Modi will widen India’s foreign policy horizons


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Intrigued by India’s enigmatic new leader, the world is anxious about the foreign policy implications of someone who has held no national post, will lead the government of a billion-strong, nuclear-armed country with the world’s third-biggest economy in purchasing power parity ($5.4 trillion), and has spelt out his economic agenda but not his foreign policy priorities. It should stop worrying. Narendra Modi’s foreign policy is likely to be pragmatic, not dogmatic; practical, not ideological; and reciprocally assertive or accommodating. The nature and margin of his victory gives him a rare opportunity to upend former New York governor Mario Cuomo’s oft-quoted 1985 aphorism. Having campaigned in prose, Modi could conduct his foreign policy in elegant poetry that combines robust defence of some traditional interests with abandonment of shibboleths past their use-by date and bold initiatives to break out of stagnant stalemates on others.

Look Back to the Future

The elements of continuity in India’s foreign policy under the BJP-led Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004) and Congress-led Manmohan Singh (2004- 14) governments are more numerous and substantial than the readjustments on the margins. Like Jawaharlal Nehru’s, Vajpayee’s foreign policy accomplishment was larger than the sum of its mistakes. He turned around the US relationship with sustained engagement after the setback of the 1998 nuclear tests. His diplomatic overtures to Pakistan and China insulated foreign policy from domestic pressures and delinked the two border disputes from broader engagement. Manmohan’s impulse and instincts were the same, but a weak domestic position left little space for sustained foreign initiatives. The Sharm el-Sheikh agreement with Pakistan was repudiated by the Congress, and his signature civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US remains unconsummated because domestic opponents fatally undercut it with a draconian civil nuclear liability law.

India is caught in a transitional identity as a rising power with growing economic weight that translates into greater political clout, but still a hugely poor and underdeveloped country with a multitude of serious policy challenges. Too often, Indian policy is reactive, hindered by significant capacity constraints and insufficiently attentive to public diplomacy. Policy initiatives are often aspirational rather than programmatic — a slogan is no policy — and claims to status and recognition are articulated as national entitlement, not advanced as political strategy. Having left behind the weak, poor and inward-looking country whose default instinct was to say “No”, India is yet to graduate to a self-confident country that can say “Yes”, and is stuck instead in the intermediate stance of “Yes, but”. The new “can, must and will do” PM is the right person at the right time to change India’s default foreign policy settings.

Vajpayee injected a healthy dose of realism into India’s penchant for woolly thinking, bringing greater coherence and focus to the pursuit of national interests in the international arena. In a similar vein, instead of the vague and nebulous “strategic autonomy” that has no operational content, Modi is likely to provide clear strategic direction and more efficient policy execution. Non-alignment is a historical anomaly with no current conceptual anchor. The sooner the anachronism is dumped from the diplomatic vocabulary, the better for India’s foreign policy. The quest for Security Council permanent membership should also be quietly abandoned. Instead, the importance of the reform-proof UN that is grievously out of alignment with the changed global power structure should be downgraded, a less senior person chosen as India’s permanent representative, contributions to UN peacekeeping missions scaled back, and Modi should not bother to attend the opening of the annual General Assembly session in September.

The BJP campaign manifesto and 10-year history of opportunistic attacks on Manmohan’s US, China and Pakistan policies notwithstanding, Modi is unlikely to abandon prudence, nuclear restraint or the pursuit of regional engagement and economic integration. The policy of credible minimum deterrence will be maintained, despite tensions between credible and minimum vis-à-vis China and Pakistan. Modi should call for a submission from defence scientists on whether India needs more nuclear tests to give credibility to its nuclear posture. If not, he should sign and ratify the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in order to deepen the stability of the global nuclear order in which India has a strong vested interest, perhaps entering a reservation that India’s signature could be rescinded should another country test. Similarly, Modi could follow through on Manmohan’s innovative suggestion and, in collaboration with China — the only other nuclear power to have such a policy — initiate moves towards a global convention on no first use. Both measures will reverse perceptions of a hawkish foreign policy, have no adverse impact on national security, yet strengthen international security.

