Foreign Policy Under Modi
When he completes one year in office in May-end, Narendra Modi perhaps will set a record as the most travelled Indian Prime Minister outside the country during his first year in office. With his forthcoming visits to China and South Korea next month, he will be covering more than 15 countries, including Japan, Australia, France, Germany, Canada and the United States. He has addressed the United Nations General Assembly. He has also participated in a BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India and South Africa) summit in Brazil, an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Myanmar, and a Group of 20 summit in Australia.
For a Prime Minister who had absolutely no background in global affairs and whose name to fame was essentially based on his domestic record as the Chief Minister of a state, becoming a globetrotter may appear some sort of an anticlimax. He still continues to be an â€œoutsiderâ€ to â€œDelhi establishmentâ€ in the sense that Modi had no experience in the governance in Delhi. Nor was he a member of Indian Parliament. Modi is the first Prime Minister of India who has directly catapulted himself from a state or provincial level politics to occupy the most important political office of India. No wonder why during his electoral campaigns, he hardly talked about foreign policy issues, except highlighting the importance of co-opting the state chief ministers in the foreign policy planning and conducting important diplomatic parleys in state capitals rather than in the national capital Delhi. Of course, the manner of Indian foreign policy making is an important issue in itself, particularly reviewing some important facets such as the bureaucratic monopoly and ever increasing dominance of the Prime Ministerâ€™s Office. But then, this is not the focus of this column this week, except cursorily mentioning that Modi has not shown much promise in this area.
What have been the major thrusts in Modiâ€™s foreign policy over the last one year? Here, one may mention the statement of the minister of external affairs Sushma Swarajâ€™s statement in the Parliament not long ago. According to her, Modiâ€™ has adopted â€œa proactive and innovative approach to foreign policy that is aligned with our governmentâ€™s primary goal of accelerating national economic development. India needs access to capital, technology, resources, energy, markets and skills; a secure environment, a peaceful neighbourhood and a stable world; and, an open and stable global trading system.â€
Here two aspects are worth-noting. One is Modiâ€™s â€œproactive and innovative approachâ€. Second is the goals of economic development, secure environment, peaceful neighbourhood and open plus stable trading system etc. In my considered view, there is nothing remarkable about the â€œgoalsâ€, which are true for every government and every country. In a sense, all these foreign policy goals are permanent ones and there has been a broad continuity in pursuing them by all the governments in Delhi, irrespective of their party-composition. So let us concentrate on to find out how â€œproactive and innovativeâ€ Modiâ€™s approach has been to achieve these goals, compared to that of his predecessors.
As I have argued before, it is perhaps a part of our strategic culture to keep things and policies as ambiguous as possible, leaving them to many and different interpretations. Unlike the cases in many leading countries, our leaders hesitate to enunciate clear policies or doctrines having strategic implications. One of course has heard the so-called â€œIndira Doctrineâ€ or â€œGujral Doctrineâ€, which were actually named and popularized by late Professor Bhabani Sengupta, not by the late Prime Ministers Indira Gandhi and I K Gujral. Of late, some admirers of the previous Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (2004-14) have coined a term, â€œthe Manmohan doctrineâ€ to explain his emphasis on economic development as a driver for foreign policy and in shaping Indiaâ€™s strength, interests and relationships. But then Manmohan Sigh never talked of any doctrine. Similarly, Modi has not uttered any doctrine or revealed an innovative approach.
Nor for that matter has his government come out with any specific strategic vision or white paper to emphasise clearly and coherently its blueprints of the manner, style and priorities as far as dealing with the outside world is concerned.
Modi, like his two immediate predecessorsâ€”Manmohan Singh and Atal Behari Vajpayee – has shunned â€œidealismâ€ in favour of â€œrealismâ€. Notwithstanding all its proclamations about nonalignment, new international economic order and sovereign equality of nations in official announcements that we heard so much under the Nehrus and Gandhis, ideology no longer plays an important role in Indian foreign policy. India has become a â€œrealistâ€ or â€œpragmatistâ€ in pursuing its national goals, core of them being preserving countryâ€™s pluralistic democracy, protecting its territorial unity and integrity, and sustaining and expanding its unprecedented economic and industrial growth over the recent years by fully utilising the opportunities of â€œeconomic reformsâ€ and â€œglobalisationâ€.
