India’s foreign policy was till recently like a family heirloom, known more for its sentimental value than intrinsic worth or craftsmanship, passed on by successive generations to the next in line. Consequently, rigidity was its underpinning. Perhaps, the fact that India got freedom through a largely bloodless struggle deluded our leaders into believing that war was passé in the post-World War II era and that our neighbouring countries would understand India’s language of love and peace, being in awe of the moral stature of the country that had produced the Mahatma, Apostle of Peace. As a result, there was hardly any scope for maneuvering in our foreign policy in the face of realpolitiking in a world of shifting tectonic plates of geopolitics.
Product of Nehru’s Romantic Global Vision
A product of Western education of his times, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was reconciled to taking over the governance of India rather as a Mughal-British legacy than as an inheritance of thousands of years of unbroken history of Bharat. Eventually, every tenet of his foreign policy such as non-alignment, Panchsheel treaty, nuclear non-proliferation, peaceful and fraternal relations with belligerent neighbouring countries miserably failed. Consequently, both our northern neighbours—Pakistan and China—backstabbed India and have continually dared to make intrusions into our territory posing existential threats to the country, apart from one of them brazenly exporting cross-border terrorism. Border disputes with China and Pakistan have remained festering wounds since Nehru’s time. None of the Indian prime ministers who succeeded Nehru were strong enough to address this problem. Eventually, India’s foreign policy exercise centered on vacuous proposals of talks, negotiations, dialogues, and so forth. Despite endless rounds of biryani diplomacy and cricket diplomacy, and exchanging of gifts of Alfonso mangoes, and cultural troupes, there was no headway in our border disputes either with Pakistan or with China. Matters became more complicated for India with the disintegration of the USSR, a tried and tested ally that had stood by us through difficult times. Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) became passé. Our foreign policy had the fundamental flaw of being too rigid to address emerging new threat factors like global terrorism, religious fundamentalism and regional hegemony.
Enter Narendra Modi
With the arrival of Narendra Modi on the scene, there was a paradigm shift in international perception about India’s position at the diplomatic high table. Across the world, he was considered a hardliner, representing India’s Hindu nationalist party, the BJP. The world had expected, not without much trepidation that Modi will strike uncompromising postures and assume precipitous positions in heady shows of diplomacy, which were already in full flow in the region. In short, they had expected the new prime minister to be a rabid politician and a poor diplomat.
However, Modi surprised the prophets of doom and naysayers both within and outside the country by scoring a diplomatic coup at the very outset of his assumption of office by inviting the Heads of Government/Heads of State of all SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony. The event was a grand and solemn occasion, the biggest of its kind our country had ever witnessed. It was also indicative of the new government’s resolve to renew and further strengthen India’s bilateral and multinational relations with the regional players as also its readiness to operationalise new ideas within the parameters of the institutional mechanisms already in place, without trenching into major policy benchmarks. The event was rightly acclaimed as a mini-SAARC Summit. It clearly highlighted the Foreign Policy priority, which the new Indian government accorded to the neighbouring countries.
The toast of the occasion was Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. His willingness to do business with India, despite opposition from the hawkish elements in his country, augured well for peace in the region. This was a positive trend and it was welcomed by all right-thinking people and major political parties in both the countries. In his meeting with the Pakistani leader, Modi categorically told Sharif that export of terror by Pakistan was not acceptable and must end and that the perpetrators of the 26/11 terror attacks in Mumbai, who were hiding in Pakistan, must be brought to book without any further delay; and India was unhappy at the slow pace of trials against the perpetrators of violence.
Sharif was also told that Hafiz Sayeed, the mastermind of the terror attack, should not be allowed to go around Pakistan at will and say whatever he wanted, about India. He was further informed of India’s concern about the militant attack on India’s Consulate at Herat, Afghanistan, by Lashkar-e-Taiba, and its expectation that such attacks would not recur. The rules of the game under the new Indian Prime Minister were clearly spelt out.
Extension of a hand of friendship at Modi’s inauguration was followed by India’s invitation to Pakistan to participate in the Foreign Secretary level talks in August 2014. However, the talks were later called off by India following a breach of diplomatic protocol and a political red line by the Pakistan High Commissioner in Delhi who invited separatist Kashmiri leaders for consultation on the eve of the proposed Foreign Secretary level talks. India told Pakistan in unambiguous terms that as long as the latter continued to indulge in wanton undiplomatic acts of meeting and talking to separatist elements despite the disapproval of the India government, they could forget talks with India.
