It was a year that began with whispers of concern about India and ended with loud criticism. The awe felt around world capitals for Narendra ModiÂs massive electoral mandate vanished quickly in the face of his many domestic moves.
From bisecting Kashmir to enacting new citizenship laws, the world watched ModiÂs relentless drive to alter the nature of things. When students and civil society rose in protest, they were branded as opposition stooges and thugs to be subdued.
The economy, meanwhile, kept sinking Â it was as if the numbers werenÂt reaching Modi. Delusions were the currency. The shine was rapidly coming off but nothing a rally of the faithful couldnÂt fix or flat out denials couldnÂt counter.
Diplomats from friendly countries asked worriedly, ÂIs India changing from a secular, pluralistic country to something else?Â They were afraid to use the word ÂmajoritarianÂ and still are.
This week Ken Juster, the US ambassador to India, pointedly changed background pictures on his Twitter profile which now catalog his visits to important sites of all IndiaÂs major faiths. It was one way of sending a message.
As questions multiply, Indian diplomats have few real answers. And no one should blame them Â they have the toughest job. Who can credibly answer why the UP police arrested minors or a chief minister called for ÂrevengeÂ against protesters?
ThatÂs where we are. ItÂs hard to deny that 2019 was the year when ModiÂs domestic adventures robbed the bank of goodwill accumulated over time, including in the early years of his own tenure when many foreign governments saw him as an agent of IndiaÂs rise.
But today itÂs a very different scenario. From IndiaÂs neighborhood to the ÂfarÂ abroad, governments are wondering what the end game in Kashmir is, where India is really headed and whether it can rise and shine anytime soon. Because at this time, the Modi government seems mired in the pursuit of aims that wonÂt create jobs or modernize the military for real ÂchowkidaariÂ against real enemies. How long can the young be deployed in pointless ÂdadagiriÂ about the culture of cows and nostalgia about a distant past filled with miracles?
The claim that everything Â Citizenship Amendment Act, National Register of Citizens, continued detention of KashmirÂs former chief ministers, crackdown on protestors, Internet shutdowns, police excesses Â is a ÂdomesticÂ issue and therefore of no concern to the outside world is simply not credible.
In the end the BJP does and must care about its image abroad or it wouldnÂt deploy scores of Internet troops to denounce and denigrate critics with alacrity. The prime minister certainly seems to embrace his carefully cultivated image of a Âworld statesmanÂ who is engaged from Africa to
Asia, hobnobbing with leaders.
But IndiaÂs image took a beating this year. The willingness to believe New DelhiÂs version of events diminished in direct proportion to the ineptness and heavy handedness on display across the country. Official versions simply donÂt stand up after a point.
It actually began quietly earlier in the year when independent experts questioned the success of the Balakot operation while US officials twisted themselves into pretzels in order not to embarrass New Delhi. But it doesnÂt mean they werenÂt assessing Indian capabilities for real.
Official America even worked to deliver a big gift during ModiÂs campaign Â the timing of Masood AzharÂs terrorist designation was not a coincidence. The Trump Administration calculated Modi was the strongman needed for the times as the Americans challenged China on the seas and on trade. Helping Modi was a good move.
The Trump AdministrationÂs steady support for the Modi government, however, hides a big wart Â trade disputes Â and itÂs not something that can be papered over too long. Things will come to a head in 2020 as Trump prepares for his re-election campaign and wants to list trade successes.
The question the Americans ask is if India finds China formidable and deceptive on trade, why doesnÂt it resolve its trade problems with the US? They see themselves as the obvious choice and canÂt understand why even a small trade deal has proved elusive after years of negotiations.
Tougher questions are in the offing. HereÂs one: Was India pulling out of RCEP an anti-China move or an anti-trade move? Down the line, problems in the trade relationship could begin to affect the strategic partnership. Even on defense, Washington can see that there is little money in IndiaÂs budget to take spectacular initiatives or buy new systems.
Add to that, the idea that India will be friends with everyone based on issues in this era of multi-alignment. But it can work only up to a point Â the idea of being a free-floating balancer in the world will not work. Some choices have to be made at some time because India canÂt keep everyone Âhalf happy or half unhappyÂ and maximize its gains.
Yes, the Trump Administration is committed to India and future administrations might be too, but India is not making it easy by letting the economy slide by refusing to make the hard decisions because one constituency or the other might be unhappy. Global downturn is not the complete answer for IndiaÂs slowdown and everyone knows it.
Then thereÂs the question of a change in the White House in 2020 Â what if a Democrat wins? IndiaÂs troubles with the Democrats are well known and it would be foolhardy to believe things would be easy.
The larger compulsions of the strategic partnership will likely prevail in the end but cracks in the bipartisan support for India will take time to heal.
This is IndiaÂs problem as it prepares for 2020 vis-Ã -vis the US Â rebuilding bridges with the Democrats that were burnt in haste during ÂHowdy ModiÂ and remembering that the US Congress is a co-equal branch of government. The irony Â New Delhi always believed bipartisan Congressional support was a given and it got cavalier.
Democracies must honor the opposition, not tarnish it. It doesnÂt come naturally to some but in the larger interest, itÂs the only way.
The views expressed above belong to the author(s).