Look Around

Quarrels in its own backyard diminish India and handicap its global diplomacy. India’s size, strength and assets can be harnessed to the region’s common good instead of unilateral pursuits that cut across their interests. The invitation to all SAARC leaders to attend Modi’s swearing-in ceremony on 26 May was a masterstroke. Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif’s attendance was the first such courtesy since their twin independence in 1947 and reportedly against the wishes of the army. Six other leaders (from Afghanistan, Bhutan, Maldives, Mauritius, Nepal and Sri Lanka) were also present. Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina had a previously scheduled trip to Japan and the Speaker came instead. It was regionally reassuring and conveyed neighbourly best wishes. Domestically, Manmohan had outsourced his Sri Lanka and Bangladesh policies to nettlesome coalition allies in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. On the eve of Manmohan’s visit to Bangladesh, in a most un-Didi like tantrum, Mamata Banerjee had vetoed a carefully crafted package agreement on Teesta water-sharing and the land boundary that would have elevated bilateral relations and bolstered pro-India groups in Bangladesh.

On Sri Lanka, larger national interests were compromised when Manmohan boycotted the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting in Colombo last year and India sided with the censorious West at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva against the mainstream Asian consensus. This was done to appease cross-strait Tamil ethnic solidarity against India’s clear interests in maintaining good relations with Colombo, not ceding diplomatic space to China in the neighbourhood, discouraging secessionist movements inside India, and fighting the scourge of terrorism. Tamil Nadu’s leaders did Modi a favour by publicly objecting to the invitation to President Mahinda Rajapaksa. The brouhaha will deepen Rajapaksa’s feelings of gratification. It allowed Modi to drive home the point that foreign policy would once again be the exclusive preserve of the Centre and, more importantly, will increase Modi’s leverage on protecting minority Tamil rights in Sri Lanka.

Pakistan is the most dangerous country on earth because of the confluence of several factors: an unstable government whose key policy boundaries are determined by the military, a fragile economy, a strong jihadist threat to the State, the presence of Islamist influences within the military-intelligence services, the fastest growing nuclear arsenal, and the long-running conflict with India. Yet tensions have steadily reduced in Kashmir and on the border over the past several years, the constituency has grown in Pakistan for improved relations with India, and normalisation of ties will benefit both countries. Conversely, failure to normalise relations means the bilateral conflict is the main pivot on which the entire SAARC region rotates and India’s global aspirations are badly hobbled. To deny there is a dispute is certifiable lunacy; to refuse to search for compromise accommodations is political folly; to cave in to excess demands would be political suicide. A modus vivendi that continues to bring down the temperature in the Valley and in bilateral relations should be an urgent priority, consistent with the efforts of both Vajpayee and Manmohan.

The fragile green shoots of normalisation that had sprouted during the Sharif-Vajpayee years were poisoned by General Pervez Musharraf on the forbidding heights of Kargil. But last year, Pakistan experienced its first transfer of political power through peaceful elections and by now more Pakistanis than ever are conscious of the much higher price their country is paying for having nurtured the jihadist monster. Terrorist groups outside State control could seek to derail peace overtures once again. So could terror outfits with links to Islamist sympathisers within Pakistan’s military and ISI: the attack on India’s consulate in Herat, Afghanistan, might be a portent of things to come. No Indian government can overlook the fact that the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai attacks have not been brought to justice. It is hard to see a Modi-led BJP government not retaliating against another Mumbai-style terrorist provocation. Nor is it clear who in Pakistan he should talk to, given the latter’s India, Kashmir, nuclear and State-sponsored terrorism policies are all under military control.