These developments on the Pakistan front clearly demonstrated India’s willingness to find a comprehensive solution to its problems with that country through peaceful means, but not at the cost of Pakistan’s pusillanimous stand of reneging on the inviolability of the diplomatic and political red lines. Being subsumed in its numerous internal problems and with its inability to hold meaningful talks with India and being unable to bleed India without getting grievously hurt itself, now Pakistan finds itself in a bind. That is India’s biggest advantage today and that is because of Modi.
With no sign of an end to the logjam in sight over the festering and contentious border issue between the two major South Asian powers, the China conundrum had defied an easy solution, and had been conveniently but unwisely kept by the previous Indian governments on the backburner. Modi, however, took it on headlong immediately after taking over office. Conceding that this is a complicated and old problem, he is all for addressing it with care and deliberation. He is highly critical of the way India had been allowing China in the past to dominate our country across international policies and has been unequivocal in his assertion that there would be no compromise on India’s interest.
His recent visit to China and the Chinese President’s visit to India last year were indicative of Modi’s commitment and willingness to do business with China. He is all for the deepening of our bilateral relations with China and believes that a tactical approach should make this possible. Far from being overawed by the edge that China has over India in its economic development, he advocates showcasing of its strengths by India, as China has been showing off Shanghai to the world.
Wary of its ambition of regional hegemony, he took a broadside against China while on a visit to Japan last year and stated that currently one gets to see everywhere an 18th-century expansionist mindset: encroaching on another country, intruding into others’ waters, invading other countries and capturing their territory.
In an oblique reference to China, he said this mindset should be left behind. He touched on the South China Sea in both the ASEAN-India Summit and the East Asia Summit organised last year, reiterating the importance for all actors in “following international law and norms on maritime issues”. Furthermore, poaching in waters of the Indian Ocean by the Chinese Navy was not allowed to go unnoticed. Close and timely interaction with the new regime in Sri Lanka by the Modi government was a well-orchestrated exercise in damage control, which was quite unlikely under the previous Indian governments, especially the one which had preceded the present one.
The key components of Modi’s China policy include keeping China at bay in its gameplan of gaining supremacy in regional leadership by strengthening India’s military might while simultaneously increasing political equation with other regional players including Sri Lanka; keeping the option of meaningful dialogues at political and operational level to resolve the border disputes; and engaging China in matters of economic and cultural cooperation. All these are aimed at deftly turning the tables on Beijing.
Modi’s foreign policy is focused on improving relations with neighbouring countries in South Asia. One of the major policy initiatives taken by the Modi government is to shift the focus back on its immediate neighbours in South Asia. Even before becoming Prime Minister, Modi had hinted that his foreign policy would actively focus on improving ties with India’s immediate neighbours. Apart from inviting the Heads of Government/Heads of State of all SAARC countries to his inauguration, he asked Indian scientists, during a launch event at ISRO, to endeavor and develop a dedicated SAARC satellite to share the fruits of technology like telemedicine, e-learning, etc with the people across South Asia in a bid to complement the currently operating Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC) Program in the region.
Make in India
One of the main items on Modi’s agenda during his visits abroad has been his ‘Make in India’ program, an aggressive economic push aimed at reviving the ailing manufacturing sector by encouraging global companies to set up their manufacturing facilities in India. The program is aimed at job creation and skill enhancement, while maintaining high quality standards and minimizing the adverse impact on the environment. The initiative hopes to attract capital and technological investment in India, and also increase GDP growth and tax revenue.
Act East Policy
Relations with its East Asian neighbours have always had a special resonance for India. It is a foreign policy priority for the Modi government. The government’s ‘Look East Policy’ dating back to 1992, was tweaked by Modi to give it an aggressive thrust in the form of ‘Act East Policy’. Unveiling the new policy at the ASEAN Summit in Myanmar last year, Modi highlighted specific recommendations to advance ASEAN-India economic relations over the next few years, including establishing a special purpose vehicle for project financing, building information highways and inviting ASEAN countries to participate in India’s ongoing economic transformation. Modi’s recent visits to Mongolia and South Korea were an exercise in stepping up the actualization of the Act East Policy.
United States of America
In the meantime, Modi also scored another diplomatic coup—this time by inviting US President Barack Obama to be the Chief Guest at India’s Republic Day anniversary functions on January 26, 2015. During Obama’s visit, India and the US broke the seven year old logjam and operationalized their landmark civilian nuclear deal, besides deciding to jointly produce military hardware including Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. In what the US President termed as a “breakthrough”, the two sides cleared hurdles pertaining to the liability of suppliers of nuclear reactors in the event of an accident and the tracking of fuel supplied by the US.
