Deconstructing the Modi foreign policy

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

December 04, 2014 12:41 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:36 pm IST

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 using the power of ideas, such as “Swachh Bharat” (or Clean India). In the strategic domain, he is taking his “Make in India” mission to the heavily-import-dependent defence sector. The real test ultimately will be Mr. Modi’s ability to translate his ideas into transformative accomplishments.

Third, he has projected a nimble foreign policy with pragmatism as its hallmark. Nothing better illustrates this than the priority he has accorded — by shaking off U.S. visa-denial humiliation heaped on him over nine years — to restoring momentum to the relationship with America. Mr. Obama’s scheduled visit as chief guest at Republic Day represents both a thank you to Mr. Modi for rising above personal umbrage and an effort to lift the India-U.S. relationship to a higher level of engagement through the major new opportunities being opened up for American businesses by Mr. Modi’s commitment to pro-market economic policies and defence modernisation.

The U.S. already conducts more military exercises with India than with any other country. And in recent years, it has quietly overtaken Russia as the largest arms supplier to India.

Food security issue Fourth, Mr. Modi has put his stamp on foreign policy faster than any predecessor, other than Jawaharlal Nehru. Yet, he appears to have no intent to enunciate a Modi doctrine in foreign policy. In contrast to the meretricious “Gujral Doctrine,” which delivered little more than words, Mr. Modi wants his actions to define his policy trademarks.

In fact, his actions have started speaking for themselves — from his moves to engineer stronger partnerships with Japan and Israel (countries critical to Indian interests but which also courted him even as the U.S. targeted him) to his mortars-for-bullet response to Pakistani ceasefire violations. His firm stand at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on the food-stockpiling issue, central to India’s food security, stood out.

After vetoing the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement in Geneva, Mr. Modi made the U.S. climbdown on the food-stockpiling issue, yet earned praise from Mr. Obama for helping to break the impasse. Even the head of the U.N.’s International Fund for Agricultural Development backed the veto, saying the real choice for India in Geneva was between “feeding” its citizens and “creating jobs” for wealthy economies. After all, the main providers of agricultural subsidies are the rich countries plus China.

For monsoon-dependent, drought-prone India, stockpiling food through a minimum support price to farmers serves as an insurance policy against a 1960s-style mortifying situation that saw New Delhi beseeching foreign food aid, including under U.S.’s PL-480 programme. At Bali, however, the Dr. Singh government meekly delinked the Trade Facilitation Agreement from a deal on food stockpiling. By agreeing to kick the can on the stockpiling issue to 2017, it put India’s food security at risk in case no deal was reached by that deadline — a probable scenario. Mr. Modi has succeeded in undoing Dr. Singh’s egregious concession by clinching a deal under which the developing counties’ food-stockholding programmes will face no WTO challenge until a permanent solution is found, thus shielding them from pressures indefinitely.

Looking East Fifth, Mr. Modi — unlike the leaders who preceded him — attaches major significance to diplomatic symbolism. For example, with the opening of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit coinciding with the sombre anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, he gave the cold shoulder to his Pakistani counterpart, Nawaz Sharif, for refusing to prosecute the masterminds of that Pakistani scripted and executed operation. Mr. Modi shook hands with Mr. Sharif only the following day at the Dhulikhel retreat. In fact, to concentrate on his broader regional and global agenda, Mr. Modi has done well to sideline Pakistan, a noxious issue that weighed down Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s foreign policy. Mr. Modi, in any event, faces an important dilemma on Pakistan: With whom to engage there? After being politically cut to size by the military establishment, Mr. Sharif is like a parrot perched on the generals’ shoulders, trying to echo their lines on India, even if stutteringly.

To be sure, Mr. Modi faces major regional challenges, exemplified by the arc of failing, revanchist or scofflaw states around India. This tyranny of geography demands that India evolve more dynamic and innovative approaches to diplomacy and national defence. India must actively involve itself regionally to help influence developments, which is what Mr. Modi is seeking to do. Indeed, his priority — apparent from the time he invited regional leaders to his inauguration — is to retrieve India’s lost ground in its backyard.

As Pakistan’s obstructionism at Kathmandu to greater intra-regional cooperation highlighted, SAARC is likely to remain a stunted organisation. India, while building stronger bilateral linkages with other neighbours, must strengthen its “Look East” policy. India indeed has little choice but to look east because when it looks west, it sees only trouble. The entire belt to India’s west from Pakistan to Syria is a contiguous arc of instability and extremism. Looking east allows India to join the economic dynamism that characterises the region to its east.

For a politician who came to office with virtually no foreign-policy experience, Mr. Modi has demonstrated impressive diplomatic acumen, including in taking bold new directions, charting a vision to reclaim India’s lost strategic clout, holding his ground in talks with world leaders, and responding to provocations by regional foes. Mr. