Foreign conquests (foreign policy )

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Foreign policy is not ‘foreign’ to a country’s interests; it is central to them. Policy makers influence international environment and use it to promote the nation’s national interests. Team Modi has amply internalized this linkage. Its focus on accelerating India’s economic development drives it to run a creative external policy. But the contours of Modi foreign policy are still emerging. A definitive judgement should, therefore, be withheld.
Before the parliamentary elections, India watchers sought to decipher what changes a possible Modi government might introduce in foreign policy. Consensus emerged that while the basic framework would remain unchanged, a change of priorities, emphasis and style was possible. This assessment has proved correct. However, no one predicted the diplomacy of high octane energy, speed and dynamism that unfolded recently.
Backdrop
Jawaharlal Nehru’s imprint on the philosophy of foreign policy has been widely acknowledged. Key elements of his strategy – Afro-Asian unity, Panchsheel or Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, and Non-Alignment yielded a rich crop initially. Later the reality of an economically and militarily weak India came to haunt the nation during the 1960s. Indira Gandhi transitioned from idealism to pragmatism, translating enhanced military strength into a glorious victory in 1971.
After the Cold War, Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpyaee strove to help India deal first with a unipolar and then an emerging multipolar world. Prime Minister Modi draws inspiration from Vajpayee belief in Shakti and Shanti (Power and Peace). The vision driving his foreign policy is of “a strong India, self-reliant and self-confident India regaining its rightful place in the comity of nations.”
Journey so far
The story of foreign policy in action has been presented in Fast Track Diplomacy, a reader-friendly booklet released by Ministry of External Affairs. Through attractive photographs and crisp captions, it recalls all major interactions of the new prime minister and external affairs minister. Since its publication, the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping has taken place, and now preparations are in full swing for PM’s voyage to US.
From the array of interactions, a clear pattern is emerging which has several noteworthy features. Firstly, high priority is being accorded to relations with immediate neighbours in South Asia. ‘What is new?’ one may wonder. The novelty, I suggest, is to develop a people-centric approach i.e. to influence popular perceptions in the neighbourhood about India that India is on the march and it wishes its neighbours well. However, improvement of atmospherics would not be enough. New Delhi needs to work harder to pluck the low-hanging fruits such as the implementation of land boundary agreement with Bangladesh, resolution of fishermen’s problem with Sri Lanka, and speedy conclusion of at least one mega project in Myanmar.
Secondly, the government has conveyed its keen interest in cooperative relations with the Gulf and West Asia. It remains greatly concerned about strife in Iraq and Syria. It has no intention to deviate from the traditional policy: be friends to all and annoy none. Its ‘Connect Central Asia’ policy will continue. Thirdly, special intention is being paid to the region east of India.
In ‘the inter-connected Asia, Pacific and Indian Oceans’, a new phrase coined by South Block, the name of the game is to deepen cooperation with all major players – US, Japan, China, ASEAN and Australia – and to strike a dynamic balance among these relationships. It is through the resultant equilibrium that India plans to exert its leadership, promote peace and security, and secure its economic interests. Media harping on investment of $35 billion promised by Japan and $20 billion promised by China seems to be keeping a cricket score, while missing the central point: Modi’s India has little intention of choosing one country over the other. It would do business with both, nay – with all.
Fourthly, India sits on the high table of global politics. It views itself not as a South Asian power but as a trans-regional power and an aspiring Great Power. In this context, Modi’s visit to US assumes considerable significance. New Delhi-Washington equation should be consolidated further even though, behind the media hype, lie low expectations. Obvious factors are: other pressing challenges of US; unhelpful attitude of America Inc; and the whiff of approaching presidential elections. Relations with Russia, already boosted through the successful BRICS Summit, will get an in-depth review at Modi-Putin summit in December. Amidst all this activity, European Union countries are getting neglected, but they have largely themselves to blame.
Finally, in India’s worldview ample space exists for Africa and Latin America. India’s Africa policy will cross new milestones when the Third India-Africa Forum Summit is held in December. Leaders from all African countries, not just a handful, have been invited. Latin American governments have been enthused by patently positive signals give by Prime Minister Modi. Will South Block take the challenge head on and start planning for the first ever India-Latin America summit in 2015?
More pointers
In evaluating the foreign policy performance, we may reject a few erroneous notions. One is that PMO composes policy and MEA only ‘sings’ it. Insiders aver that the Prime Minster, external affairs minister, national security adviser, foreign secretary and others are all working as a well-knit team. Without this, New Delhi could not have achieved even half of what it did so quickly.
A view prevails that on Pakistan the government stumbled, sending confusing signals by first inviting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the swearing-in ceremony and then abruptly cancelling foreign secretary-level talks. But the deeper meaning is that Islamabad has to recognise the reality of political change in India; otherwise India will move on, continuing to lessen its obsession with Pakistan.
On China, critics are pointing fingers, arguing that as the two top leaders developed mutual rapport, there was a tense stand-off at the border. Firstly, this is par for the course; recent high-level China-India interactions have been preceded or accompanied by similar episodes. Secondly, both sides recognise serious differences exist, but they seem willing to try resolving them and also working around them to promote cooperation for mutual benefit.
What does it all amount to then? External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj observed that the government has shown its three faces ‘proactive’ (through recent interactions and initiatives), ‘strong’ (through its stand on Pakistan), and ‘sensitive’ (through quick evacuation of Indians from Ukraine, Iraq and Libya).
Nice start, but the next stage should see increased attention on delivery and implementation.
The writer, a former ambassador, is director-general of the Indian Council of World Affairs. The views expressed are personal.
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