With the general elections kicking off, Indian political parties are out to woo the voters on several issues. However, barring the Indo-US nuclear deal, other foreign policy issues such as relations with China remain marginalized in election manifestoes or are simply absent. While the centrist and rightist parties, largely responsible for improving relations with China in recent times, do promise to sustain the momentum; the regional parties, participants in several coalition governments, completely miss the China story. The only exceptions are the left parties supporting more engagement with China. Unfortunately, they also overemphasize ideological factors.
In American elections, China always matters and all presidential hopefuls publicise their vision and approach towards China. During the last elections, both Barack Obama and John McCain wanted China to grant its citizens wider rights, but also stressed security, economic and environmental issues that make Washington-Beijing ties globally important and often contentious. Obama also pledged a legislation to define currency manipulation as an illegal subsidy and help the US slap duties on more Chinese goods. Similarly, the British and the French elections are also sensitive to China-related issues, albeit on a lesser scale.
Unfortunately, Indian elections do not take a cue despite China being our neighbour and largest trade partner, leading to several consequences. First, it robs the political parties to publicise the investment in building realtions with China. While China may be a threat or an opportunity (or both), all mainstream political parties support its engagement. Second, the electorate is not able to hear their policy options on China. While they are confident about India handling future ties with Pakistan, it is not so in case of China. Third, political parties while in power, are unable to initiate bold steps on China since they lack mandate on this issue and apprehend a public backlash.
The neglect of China shows that political parties treat foreign policy as subservient to other issues while competing in the electoral game. The trends from the last several elections confirm this. Moreover, for many political parties, both at national and regional level, foreign policy begins and ends with Pakistan. This is partly because Pakistan-bashing makes it easier for them to reach out to the voters. In addition, regional parties often attempt to mobilise public opinion against a nearby foreign country. This is true in Tamil Nadu, Assam and Jammu and Kashmir where neighbouring countries often come under fire during elections.
Several factors explain why China in particular and foreign policy in general remains neglected in Indian elections. First, call it a bane or boon of Indian democracy, for the average Indian political leader issues affecting the daily lives of their electorate overtake in importance the finer nuances of foreign policy. These leaders have little training in or exposure to foreign policy and nor are they interested in learning the same. Second, unlike the US, very few politicians have a background in the defence forces or the Foreign Service. Those who have, find themselves handicapped in attracting the voters since they lack then the exposure or experience in political skills and manoeuvring. Third, despite the proliferation of the electronic media and creation of a virtual world, Indian leaders do not trust televised debates; rather, they bank on mass campaigns where foreign policy issues often become insignificant.
In a recent survey by the Washington DC-based Center for Strategic and International Studies, conducted amongst strategic elites of select Asian countries, 65.5 per cent respondents felt China will be the overall strongest national power in Asia, compared to 31 per cent for US. Thus, there are expectations of an accelerated power shift to China. Simultaneously, China was listed as the most likely threat to peace and security in Asia. While the US regularly feeds all such developments and trends on China to its Congress, such an effort is missing in India. Witness for example, the recent publication of the Chinese white paper on its national defence and the response by the US through its own annual report on Chinese military power. While China continues to remain vague about the objectives, scope and the financial contours of its military modernization, the American report, supplemented by reports from other agencies in the administration and research institutions, debunk the sugar-coat on the Chinese modernization drive. At the end of the day, China’s military modernization could have more repercussions for India than a distant US.
While Indian political leaders have been seeking a balanced relationship with China, keeping the China debate within diplomatic and bureaucratic circles denies them informal feedback and an understanding of the popular pulse. Perhaps this explains why China remains an enigma to many in India. Elections provide opportunities for the political parties to produce and sell opinion on important issues. It is in Indian interest, therefore, that China is discussed and debated in public as a poll issue.
Note: The author is on deputation to the United Nations Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). The views expressed herein are those of the author alone.