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Narendra Modi and India’s new climate change norms

Narendra Modi and India’s new climate change norms

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At the start of the republic, India found a normative voice on the global stage through its moral stand against colonialism. Now a rising India needs a new normative agenda. It might get it through environmental policy.

From the very beginning of the Indian republic, many of its leaders were convinced of its “unique capacity to offer moral leadership in world affairs.[i]” To overcome its material deficiency, its foreign policy elite led by the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru put forth a normative contribution. India espoused the cause of anti-imperialism and post-colonialism through the championing of a liberal internationalism which sought to delegitimise racism[ii] and emphasised the sovereignty of countries recently independent from colonial rule. It spoke against Great Power hegemony, propagating a position of what came to be called ‘non-alignment’.

This posture built into Indian foreign policy an early aspiration of exceptionalism through moral leadership[iii], a desire to elevate its social standing through maintaining a critical distance from Cold War politics and a progressive critique of unfettered capitalism.

The thread of this normative aspiration has continued through independent India’s history including in the country’s initial disdain towards, and then arguments for, the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Faced with international censure for its nuclear tests in 1998, Indian foreign minister Jaswant Singh articulated its response in post-colonial argument against ‘nuclear apartheid[iv]’. India has continued to convey a position of moral acquiescence to global nuclear norms as a ‘responsible’ nuclear state, without formally signing either the Non-proliferation Treaty or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty), to successfully access benefits like the landmark civil nuclear deal with the United States in 2008, and, more recently, memberships to a series of nuclear organisations from the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) to the Wassenaar Arrangement.

Under prime minister Manmohan Singh of the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance, India sought to make a virtue of its ‘inclusive growth’ development model based on a ‘rights-based’ economic model. The normative model of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is however yet to be formulated distinctly.

Modi and his other key lieutenants like former party president and current Home Minister Amit Shah have repeatedly used the phrase ‘vishwa guru’ (world teacher) as the social ambition of India. Minor expressions of this vision have been ideas like the propagation of the International Day of Yoga at the United Nations. But beyond such efforts, a wholistic formulation of a new normative agenda is yet to emerge.

Modi and his other key lieutenants like former party president and current Home Minister Amit Shah have repeatedly used the phrase ‘vishwa guru’ (world teacher) as the social ambition of India. Minor expressions of this vision have been ideas like the propagation of the International Day of Yoga at the United Nations. But beyond such efforts, a wholistic formulation of a new normative agenda is yet to emerge.

Scholars have argued that while Modi draws his considerable personal efforts at foreign relations inspired by Swami Vivekananda, the 19th century Hindu monk who advocated karma yoga or the virtue of well-meaning action and activity, the idea of karma yoga is – yet to be developed into one or more pivotal sectoral ideas for policy imperatives[v]. This partly, it has been suggested, is due to the focus of most of intellectual pool from where Modi and the BJP draw – the religious and philosophical texts of Hinduism and its allied political ideology Hindutva, which is mostly focussed on domestic issues rather than international.

But there are two issues that might challenge this understanding. First, theoretically it has been established that international norms have domestic impact[vi], and it would be fair to argue from recent example that the reverse is also true. For instance, Scandinavian nations have sought to promote global norms on the basis of their domestic experience on both gender equality and fossil fuel use (including through the decision of Norway’s $1 trillion pension to divest from key fossil fuels[vii]).

Modi’s efforts to define an environmental agenda that considers domestic policy change and international pitch should be seen in this light. I am arguing that in doing so, he is putting forth his own normative ambition. In his first term one of the few arenas where Modi has attempted to put forth a normative view, of a kind, has been in his connecting India’s environmental policy to lessons from ancient Hindu texts like the Vedas[viii] and by using material from these texts to explain India’s leadership stance on climate change at COP21 (Conference of Parties) in Paris in 2015[ix]. By using a “philosophical narrative accompanied by an economic narrative[x]”, Modi was able to satisfy audiences at home and show India’s willingness to “transform itself from a veto-player to an agenda-setter[xi]”.

While this process has only just begun on the international stage, at least domestically, the Modi government in its second term is showing significant seriousness in developing an environment-focussed approach as a possible Indian normative pitch.

By setting up an integrated ministry dedicated to tackling the country’s water crisis and elevating a farmer leader of the party who is cognizant of wide-spread rural water distress, Gajendra Singh Sekhawat, to head the ministry, and setting itself an ambitious project (around six times the scale of bringing electricity to every part of the country) of delivering tapped water to every household by 2024, the Modi government has indicated that it is serious about tackling climate change and its related problems at home. Similar to other successes like building toilets and providing electricity, this project has been described to be in ‘mission mode’ – a phrase used for projects receiving the highest importance and attention.

The external facing ambition of this project is already apparent, even as it begins, from efforts to project it normatively to an international audience, including one foreign office elite, the Consul General of India in New York, talking it up as “India could yet lead the world in water conservation[xii]”.

The announcement for an income tax rebate for customers of electronic vehicles in the first budget of the second term of the Modi government is the other indication of India trying to lead the way in adopting measures against climate change with an aim to convert most vehicles to electric-powered by 2030 and with an already achieved target of producing the world’s cheapest solar power[xiii]. Under Modi’s watch, latest assessments suggest that the country might exceed its own targets of replacing fossil fuel use with clean energy by 2030. Under current assessments, renewable energy might provide half of India’s energy needs by 2030, up from the 40% target set by Modi[xiv].

India has seven of the top ten most polluted cities in the world[xv] and it is one of the most water-stressed countries – its major cities are already running out of water. If Modi can show significant transformation in fighting climate change, curbing pollution and transforming the energy habits of 1.3 billion people, he would have created a new normative agenda that he can own. There are now clear and unambiguous indications that that is the Indian prime minister’s aim.

Source: orfonline.org
Anand Gupta Editor - EQ Int'l Media Network