The Rise of Narendra Modi – and the Tibetan hopes? (Tibetan Perspectives)

Mr. Lobsang Yeshi, Member of Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile

Mr. Lobsang Yeshi, Member of Tibetan Parliament-in-Exile

The widespread Indian euphoria and the global interest in the stunning victory of Mr. Narendra Modi as the Prime Minister of India is followed not only with the routine greetings from the world leaders but also historic conglomeration of the SAARC leaders in Delhi, release of Indian prisoners by Pakistan and Sri Lanka as a goodwill gesture and most importantly, with the rise in Indian Sensex.

Amid exhilarations and apprehensions, many strategists foresee resurgence of a powerful India under the Modi leadership. Indian democracy too was at its best when political opponents bury the hatchets and wished Mr. Modi success. In absolute surprise, Modi even earned tribute from unexpected quarters of senior Pakistani diplomats as well as Congress leader Shashi Tharoor. International financial experts like British economist Jim O’Neill and Chris Wood etc. also joined the bandwagon in endorsing Mr. Modi as saviour of Indian economy.

Meanwhile, as India and the world debate over the prospects and implications of the rise of Mr. Narendra Modi, his historic victory has also generated great deal of interest and scrutiny among exile Tibetans. And many wonder and debate over its implications on the Tibetan cause.

Tibetans wonder if Mr. Narendra Modi would be good for the Tibetan cause. Will he speak in the interest of the Tibetans and raise the Tibetan issue with his Chinese counterpart more effectively? Will he mediate for the resumption of dialogue between China and the Dalai Lama? And at best, will Mr. Modi review India’s policy on Tibet after the long political hiatus?

Some even hope Mr. Modi to emulate his cherished icon Sardar Vallabhbai Patel in dealing favorably with Dalai Lama and the Tibetan issue.

For, after a long while, the Indian electorates have gifted Mr. Narendra Modi with a powerful mandate that privileges him the freedom to be imaginative, bold and pragmatic in dealing with China and the Tibetan issue.

Chief Minister Mr Narendra Modi with Mr Yu Zhengsheng, Party Secretary of Shanghai CPC during his visit to Shanghai on in Nov 2011 as a part of his Beijing/Shanghai/Chengdu trip at the invitation of the International Liaison Department of the Communist Party of China Central Committee.

The then Chief Minister Mr Narendra Modi with Party Secretary of Shanghai CPC during his visit in Nov 2011 as a part of his Beijing/Shanghai/Chengdu trip

Nonetheless, some Tibetans fear that Mr. Modi’s decade-long business association with China would only mean nasty repercussions for Tibet. In 2011, when Mr. Modi visited China for the fourth time, Beijing has accorded Mr. Modi a reception typically reserved only for heads of state or government. Even Mr. Modi himself acknowledged that he has good rapport with China and that China listens to him and is polite with him. And rightly so, when Mr. Modi sought the release of Gujarati traders from the Shenzhen prison in China, Beijing promptly obliged.

And observers further noted Beijing’s unusually mild response to Modi’s strong warning from Arunachal Pradesh during the election campaign, signalling the return of the Hindi-Chini Bhai Bhai days.

Many economists also refer to China’s contribution in Modi’s success in Gujarat. China’s SEZ model implementation in Gujarat, massive trade exchanges and investments and the supply of mammoth Ultra High Voltage Transformer and Reactors plant are reckon as major development boosters for Gujarat.

However while promoting bilateral trade during his China visit; Mr. Modi did raised issues of political importance with Chinese officials including China’s cartographic aggression in Arunachal Pradesh, presence of Chinese forces in POK, and border issues etc. Professor M.D. Nalapat, a geo-strategist from Manipal University in a recent interview with Gateway House, argued “The perception that he (Modi) leans towards China is completely wrong. In China he was very firm on Indian interests – especially the Chinese assistance to the Pakistani nuclear and missile program and the Pakistani army. He was very firm that the border issue needs to be settled in a way that creates overall tranquillity.”

The Dalai Lama, left, speaks with Gujarat state Chief Minister Narendra Modi during an international seminar on Buddhist Heritage in Vadodara, south of Ahmadabad, India, Friday, Jan.15, 2010. The Dalai Lama inaugurated the three-day international seminar that began Friday.

The Dalai Lama, left, speaks with the former Gujarat state Chief Minister Narendra Modi during an international seminar on Buddhist Heritage in Vadodara, south of Ahmadabad, India, Friday, Jan.15, 2010. The Dalai Lama inaugurated the three-day international seminar that began Friday.