However, unlike his two predecessors, Modi has better highlighted to his advantage two important factors that have great significance for Indiaâ€™s foreign policy goals. Though both Manmohan Singh and Vajpayee factored these two in their policies, Modi has been much better in articulating them. He has highlighted well how a committed statusquoist country like India has no territorial ambitions and how India is â€œtransformingâ€ to emerge as one of the worldâ€™s leading economies with a vast â€œyoungâ€ working force (demographic dividend), a responsible nuclear weapon power with demonstrated scientific and technological competence, and a stable democracy. Secondly, Modi has emerged as the darling of about 25 million-strong dynamic overseas Indians and â€œPeople of Indian Originâ€ who have distinguished themselves abroad, particularly in the leading industrialised and militarily powerful countries, on the wide canvas of human endeavour. It would not be out of place to recognise the special role played by the Indian Diaspora in influencing the emergence of modern India.
In fact, it could be argued that Modi is delivering in the areas or paths that Manmohan Singh to a larger extent and Vajpayee to a certain extent had chosen to pursue Indiaâ€™s national interests. It may be noted that President Pranab Mukherjee in his capacity as the foreign minister in 2006 had talked about â€œexpanding circlesâ€ around Indiaâ€”the first encompasses the â€œimmediate neighbourhoodâ€ where India must ensure its primacy as a compassionate (and yet tough if the situation warrants) power; the second is the circle of â€œextended neighbourhoodâ€ stretching across Asia and the Indian Ocean littoral (what we call now India-Pacific) where India must vigorously pursue its economic diplomacy and seek to balance the influence of other powers (mainly China) and prevent them from undercutting its interests; the third being the overall â€œglobal stageâ€ where India must emerge as a key player in ensuring international peace and security on the one hand and stable economic and trade regimes on the other.
Unfortunately, under Manmohan Singh, this broad road map remained mainly on paper, thanks to internal contradictions within his government and his Congress party. In fact, Manmohan Singh governmentâ€™s neighbourhood policy was a monumental failure, with the countryâ€™s image, credibility and influence being allowed to be badly damaged in almost all the neighbouring countries. With many in his government and the party fearing â€œthe China factorâ€, Singh could not also sustain his initial enthusiasm in furthering relations with Japan and Australia and adding momentum to the â€œLook Eastâ€ policy in Asia-Pacific.
Under Modi, India has recaptured its lost space in the â€œimmediate neighbourhoodâ€ with all-round improvement in ties with smaller neighbours, save Pakistan. In fact, Modiâ€™s Pakistan policy is hard to fathom. While he has shown toughness in matters pertaining to border â€“management, there are contradictory or inconsistent signals on the front of reviving bilateral talks. However, when one comes to the two other circles, Modi deserves full marks. He has, through rounds of talks with US President Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Abe, Chinese President Xi, Russian President Putin and Australian Premier Abbott, moved beyond calling for â€œLook Eastâ€ to actually acting in what is now termed the â€œAct East Policy.â€ And here, he has combined economics with security – civilian nuclear cooperation agreement and a security agreement with Australia, defence ties to Vietnam, Singapore, and Indonesia.
India under Modi has become more vocal about the South China Sea, lining up with nations opposed to Chinaâ€™s conduct. ASEAN nations are being pursued really hard through both economic and military prowess and Modi is trying to make them connected to Indiaâ€™s North-eastern states. This does not mean that Modi is partnering in an anti-China front. All told, China is Indiaâ€™s most powerful neighbour, but unlike in the past India under Modi has not hesitated to emerge as what analysts say as one of â€œthe five pivotsâ€ to Asia (other four being the US, Russia, Japan and China). Unlike his predecessor, Modi has not hesitated to be proactive in proposing Indiaâ€™s centrality in the reorganisation of Asian order. Modi has proposed closer economic linkages through trade, large-scale infrastructure and transportation linkages, and security arrangements, all aimed at shaping a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific for years to come.
Considering all this, can we say that that Modi has been â€œproactive and innovativeâ€? While I will not guess yours – my readersâ€™-reply, mine is as followsâ€”in conducting the Indian foreign policy Modi has been quite proactive and brought new energy to the conduct of foreign policy, but he has not tried to be really innovative. His objectives are not radically different from that of either Manmohan Singh or Atal Behari Vajpayee. Modiâ€™s approach has been essentially that of a pragmatist. How could one be innovative in Indiaâ€™s foreign policy is best described by Professor Ashok Kapur in this issue.
By Prakash Nanda