Vajpayee provides an encouraging model of political moderation at home and abroad within the BJP’s larger conservative framework. Modi will need to reassure Pakistan and will have domestic political space to do a deal — the Nixon goes to China model — if he finds a willing and able partner for peace. In Sharif, Modi will have an interlocutor who understands the business imperatives. During the election campaign, Modi remarked that anger cannot guide India’s Pakistan policy and instead acknowledged the importance of engaging India’s western neighbour. He reportedly sent emissaries to Kashmir’s separatist leaders and Pakistan. If true, these would be welcome early indicators of maturity in foreign policy. If the policies and actions of the new government stoke Muslim fears and anxieties at home, the avenues for Pakistan to create serious mischief will multiply. If Indian Muslims’ concerns are assuaged then, precisely because Modi has been demonised by the cultural-intellectual elite as the incarnation of a hardline Hindutva agenda, a pragmatic working relationship with Pakistan that explores opportunities for normalising relations — perhaps some early practical deliverables through the composite dialogue or back-channel diplomacy — will bring incommensurate international diplomatic rewards.

The contours of a Kashmir deal are broadly known and were outlined recently in a personal capacity by Manmohan’s special envoy Satinder Lambah. It takes the form of a “non-border, non-territorial” solution. Do not redraw the border, nor amend the Constitution. Demilitarise Kashmir, pull back the military from the border as the situation improves, make the boundary/LoC increasingly irrelevant to people’s daily activities, encourage and facilitate cross-border contacts, communications and commerce, and gradually end the cycle of violence. The agenda should include a repeal of the hated Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, credible investigations of human rights abuses and atrocities, and improved efforts to make all Kashmiris stakeholders in the political order.

Look East

The biggest winners from Modi’s election are likely to be the Asian countries that reached out to him when he was put in the diplomatic doghouse by the West. His chief attraction to them was the business-friendly ethos he instilled in Gujarat that closely mirrors the disciplined work ethic of all the successful Southeast and East Asian governments. Mutual respect was consolidated with successful visits to China, Japan and Singapore. While a strong-willed personality comes with inherent risks of an authoritarian streak and strong-arm tactics, after the drift of the past five years, most Asian governments will welcome a purposeful interlocutor in New Delhi. This will embrace the totality of foreign, trade and even security policies. The lacklustre and distant UPA government conveyed the impression that defence diplomacy with Asian neighbours was a burden to be borne, not a strategic opportunity to be exploited. That said, Modi could make a larger political point. That the annual Shangri-La Dialogue, organised by a London-based institute, should be Asia’s preeminent security dialogue forum betrays a culture cringe towards former colonial masters and lack of Asian self-respect. Maybe Modi could give the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses the mandate and resources to develop New Delhi as the preeminent Asian security dialogue forum, or support an alternative Asian forum host.

Prime Minister Modi’s first bilateral overseas tour could be to Japan. When the US closed its shores in 2005, Modi went east in 2007 and opened new investment channels between Gujarat and Japan. During a high-profile four-day visit in July 2012, he was treated above his protocol station and widely seen by Japanese business and political leaders as “India’s rising sun”. He finds Japan’s economic and technological prowess inspiring; he is interested in introducing Japan’s bullet train technology to India; and in sensitive regions like India’s Northeast, Japanese infrastructure investment will be welcome without any accompanying strategic unease. In turn, Modi has “brand” recognition and value in Japan’s private sector circles who appreciate his administrative efficiency, investor-friendly norms and proven ‘red tape roadblocks into red carpet welcome’ mindset. Indo-Japan trade at under $20 billion is well below the $65 billion Sino-Indian trade. But as India’s middle class grows into a mass consuming base to alter the structure of India’s trading patterns, the pace of growth in Indo-Japanese trade could become truly dizzying.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko paid a high-profile, warmly received week-long State visit last November-December and were followed by PM Shinzo Abe as chief guest on Republic Day. When Abe led his party to a landslide victory in Japan’s 2012 General Election, he broke from protocol in taking a congratulatory call from Modi as CM. Modi is only one of three people — and the only non-Japanese — with whom Abe maintains a Twitter relationship. The mutual respect between the two strongly nationalist PMs is now set to pay handsome dividends for both countries. Their warming comes amidst growing assertiveness to the point of bellicosity by China in the East and South China Seas. In the face of a rising China, many doubt American intentions, will and staying power and instead fear that an accommodation between the waning and rising hegemons could be at the cost of their interests.

