For Growth, Look beyond South Asia
By inviting other leaders of the SAARC and President Navin Ramgoolam of Mauritius for his inauguration, Narendra Modi has taken the first foreign policy initiative even before taking office or having a foreign policy team in place. The presence of these leaders was an opportunity for him to establish personal contacts and rapport, something that was missing in recent years.
The political engagement with neighbours is timely. Pakistan is not only the troubling area for India. In recent months relations with others are anything but warm. The ouster of President Mohammed Nasheed in February 2012, stressed New Delhi’s relations with Maldives. Ties with Colombo never improved since the killing of Tamil Tiger leader Velupillai Prabhakaran in May 2009. The Himalayan state’s painful transition to democracy is accompanied by its uneasiness towards India. Modi’s rhetoric against illegal immigrants during election meetings in West Bengal unnerved many friends of India in Dhaka. One could notice friction with others as well. Above all, some of India’s recent measures were seen as a hasty response to Chinese initiatives than a sign of genuine friendship.
Seen in this wider context, the presence of these leaders was a clear and definite sign of the new government’s willingness and commitment to pursue friendly relations with the neighbours. Besides bilateral discussions, the informal meetings of the SAARC leaders bode well for the region. None should underestimate the political significance of their presence in the ushering in of the new Indian government.
Politics, however, never comes with free lunches. The decision to invite leaders of the neighbouring countries was fraught with risks. If media reports are accurate, Modi’s gesture almost floundered. Following his stunning electoral victory, he managed to restrain party leaders from making any statements about the policies of the new government. Uncertainty over their own inclusion in his cabinet silenced the otherwise talkative and TV-hopping BJP leaders.
It appears that preoccupied with the cabinet formation, Modi failed to pay sufficient attention to ambitious former bureaucrats who are angling for key positions. Hence, his decision brought avoidable difficulties. His invitation to President Mahindra Rajapaksa should have been handled with greater finesse, especially for its potential fallouts in Tamil Nadu. Not taking Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa into confidence was a short-sighted and ill-advised move. Electoral sweep has not sobered Amma and various parties and groups in the state have not abandoned their competitive politics over the Tamil issue in Sri Lanka.
At the same time, having invited the Lankan President, Modi could not have backed out under pressure from Jayalalithaa or his own allies in the state. For over a decade, the Indian political class and its supporters have treated Modi as a political untouchable. Having gone through this personally, Modi could have not excluded Mahindra Rajapaksa. If inviting Minister Sharif was a sign of good neighbourliness, Rajapaksa’s exclusion could have nullified all Modi sought achieve. Many would not have shown up in New Delhi, if the Lankan leader was excluded due to pressures from Chennai.
Undoubtedly there are political and diplomatic gains for Modi. By inviting SAARC leaders, especially Nawaz Sharif, he showed political shrewdness and somewhat silenced political critics and ideological opponents. Everyone was not excited with Sharif’s presence but most were positively disposed.
Yet, a more substantial improvement in India’s relations with the neighbours will not be easy. Charming diplomatic offensive is never a substitute for hardcore interests and differences. Moreover, there are no signs that governments in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu are not prepared to play a constructive role in New Delhi’s engagement with Bangladesh and Sri Lanka respectively.
Mamata Banerjee single handedly scuttled some of the key initiatives of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh towards Bangladesh and there are no signs of her mellowing down. Same holds true for Chennai. Modi should be prepared to face more negative vibes, not only from Jayalalithaa but also from various political parties and groups including those within the ruling NDA. International isolation of Sri Lanka continues to be their most favoured political option.
However, Modi faces a much larger, uncomfortable, politically incorrect but harsh reality: the neighbourhood is a strategic liability. The South Asian region is extremely important not because of the opportunity it provides but the headaches and dangers it can pose. Unless handled carefully or in anticipation, the internal problems of the neighbours could become India’s nightmare. For decades, socio-cultural affinity and geographic proximity have only brought troubles for India. This will not change under Modi’s watch.
Without sounding patronising or condescending, India has to examine the political dividends and economic opportunities that the South Asia offers. Pakistani army and hardcore Islamist are unlikely abandon their apprehension and fears. Despite its higher economic growth, Lankan economy is too small for the Indian expectations and even an import subsidy regime will not bridge Bangladesh’s trade deficits with India.
An active engagement with Pakistan and other neighbours will earn kudos for Modi from Delhi’s seminar circuits, television talk shows and media pundits. There might even be a word of praise from President Barack Obama and other western leaders. But let’s be honest. A South Asia-centric foreign policy will not satisfy the core expectation of the millions of youths who voted for the Modi: change and development. If Modi were to deliver his promise of development, his focus should be economic growth, development and modernization. Neighbourhood is the last place he should look for where the economic opportunities are limited, goodwill uncertain and opportunity costs are higher.
Thus, to redeem his electoral promise of development, Modi will have set his eyes far beyond South Asia and China and Japan and other economic powers in Asia should be his natural partners in growth. This would mean giving less importance to security calculations and sidestepping newly-found but ill-conceived great power aspirations.
As Gujarat Chief Minister his engagement with China was exclusively economic. He can’t pursue the same as Prime Minister. India’s strategic community is obsessed with China but he would be wise enough to recognise that a securitised foreign policy will undermine his development strategy. While there has to be a balance between economic opportunities and security concerns, Modi will have to prioritise the former. If economic agenda becomes his prime foreign policy motive, other countries, especially China, would be less apprehensive of the Hindutva baggage of the BJP and India’s hegemonic aspirations. In recent weeks, Modi has been compared to a number of past world leaders. The most favourite candidate of the Indian elites continues to be Adolf Hitler but seasoned foreign observers are fair and more charitable and have drawn parallels with Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and even Margaret Thatcher.
Important as they are, Modi’s role model should be someone who understood and responded to aspirations and dreams of the marginalised millions. In this context, he might look at Deng Xiaoping and his unique contribution in the transformation of China from being an ideological but poor state into a global economic giant. And Deng accomplished this by altering China’s priorities.
Thus, even while engaging with the neighbours, Narendra Modi should look beyond South Asia and set his eyes far afar. Otherwise, at the end of his term, a South Asia-centric foreign policy would leave Modi where Manmohan Singh found himself: policy paralysis and a hapless hostage to regional interests.
By Prof. P R Kumaraswamy
(The author teaches at JNU)