west.” This implies that a decade ago, India did not even have system-influencing power. Since then, New Delhi has positioned itself as the voice of the Global South and taken its reformed multilateralism agenda forward. But this can only take India so far. This influencing orientation might help New Delhi in positioning its cause for reformed multilateralism across the UN General Assembly, but finding a seat at the UN’s most powerful body is not assured.

Following a multi-alignment approach makes India an influential voice in the contemporary global order, but that same approach also inhibits it from being a determining power, which is essential for becoming a great power. India’s foreign policy and its global position have indeed benefited from the multi-alignment approach. However, it might not be the key to unlocking New Delhi’s ambitions at the UN Security Council.


Democracy is struggling in South Asia

Live election results in Karachi (Hafeez/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Live election results in Karachi (Hafeez/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
Published 12 Mar 2024 14:00    0 Comments

Democracy in South Asia is experiencing a troubling decline. Indicators point towards a consistent backsliding. Recent unfair elections held in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Maldives as well as the upcoming election in India against a backdrop of polarisation, highlight the ongoing erosion of democratic values in the region.

In Bangladesh, the 7 January election this year resulted in Sheikh Hasina, the leader of the Awami League, securing her fourth consecutive five-year term as prime minister. The campaign was marred by controversy and a boycott (again) by the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party – a decision that stemmed from the Awami League’s refusal to establish a caretaker government to oversee the election process. Described widely as a “sham” election, the campaign unfolded against a backdrop of violent protests and government crackdowns, contributing to a notably low voter turnout. These circumstances have heightened concerns about Bangladesh’s trajectory towards authoritarianism, casting doubts on the integrity and inclusivity of the electoral process.

In Pakistan, the election held on 8 February was marred by allegations of irregularities and a lack of fairness, particularly with regard to the treatment of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) political party. The military’s influence remained significant, effectively orchestrating various aspects of the political process. During the election, the military appeared to favour former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, who had recently returned from a four-year exile in London. The military made concerted efforts to stop another former prime minister, Imran Khan and his PTI party, from returning to power after Khan's removal through a vote of no confidence in April 2022.

Imran Khan himself was sentenced to decades in prison in three separate cases in the week preceding the election. The charges against him ranged from leaking state secrets to engaging in unlawful marriage. The PTI faced significant crackdowns, which included stripping the party of its political symbol, the cricket bat, by the Supreme Court. Many PTI leaders were either arrested or coerced into leaving the party.

Region-wide challenges to democratic principles pose obstacles to economic and social development.

Even in the face of such formidable challenges, candidates backed by the PTI successfully secured a plurality of parliamentary seats, winning 93 out of 266, largely attributed to their adept use of social media platforms to mobilise their voter base. However, Nawaz Sharif’s party formed a government through coalition arrangements with other parties, with Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif assuming the position of prime minister for the second time on 3 March. It is evident that Imran Khan’s party will persist in challenging the newly formed government, alleging that it has usurped their mandate. This situation could exacerbate Pakistan's political instability and compound its economic challenges. The classification last year by the Economist Intelligence Unit of Pakistan as an authoritarian regime underscores the persistent concerns about the violations of democratic norms observed in this election.

Maldives hasn’t suffered nearly the same political strife and in September last year held its fourth multi-party presidential election, resulting in the triumph of opposition leader Mohamed Muizzu. The previous president, Ibrahim Solih, lost following a split in his party close to the election with a resulting division of votes. Although the election was relatively competitive and peaceful, independent observers accused the government of using state resources to sway the electoral outcome and of incentivising the media with financial rewards in exchange for favourable coverage. Allegations of widespread vote-buying were also prevalent during this period, undermining the equity and fairness of the election.

Finally, India is gearing up for one of the world’s largest democratic exercises as it prepares to elect a new parliament in April and May. India’s fervent political environment is characterised by growing polarisation, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi a focal point for criticism over accusations that he adopts strongman tactics and advocates divisive policies. The government has launched an unprecedented attack on civil liberties, free media and minority rights, while also introducing discriminatory laws. Under this administration, India has been downgraded in the annual Freedom House index from a “free democracy” to a “partially free democracy”.

Such region-wide challenges to democratic principles pose obstacles to economic and social development. They exacerbate insecurity and impede collective state efforts to confront urgent problems including extreme poverty and climate change. South Asia represents almost a third of the global population living in extreme poverty, while environmental phenomena, from floods to droughts, have become more prevalent. Political instability resulting from democratic backsliding makes these challenges all the harder.


An Indian advantage abroad

Holi festivals are a worldwide celebration (Deepak Malik/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Holi festivals are a worldwide celebration (Deepak Malik/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
Published 1 Mar 2024 03:00    0 Comments

A well-meaning Canadian acquaintance once asked me, “Why does Toronto feel like Delhi these days?” I chuckled. I did not have a spontaneous answer and resorted to a helpless grin. After some reflection, I convinced myself that the remark was a tad dramatised. Canada is a flagbearer for many things liberal. Toronto’s diversity would certainly make Delhi run for cover. No matter recent exceptions. On the whole, thoughtful writers shower Ottawa with lavish praise – for its open borders.

Talking about diasporas, it is routine to note that Indian origin people make one-sixth of humanity. Some estimate the Indian origin population as upwards of 33 million – that is an entity as large as Saudi Arabia. From tech-utopians in Silicon Valley, and doctors and medical experts in the Anglophone world, to construction workers packed in the Gulf, and maternity nurses in Israel, “desis” are literally everywhere.

It is in this context that Delhi is reinvigorating its outreach to overseas Indians. Prime Minister Narendra Modi revels in diaspora jamborees on his visits abroad. Ask the Australian chief – Prime Minister Anthony Albanese himself was witness to one such spectacle in Sydney.

India’s Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar has also made a habit of addressing diaspora outreach programs on his trips. He routinely emphasises the “migration and mobility” agreements that India has signed with partners such as Italy, Germany, Austria, France and the United Kingdom. In a similar vein, President Emmanuel Macron too is exhorting Indian students to pick France as their preferred destination. He, like some of his European counterparts, has even loosened the tap of work visas for Indian talent.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing the Indian community in the UAE (MEA Photo Gallery/Flickr)

To be sure, Indian governments across the aisle have courted the diaspora in the last three decades. Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee championed the diaspora as bridges between the place of their birth and residence. Even the leaders of the Indian Freedom Movement relied on support from their overseas brethren.

Delhi’s courtship of its diaspora is a reminder of China’s Deng Xiapoing and his opening to the world. Deng encouraged Chinese citizens to travel overseas and absorb what the world had to offer. Along with the debonair Chou Enlai, Deng’s formative years were shaped in France. He loved his pamphlets and croissants one too many.

Deng believed that ethnic Chinese citizens across the world, especially in Southeast Asia, would be instrumental in China’s domestic transformation. Remittances, investments, best practices and technological skills were invaluable imports from overseas Chinese.

He also saw the Chinese diaspora as a tool for political mobilisation in Southeast Asian countries. That is to sway his counterparts in neighbouring capitals to take Beijing’s demands seriously. Some such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew feared that Deng’s attempts were aimed at coercion at best and internal strife at worst. Lee reminded Deng that despite having an ethnic Chinese majority, Singaporean diplomats spoke English with their counterparts. It was his way to reinforce Singapore’s multicultural and multiracial identity.

Host countries also must grapple with the baggage of politics that their immigrant populations bring.

Coming back to India’s recent inclination to sign mobility agreements, such jolly arrangements paint a smooth landscape. Yet, there are some things that go unsaid. One such reality is that most countries seek skilled Indians. The crème de la crème is preferred over a flood of job-hungry aspirants.

To build the base of Industry 4.0, importing tech talent is no longer a desire, it is an urgent necessity.

Host countries also must grapple with the baggage of politics that their immigrant populations bring. Experts argue that the Indian diaspora is the fertile ground where homeland politics spills into the cocktail of the host countries’ internal politics. The diaspora is where “India’s domestic politics intersects with its foreign policy”.

There is another aspect to this story as well. Given India’s post-colonial roots, many Indians of all shades and hues seek a one-way international ticket. To migrate to the “Global North” is considered qualitatively better than loitering in domestic territory. Many Indians might frown at Britain’s past, yet if given a chance to live in edgy Camden – no points for guessing their choice.

Moreover, nationalism and abstract ideas are mere speed breakers in the quest for mobility and migration. People follow the mint. After all, the smell of dollars is infectious. In an unvarnished remark, a seasoned Indian academic editor once noted that if given a free hand (not bound by visa restrictions), around two-thirds of Indians would frantically migrate overseas.

Anecdotal evidence shows that the diaspora too is not too keen on returning. Many non-resident Indians may wave the flag vigorously in their respective countries and hoot when dignitaries show up, yet economic opportunity has rooted them to their new countries. As Vajpayee used to say, “If you care for India, come to India.” Despite many exceptions, he might now get many a helpless grin in return.