Chief Minister Modi visited China a few times to promote business and trade cooperation. During a high-profile five-day visit in November 2011, he was received in the Great Hall of People in Beijing, an honour normally reserved for heads of government. But Beijing is uncertain about Modi’s likely directions as pm. Only a strong leader can challenge US economic and political dominance. But a strongly nationalist leader might pursue a policy of enmeshing India in a web of allies in the neighbourhood, forging strategic links around China, and will look askance at China’s anti-Indian links with other South Asian countries, especially Pakistan. During a campaign stop on 22 February, Modi declared Arunachal Pradesh was an integral part of India and urged China to abandon its “mindset of expansion”. He will want to modernise and strengthen India’s military, upgrade India’s nuclear arsenal and accelerate the development of India’s border infrastructure. All these are potential irritants in Sino-Indian relations. India is also likely to be wary of China’s advanced cyber espionage capabilities.

On the other hand, Modi’s commitment to infrastructure development, attracting investment and creating special economic zones might lead to more intensified interaction with China, overcoming the traditional reserve about consolidating and deepening ties with China in strategic sectors. As the US military prepares to leave Afghanistan, a lasting legacy of the US occupation of the country will be cross-border infection of the entire region by Islamist extremism. The growing incidents of terrorist attacks in China — in the latest incident on 22 May, 31 people were killed in the restive Xinjiang province in a suicide bombing blamed on Uighur Muslim separatists — should increase the scope for mutual understanding and even cooperation between China and India on fighting Islamist extremism and eradicating it from the entire region.

Given these uncertainties, China will likely adopt a wait, listen (to words) and watch (actions) approach. Contrary to the dominant Indian narrative, preoccupied as it is with a multiplicity of intersecting maritime disputes in the Pacific, Beijing has not been markedly bellicose in relations with India. The most sensible, pragmatic solution to the border dispute is a straight east-west swap of territories. The difficult trick so far has been to make both countries interested in this idea at the same time. So long as unnecessary provocations are avoided by both sides, there is no reason why conciliatory messages and gestures should not underpin growing trade volumes and concerted international positions on some issues, with an acknowledgment of divergent interests and policies on others. Of course, if either side reads the other as pursuing a fundamentally antagonistic policy, then India and China too could find themselves locked into the politics of competitive nationalism that has ratcheted up tensions between China and Japan. This is not in anyone’s interest. If President Xi Jinping does confirm a visit to India in September/October, the world will be watching.

Look South

Modi might also consider investing more diplomatic capital in groupings like BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa), and IBSA as its democratic subset, as a forum of non-western countries with growing global clout. The first global summit that Modi will attend is likely to be BRICS in Fortaleza, Brazil, in July. The most potent potential source of BRICS cohesion is geopolitical: the common interest in checking US/western power and imperialist impulses by leveraging collaboration with the other non-western powers. All five members have a strong vested interest in protecting strategic autonomy vis-à-vis the US in global affairs and the BRICS summits have been vocal on this point. The BRICS have been far more sympathetic to Russia than to Europe and the US on the Ukraine crisis and the other four abstained on the UN General Assembly resolution criticising Russia for the annexation of Crimea. Will Modi take a personal interest in the planned BRICS development bank? What will be his personal chemistry — a seriously underrated factor in world diplomacy — with the other leaders in BRICS and, for that matter, in the G20?

Destination Washington

Modi had his US visa revoked because of alleged complicity in Gujarat’s 2002 anti-Muslim riots and, gratuitously and insultingly, a prospective visa denied even without an application. This was a spectacular own goal from the Bush administration, which endorsed torture as official policy and was responsible for an illegal war of aggression that caused the death and displacement of millions of Iraqis. Modi was the elected head of government of a well-run state, was never charged with any crime, independent judicial probes exonerated him, and Gujarat has functioned within the national bandwidth in Hindu-Muslim relations since 2002. In a study of Asian elite perceptions published by Chatham House in May, the US is viewed by many as hypocritical, overbearing, arrogant and disinterested in others’ interests, aggressively pushing its own policy priorities instead. US policy is seen as ideological, unpredictable and unreliable, with a disparity between words and actions. Ordinary Indians share their elite’s scepticism about US values. Under an inattentive Obama administration and a hapless Manmohan regime, the list of growing irritants in India-US relations included diplomatic disputes, trade tiffs and policy differences on Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan.