The two countries have also decided to hold regular summits at increased periodicity as well as to elevate the Strategic Dialogue to a Strategic and Commercial Dialogue. The two sides stated that India and the US agreed to elevate their long-standing strategic partnership and each step being taken to strengthen the ties was a move towards shaping international security as well as regional and global peace. The US President extended his country’s support to India’s inclusion in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group as well as induction in the UN Security Council as a Permanent Member.
Meanwhile, Narendra Modi visited Bangladesh on June 6 and 7, and signed as many as 22 agreements, thereby opening up a new chapter in the relations of the two countries. For the first time since independence in 1947, India has agreed upon a clear demarcation of its porous borders with a neighbouring nation by signing the prickly Land Boundary Agreement (LBA). To give one illustration of its historic significance and how it dramatically alters the destines of the two South Asian nations, LBA has brought cheer to over 50,000 virtually stateless people living in the enclaves of the 4,096-km long India-Bangladesh border by giving them a national identity.
Furthermore, Modi announced a US$2 billion Line of Credit (LOC), for use in infrastructure, power, health and education projects. The LOC is expected to create 50,000 jobs in India and provide a big boost to project exports from India and help Indian companies. This will, in turn, give the ‘Make in India’ scheme a shot in the arm. Bangladesh, on its part, stands to benefit with big ticket investment projects expected to follow suit. Two Indian companies have reportedly committed a combined investment of US$4.5 billion for setting up power generating projects in Bangladesh. Another agreement provides for creation of two Special Economic Zones (SEZs) in Bangladesh exclusively for Indian companies. This would encourage Indian companies and give both countries a way to address the yawning trade deficit.
There was also a clear breakthrough in the maritime trade sector with the signing of an agreement that allows Indian cargo vessels to use the Chittagong and Mongla ports. The Chittagong port was developed by the Chinese and forms part of their “String of Pearls” ports in the Indian Ocean Region. There is a belief among political analysts that although it is ostensibly a commercial port as of now for all practical purposes, it could any day be used by China for strategic purposes. For India to gain access to the Chittagong port is a big achievement both in economic and strategic terms. Moreover, it is perceived as an expression of building up of greater trust between Bangladesh and India, more than ever in the past.
Meanwhile, the Coast Guards of the two countries have signed an MoU that envisages combating human trafficking, smuggling and circulation of fake currency notes—a sore point in the bilateral relations of the two countries. Another outcome of the visit is increased cooperation between the two countries in terms of rendering better and faster consular services to their citizens. India will open two new Consulates in Sylhet and Khulna while Bangladesh will open one in Guwahati. In another exercise that directly benefits and thus has a special resonance to the people of the two countries, Modi and Sheikh Hasina flagged off two buses.
These bus services—Kolkata-Dhaka-Agartala and Dhaka-Shillong-Guwahati—will link West Bengal to three North Eastern states of India via Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. This has been hailed as a historic moment in the bilateral relations between the two countries and a milestone in the people-to-people diplomacy. The bus service will bring India’s northeast closer to the rest India and provide the people of Bangladesh access through India to markets in Bhutan and Nepal.
Thus, this visit of Modi to Bangladesh has accomplished a good deal of tangible results across a wide range of developmental sectors such as connectivity, power, ports, education, health and investments in an act of political sagacity to the mutual benefit and satisfaction of the peoples of the two countries in an atmosphere of bonhomie and cordiality, not to be seen since 1971 when they had jointly fought a common enemy.
In a nutshell, the visit has given a new orientation to the India-Bangladesh bilateral relations in the form of “Nouton Projonmo—Nayi Disha” (New Generation, New Direction), as the joint declaration issued at the end of the visit was called. PM Modi likened the Land Boundary Agreement to the coming down of the Berlin Wall. He availed of the opportunity to affirm India’s support to Bangladesh in their joint fight against terrorism with the securing of the border. The successful visit portends the coming down of more regional Berlin Walls. That is the “nayi disha” in which India proposes to traverse under Modi’s foreign policy with new orientation.
Summing It Up
Well, these are some of the more pronounced Foreign Policy Initiatives of Modi, which promise to stand India in good stead in our country’s aggressive bid to assume a more assertive role in the world of international politics and diplomacy. The highpoint of Modi diplomacy is his out-of-the-box thinking and fresh orientation to aspects of special interest to India. Needless to say, much more could be said, with the entire world panning out for a mention. But due to space constraints we shall leave it for another day.
By Sunil Gupta
(The author is a Political Comme-ntator & Chartered Accountant.)