The Modi foreign policy appears geared to reinvent India as a more competitive, confident and secure country. A robust foreign policy, however, can sustain itself only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy
India — home to more than a sixth of the human race — punches far below its weight. Internationally, it is a rule-taker, not a rule-maker. A 2013 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy,” focussed on how India is resisting its own rise, as if political drift had turned the country into its own worst enemy.
Since the Berlin Wall fell 25 years ago, the world has witnessed the most profound technological, economic and geopolitical change in the most compressed time frame in history. Unfortunately for India, despite its impressive economic growth overall, much of its last 25 years has been characterised by political weakness and drift. For example, between 1989 and 1998, India had a succession of weak governments. It is not an exaggeration to call Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s two terms “the lost decade” for India strategically.
Waning regional influence
The result of the prolonged leadership crisis has been a sharp erosion in India’s regional and extra-regional clout. The gap in power and stature between China and India has widened significantly. After all, this was the quarter-century in which China took off.
More troubling has been India’s shrinking space in its own strategic backyard. Even tiny Maldives had the gall to kick India in the chin and get away with it. It kicked out its Indian airport operator from the capital Male and publicly dressed down the Indian Ambassador without fear of consequences. In Nepal, India found itself competing with China. And in Sri Lanka, India became content to play second fiddle to China.
The paradox is that India’s economy continued to grow even as India’s regional influence waned. This shows that GDP growth by itself cannot translate into stronger foreign policy in the absence of a dynamic, forward-looking leadership and cogent, strategic goals. In fact, when India was economically weak under Indira Gandhi, it had a fairly robust foreign policy, with no neighbour daring to mess with it.
“Mr. Modi faces major regional challenges, exemplified by the arc of failing states around India. This tyranny of geography demands that India evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence.”
Against this background, the political rise of Narendra Modi — known for his decisiveness — could be a potential game-changer. It is too early to define, let alone judge, his foreign policy, given that Mr. Modi has been in office for just six months. Yet, as he focusses on revitalising the country’s economic and military security, five things stand out.
First, Mr. Modi continues to invest considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy so early in his term. Critics may contend that his exceptionally busy foreign-policy schedule, coupled with campaign meetings in serial State elections, leaves him restricted time to focus on his most critical responsibility — domestic issues, which will define his legacy.
Powered by ideas
No previous Indian Prime Minister participated in so many high-powered multilateral and bilateral summits in his or her first months in office as Mr. Modi. U.S. President Barack Obama’s high-profile visit in January will keep national attention on diplomacy. To be sure, Mr. Modi’s focus on the grand chessboard of geopolitics to underpin national interests suggests a strategic bent of mind that only one previous Prime Minister credibly demonstrated — Indira Gandhi.
Second, the Modi foreign policy is powered by ideas, not by any ideology. Indeed, Mr. Modi has demonstrated a knack to skilfully employ level-headed ideas to shape a non-doctrinaire vision and galvanise public opinion. On domestic policy, too, he is usiDeconstructing the Modi foreign policy
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