Washington has begun a diplomatic minuet of reaching out to the previously untouchable Modi. President Barack Obama welcomed India’s democratic process as a vibrant demonstration of shared values of diversity and freedom and looks forward to working with Modi to make the coming years “transformative” for bilateral relations. For an India reset, he should appoint a widely respected new ambassador of stature with unimpeachable pro-India credentials. Obama will find Modi more self-confident and assertive than the docile, hand-wringing Manmohan. A “Modicum” of self-respect might suggest that, pace Groucho Marx, Modi would not want to visit a country that had ostracised him. By all accounts, resentment lingers in him and his advisers at the public humiliation meted out by a sanctimonious and hypocritical US. But a PM is no longer a private person and must elevate collective interests above personal pique. India’s relationship with the US is critical for trade, investments, markets, energy, geopolitical, diplomatic, diaspora and other reasons.

Still, maybe Modi could make it a point to let Washington wait and sweat a while. Perhaps he could link his visit to a resolution of the Devyani Khobragade affair resulting from a publicity-seeking and overzealous prosecutor while the State Department was AWOL. To quietly bury that as an unfortunate leftover from the previous government would send the wrong message. Devyani’s mistreatment, the most serious such incident involving an Indian diplomat for decades, was an affront to India’s authority and dignity. There is no reason for India to accept the double standard that Indian officials in the US must be fully subject to US laws, but US officials in India enjoy privileges and immunities under the Vienna Conventions. India could ask the US to admit its mistake, apologise, terminate the case against her so she can visit the US without being rearrested, discipline those responsible for the affair, and conduct an investigation to determine if the Richard family gamed the system to obtain government- assisted migration to the US. If yes, they must be returned to India to face the legal consequences. In return, to help Washington save face, India could probe Devyani’s alleged involvement in the Adarsh Housing Society scam. Modi should also modify the self-damaging nuclear liability law and sign deals with Australia, Canada, the US and Russia.

The Foreign Policy Machinery

Modi should address several interrelated issues regarding the institutional embodiment of India’s foreign policy. He must choose a foreign minister who can provide the necessary political leadership and administrative direction — Sushma Swaraj fits the bill. India has had no equivalent to Zhou Enlai (China), Robin Cook (UK), Lloyd Axworthy (Canada), Gareth Evans (Australia) and Joschka Fischer (Germany) — foreign ministers who left their mark on national and international affairs. The minister will have to initiate and oversee a drastic overhaul of the recruitment, training and promotion practices of a greatly enlarged foreign service as the permanent custodian of India’s permanent interests. The IFS should be quadrupled to 3,000+ by the end of Modi’s first term. He should also boldly initiate lateral appointments of ambassadors to key posts from outside the bureaucracy, including the media, universities and business.

Modi is right in saying that foreign policy today is equally about diplomacy and business and trade. India’s bureaucratic set-up is out of sync with contemporary reality and needs. This includes the plethora of multilateral, bilateral and preferential trade agreements. India should merge the foreign policy and trade bureaucracies. How India integrates and links with regional economic groupings and the international economy is as much a part of foreign policy as of trade policy; to separate them is to handicap India’s trade and foreign policy negotiators alike. Similarly, the finance and environment ministers must team up with the foreign minister in climate change talks, which lie at the confluence of energy security, development trajectory, environmental objectives and foreign policy.

The BJP is similarly more in tune with contemporary trends in federal political systems in its manifesto promise to make the states partners in the execution of foreign policy. India’s overseas missions are also the point of most contact for the 25 million overseas Indians and their experience is not uniformly happy and positive. The desi VIP culture of entitlements and cronyism does not travel well to the typical modern country where courtesy and efficiency in the services delivery functions of consulates are taken for granted. Only part of the problem is attributable to shortage of personnel; part of the problem lies in the babu mentality.


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