Pragmatism Marks Modi’s Foreign Policies
Narendra Modi was a domestic enigma so far. Post-election, the world seems to have discovered him suddenly; it admires the speed of his decisions and the British Chancellor said admiringly: ‘He is firing on all cylinders.’ Yet, the same Modi had hardly talked about foreign policies during his campaign. The test of Modi’s and his government’s diplomatic skills came rather early. The invitation to SAARC leaders for the swearing-in ceremony was a smart move; if SAARC becomes a strong united entity, the world cannot ignore it.
The warmth of the welcome to Nawaz Sharif too showed that Modi could rise above prejudice, which few thought possible. Modi’s early response to foreign policy, albeit limited to the region only, took everyone by surprise. But all the bravura was forgotten with the hostage-takings, one of 39 Indian workers and then of 46 nurses in Iraq. These were done by a radical Sunni groups ISIS. This caused an unprecedented concern and anger. Modi’s new government was in danger of losing its credibility and popularity. In fact, the impasse over the nurses threatened to damage the reputation of Modi personally far more than that of his government. The freeing of 46 nurses gave Modi’s NDA government a breathing space and saved it from the loss of public confidence. How was the release of nurses achieved? The Foreign Office said it used all “national assets” to secure the release of the nurses from ISIS, who had forced them to move out of their hospital to Tikrit. However, the spokesperson did not divulge the details as to how India managed to secure the release and only said that there were other captives in the conflict zone and process of freeing them was “underway” and any comments at this stage might be counter-productive.
The grapevine has it that some business houses helped in opening the door for negotiation—this means payment of big money. In any case, the life of the nurses was more important. The spokesperson said he would not get into “how, when, where, what” on the release of the nurses at this stage. But he did say, “Resources used to free these nurses will be diverted to free other Indians… Will leave no stone unturned to bring back Indians from Iraq.” So, if money was given, we shall never know, but odds are that a huge sum was given to ISIS.
The release of the nurses’ group has given Modi some time to bring back 39 workers. He was heavily backed by the young and the middle class for becoming Prime Minister because they believed that he would usher in an era of national development—and pride! Through his around 500 rallies across the country he had succeeded in convincing the youth, in particular, that he could revive India’s self-confidence after a period of malaise under his predecessor. But after these hiccups, India has to formulate a West Asia policy. Its worry would be the extent of radicalisation by ISIS. The news that some Sunni groups have developed serious difference with ISIS because of their brutality and because of declaring Caliphate, is a welcome development for India. Hopefully, the fissures between various groups and ISIS might widen. Otherwise, if ISIS succeeds in colouring a number of countries green, India would have reason for serious worries.
We have a permanent enemy on our west and the situation is very fluid in the region beyond.
But even in this region, influences from the US and NATO (read Germany and France) would affect both Pakistan and Afghanistan. In a way, Afghanistan is an international issue. Modi would in effect deal with the US, China and Russia. But Modi has compartmentalised regions to formulate his policies for each of them. The foreign policy that would be formulated by Modi can, at this stage, only be discerned, according to his direction to the PMO. To the world, for rest of India outside Gujarat also, he is an unknown entity. Except his own declaration that he would have commerce as an essential factor in diplomacy and relations, not much he has given out as yet. We have seen the advantages of such a policy in his state:
Modi criticised the previous government for being soft towards Pakistan. But how tough can Modi be in retaliating to terror attacks? The attempts to cross the LoC by militants have been countered by the Indian jawans. Most militants lose life. So, while agreeing that Modi will appear tough with Pakistan, T P Sreenivasan, a former diplomat who spent 37 years with the Indian Foreign Service, argues: “This toughness will not go beyond a point” as he will realise soon that “war not an option anymore, a tough approach will go only so far.”
The option, most welcome to Modi, is investment. Many countries are already rushing in to Delhi, to discuss possibilities of investment here. Britain was here after France. UK’s Foreign Secretary was here. The US or Germany wants orders, no investment offers have come so far. “After an impressive diplomatic start with neighbours, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy will be driven by economic growth, with focus on the East and deep Southwards rather than fixating on the West and overtly remaining Pakistan centric.” Experts, who have interacted with the new Prime Minister on the issue, believe Japan is emerging as a thrust area, but not on the cost of China, which will also find a due place.