In the numerous foreign policy analyses that followed the rise of Mr Narendra Modi, majority of the strategic experts speculate Mr Modi adopting a multi-lateral diplomacy in an effort to maintain a strict balance in the promotion of economic development and safeguarding India’s core strategic interests. Former Foreign Secretary, Mr Shyam Saran, in his recent article titled, “Modi must re-establish India’s global clout” suggested that “There will be continuities in the challenges confronting India. Managing an essentially adversarial relationship with China will require a mix of expanded engagement and robust deterrence.”

Dr. Ashok Sharma, Honorary Research Fellow, Politics and International Relations at University of Auckland, in his article, “Foreign policy will be a crucial challenge for the incoming Modi government” aptly summed up Mr. Modi’s likely foreign policy by stating that “Modi comes with a reputation as an economic performer and a hardline nationalist and he will try to live up to both the expectations. Under the BJP, both economic interdependence and realism will be hallmarks of Indian foreign policy.”

Despite all these facts, many Tibetans are optimistic that Mr. Modi’s concerns for the Tibetan cause and his personal acquaintance with the Dalai Lama would definitely bring better days for Dharamshala. Especially the BJP Party being popular among the Tibetan exiles as a party that overtly extends its support and solidarity to the CTA as well as the Tibetan political campaigners.

Likewise Mr. Narendra Modi while serving as the Gujarat CM and also as BJP State coordinator in Himachal had met Dalai Lama as well as CTA leaders in Dharamshala on several occasions. Mr. Modi even felicitated Dalai Lama during a state event in Gujarat in 2010.

A four-member South Zone Tibetan Parliamentary Delegation comprising Ms Tsering Youdon, Ven Atuk Tseten, Mr Jigme Jungney, and Mr Lobsang Yeshi presenting a souvenir to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in Gandhi Nagar, India, on 6 September 2013

A four-member South Zone Tibetan Parliamentary Delegation comprising Ms Tsering Youdon, Ven Atuk Tseten, Mr Jigme Jungney, and Mr Lobsang Yeshi presenting a souvenir to Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi in Gandhi Nagar, India, on 6 September 2013

Last fall, a week before Mr. Modi was to be announced as BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, a Tibetan parliamentary delegation including this writer was accorded a warm reception at his CM Office in Gujarat. The delegates were allowed to call on Mr. Modi despite his frenzied engagements. Mr. Modi not only expressed his sincere support and solidarity with the Tibetan cause but also shared some touching anecdotes of his pilgrimage to Mt Kailash in Tibet.

Incidentally, a fortnight before the Modi Meeting, when the same Tibetan delegation called on the renowned British economist and MP, Lord Meghnad Desai in Goa, Mr. Desai assured that the victory of the strong and decisive BJP leader would be a boon not just for India but also for the Tibetans.
These backgrounds clearly demonstrate that Mr. Modi is not naiveté or indifferent on matters Tibetan.
Other optimist also refer to Modi’s strong warning against China in Arunachal Pradesh during the election campaign and his criticism of Delhi’s failure to protect the Indian borders against China during his Chennai address.

During the Nani Palkhivala Memorial Lecture in Chennai last October, deemed his first exclusive foreign policy speech, Mr. Modi strongly criticized India’s foreign policy and ridiculed the Central Government’s weak response to Chinese border transgressions. He also questioned how India allowed China to dominate it across International platform?

In his speech, Mr. Modi also quoted author Arun Shourie’s reference to Dalai Lama’s reaction to the title of Shourie’s book, “Self Deception: India, China policies; Origins, premises, lessons” released on the occasion, as a fitting title indicating India’s foreign policy. And experts point out how Mr. Modi single out China the only ‘neighboring country’ along with Myanmar (not member of SAARC) away from his Swearing in Ceremony in Delhi.

Still there are others who fear that Mr. Modi’s sheer pragmatism and ‘India First’ nationalism and the staunch development mantra would mean more economic engagement and strategic partnership with Beijing, spelling doom for the political Tibet.

Already few Indian and Chinese strategic experts suspect Mr. Modi emerging as India’s Nixon; cozying up to China to achieve a breakthrough in the Sino-India border deadlocks through package deal and revive Indian economy through multi-lateral partnership with China, development being Mr. Modi’s sole election mantra. There are also others who equate him as India’s Deng Xiaoping while others expect him to emerge as India’s Mikhail Gorbachev.

