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Modi Sarkar is Realising That It's Risky to Subordinate Diplomacy to Politics

The US red-flagged the income tax notices to the Congress party after which the IT Department suddenly went soft.

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It is always risky to subordinate diplomacy to politics. But the Modi government seems to have thrown caution to the winds in the frantic scramble to meet its target of winning 400 seats for the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).

Its sledgehammer tactics against the Opposition have landed it in a diplomatic pickle with the United States (US), Germany, and the Office of the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General.

And now, it’s skating on thin ice with Sri Lanka by raking up the transfer of the Katchatheevu Island to that country 50 years ago. Evidently, it feels that this piece of history is a hot-button issue in Tamil Nadu and could be the straw that broke the camel’s (in this case, the DMK [Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam]-Congress alliance) back.

Let’s join some dots to understand how established rules of statecraft are unravelling in the cacophony of a long summer poll campaign.

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Arvind Kejriwal's Arrest; Tax Notices to the Congress Party

A week ago, first Germany, then the US State Department and finally the UN Secretary-General expressed concern over Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s arrest after the election process had begun.

Predictably, India reacted as if it had been stung by a bee. The envoys of Germany and the US were summoned and if the Ministry of External Affairs spokesperson is to be believed, they were given a dressing down for "unwarranted interference in India’s internal affairs."

Germany changed its tune but the next day, the US reiterated its call for a fair, transparent and timely legal process. And then came a second hit. It red-flagged the income tax notices to the Congress party and the freezing of the party’s accounts on election eve.

The rap on its knuckles from the West sent the Modi government into damage-control mode. All of a sudden, the Income Tax Department went soft and told the Supreme Court that "no coercive steps" would be taken against the Congress party on the tax demand for Rs 3,500 crores "in light of the impending polls." There was no word on what would happen after the elections.

It was a clumsy attempt at diplomatic tightrope walking: a lollipop for the US by holding back on immediate action against the main Opposition party, and a laddoo for the bhakts by keeping the Damocles sword hanging over the Congress party.

Kejriwal’s fate remains unclear despite international pressure. There was some respite after he got shifted from the custody of the Enforcement Directorate to Tihar Jail with special facilities in view of his health issues. Sanjay Singh (another senior AAP leader) was released on bail yesterday.

Reports emanating from the Election Commission suggest that the poll body is looking for ways to bail out the government and help it counter the growing international perception that investigative agencies have been unleashed against Opposition leaders to skew the Lok Sabha battle in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

One suggestion under consideration is to restrain these agencies for the duration of the elections. International opprobrium hurts, especially when Modi is hoping to stride the world as a global player after a successful G-20 Summit in New Delhi and renewed activity to play peacemaker between Ukraine and Russia.

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Katchatheevu: What About Relations With Sri Lanka?

With its corruption plank slightly dented, the BJP has resorted to its other favourite barb against the Opposition: anti-national. Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of his hat, the BJP has raked up a forgotten issue that goes back 50 years, to 1974 when the Indira Gandhi government parted with the Katchatheevu island to Sri Lanka.

Let’s join some dots again. BJP Tamil Nadu president filed an RTI (Right to Information) on the issue on 5 March. By 12 March, the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) had sent him a reply giving details of the agreement between Sri Lanka and India, as well as the file notings by Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Clearly, the BJP believes in keeping its powder dry and like a boy scout, it is ready for every and any eventuality. The Katchatheevu issue was kept handy to be used when the right time came.

However, several questions arise from the BJP’s decision to make political capital for the polls from a sensitive matter with an important neighbouring country.

Firstly, the speed at which Annamalai received a reply to his RTI. It took less than a week. Others have to wait for months, if at all they get the answer that they are looking for.

Secondly, some analysts have questioned whether file notings can be revealed in an RTI reply. Does this amount to a breach of the Official Secrets Act? The jury is still out on this.

Thirdly, and this is the most worrying, will the BJP’s criticism of the agreement on Katchatheevu impact India’s relations with neighbouring Sri Lanka? We have just about brought the relationship back on an even keel to counter China’s growing influence in our neighbourhood. It is vital that our ties with Sri Lanka do not start fraying again.

So far, Colombo has not commented. However, analysts who are clued into Sri Lanka are concerned that if Katchatheevu continues to burn as a poll issue and the BJP persists in slamming the transfer as anti-national, there will be a reaction, starting with media commentaries.

It is inexplicable that the prime minister himself decided to join the battle. He could have left it to Annamalai and BJP leaders in Tamil Nadu. That would have helped to distance himself from any controversy that may follow, especially since he hopes to be back as the prime minister in June.

It is pertinent to recall what happened when Union Home Minister Amit Shah termed Bangladeshi migrants "termites" during the 2019 Lok Sabha campaign. His rhetoric won the BJP votes in Assam, where the migration problem is a burning issue. But India’s relations with Dhaka nosedived for a long time after that.

Sheikh Hasina was targeted by fundamentalist groups in her country for advocating close ties with New Delhi and there were anti-Modi, anti-BJP demonstrations on the streets of Dhaka. It took one year of back-channel diplomacy to restore normalcy in this bilateral relationship.

(Arati R Jerath is a Delhi-based senior journalist. She tweets @AratiJ. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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Topics:   Arvind Kejriwal 

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