The chairman of BJP’s foreign affairs cell Sheshadri Chari, MP Tarun Vijay along with senior journalists Sanjay Baru and Ashok Malik, while deciphering the new government’s foreign policy, agreed that Modi will clear road blocks and will not allow frittering away of gains for want of indecisiveness that plagued the previous Manmohan Singh government, even while maintaining continuity of core principles.
Further, in the midst of his election campaign, Modi had asked his advisors not to include anything impracticable in the poll manifesto that he cannot deliver, even on foreign policy issues. “The manifesto has deliberately omitted NAM and the promise of a permanent seat at the UN Security Council at the behest of Modi,” revealed Ashok Malik. Modi’s idea is that once you are economically strong, you will automatically find places at high clubs like the UNSC, etc. Like the previous government, which spent millions on diplomatic lobbying, Modi government will not make any extra effort, but will concentrate on building its own strength.
The Diplomat said Modi is an enigma in international relations. This is why every leader wants to meet him. Prime Minister of China has already come, so has Japanese Prime Minister. Modi has gone to Brazil to attend BRIC Summit. Thereafter, the Chinese President is due and Modi is to go to Japan and then UK’s Foreign Secretary William Hague will come? Modi thereafter goes to the UN and would have meeting with US President Barack Obama. It is possible that en route to New York he meets Angela Merkel.
Modi’s immediate concern internationally would be the US and in the region China, Japan and Pakistan. Things in the region are moving smoothly with the first two, but things are fluid with Pakistan. But post-Sharif meet with Modi doors for talks are ajar for further negotiations.
Ashok Malik stresses that rather than using coercive mechanism, the new Prime Minister is inclined to use the power of economy to influence neighbours to partner India. And unlike the Manmohan Singh government, where foreign policy was Delhi-centric, Modi intends to use the chief ministers of border states, such as Punjab chief minister for Punjab-to-Punjab, Gujarat chief minister for Porbhandar-Karachi and West Bengal chief minister for Bengal-to-Bengal cooperation and so on.
A US academician, while asking not to be named, said that by accepting 0bama’s invitation to meet in Washington, Modi has shown that the country’s interests are over his own. About the Washington meet, former Ambassador Rajiv Dogra said that while concerns over Afghanistan and Iraq are immense for both the US and India, common strategies between them are few, and will remain few. The Prime Minister should press for a trade relationship that goes beyond US’s transactional interests. The aim should be a stable and long-term trade relationship that benefits both.
Foreign policy experts also believe he will be different from his predecessor. The policies will undergo a sea change. “While keeping core principles intact, the Modi government will be different in formulating the response mechanism that was lacking in the previous government. A fine balance will be maintained while extending relations with Japan and China, the same will be done with Israel and the Gulf countries for the sake of energy security. Modi will be a real-world man and pursue domestic strengths to carry forward foreign policy.”
Experts also believe that Modi’s strategy for scenarios in 2020 and beyond would include “a bigger role for the military in shaping India’s national security and formulating doctrines,” and a greater say for the states in the government’s formulation and execution of foreign policy. While agreeing that Modi will appear tough with Pakistan, T P Sreenivasan, a former diplomat said that “this toughness will not go beyond a point” as he will realise soon that with “war not an option anymore, a tough approach will go only so far”…..In fact, foreign policy under Modi, Sreenivasan says, “will not change in any significant way”. It would be “continuity rather than change, because former diplomats would be advising Modi, foreign policy not being his forte”. Changes if any will be in nuance and not fundamental in nature.
It is in emphasis and style rather than substance that the Modi government’s foreign policy will differ from that of the UPA. Modi will be less patient with Pakistan and can be expected to base his relations with all of India’s neighbours (and not just Pakistan and China) on reciprocity. Like another BJP Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (1998-2004), Modi might try to reach a final settlement with Pakistan on Kashmir, said a source.
In fact, Modi’s actions and policies must be seen from the fact that he is a politician in pursuit of becoming a great prime minister of India and a statesman. We can expect a pragmatic approach to foreign policy predicated on improving foreign trade and greater investment inflows. There is little reason to believe that his core claim—replicating the Gujarat miracle on a national scale—isn’t going to be the foundation of his foreign policy.
By Vijay Dutt