Brookings expert William J. Antholis who interviewed Mr. Modi last month noted that Mr. Modi avoided discussing China as a direct threat and that he did not demonstrated the deep suspicion toward China. Mr. Modi also assured Mr. Antholis the possibility of resolving the differences between the two countries and taking the Sino-Indian relationship “to another level.”

Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay of the Central Tibetan Administration attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an honored guest at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, 26 May 2014

Sikyong Dr. Lobsang Sangay of the Central Tibetan Administration attended the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Narendra Modi as an honored guest at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, 26 May 2014

And lo! even before he took charge of the PM office, Mr. Modi laid everyone’s doubt to rest, when he tweeted a warm response to Dalai Lama by stating that he is “Extremely grateful to His Holiness the Dalai Lama for his wishes and words of appreciation” and followed it up by honoring the Tibetan Political leader Dr. Lobsang Sangay with an invitation to his swearing in ceremony. This invitation is believed to be India’s first major formal recognition to the Tibetan exile leader in a long while. No wonder, the Chinese government sent a demarche to India protesting against the invitation to Dr. Lobsang Sangay.

For the Tibetans, the recognition was a huge relief after a protracted political drought. By inviting the Tibetan leaders (including Home Minister Ms. Gyari Dolma) at the August gathering, PM Narendra Modi has reinforced the Tibetan peoples’ trust in him.

Yet, more cautious observers interpret even these Tibetan treatments as a mere sign of Modi’s willingness to engage CTA in his future dealings with China on bilateral border issues. And some hardliners suspect even this as diplomacy before an impending ‘sell-out’. They recall former NDA Government’s downsizing Tibet into ‘Tibet Autonomous Region’ as a quid pro quo for Sikkim in 2003.

A former TYC President Mr. Tsewang Rinzin shrugged off the new found Tibetan optimism as premature and noted the limitations of our Indian political friends when in power.

It’s another matter that since arrival in India, the Dalai Lama and the Tibetans have enjoyed unparallel humanitarian support from the Government and people of India, irrespective of which political party is in power in Delhi.  And the Tibetans in exile are overwhelmingly indebted to the Government, people and all the political parties for their unstinted support and solidarity for the Tibetans and their struggle.

On the political front, successive Indian Governments have virtually followed the same policies adopted by its foremost foreign policy architect, Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Prof Sreeram S Chaulia of University of Syracuse, New York, referring to Pandit Nehru’s influence in Indian Foreign policy stated, “Nowhere was the influence of this architect of modern India more monumental, singular and enduring than in foreign policy and external relations.” Former Indian President, K.R.Narayanan, once succinctly declared, “Nehru is not dead as far as the country’s foreign policy was concerned”.

Meanwhile PM Narendra Modi in his recent telephone conversation with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang assured that China is a priority in India’s foreign policy and that he is keen to work with the Chinese leadership to deal with any outstanding issues between the two countries. He also extended invitation to Chinese President Xi Jinping to visit India later this year.

The Chinese Premier in response conveyed his government’s desire to “establish robust partnership with the new government in India for further development of relations between the two nations”.

With the Modi Government just weeks into the office, China is sending its Foreign Minister Wang Yi to India on 8th June for an early ‘damage control’ bilateral talk with Indian counterpart Ms. Swaraj. Analysts view this as Beijing’s unprecedented diplomatically perturbed overture.

Conclusion

Despite some veiled allegations against the exile Tibetans for creating or exaggerating the antagonism between India and China, The Tibetan leadership in Dharamshala has repeatedly clarified that an improved Sino-India relation is a welcome proposition for the Tibetans, for it would enhance India’s scopes for effective intervention in resolving the Tibetan issue with Beijing.

Finally, as Tibetans speculate the future turn of the events under the new Indian leadership, they can only wait and observe how the charismatic Prime Minister Narendra Modi realizes his quest for a strong and developed India through multilateral diplomacy and the “web of allies” based on traditional “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam” and “Shakti and Shanti” stratagem. And most importantly observe how Mr. Modi balances India’s national interest with that of her moral and humanitarian obligations for the Tibetans. Until then, Tibetans can only hope that while the new Government deals with China, Tibetan interests are not compromised in the realpolitik.

About the Author: Mr. Lobsang Yeshi is an Independent researcher and a member of Tibetan Parliament in Exile, Dharamshala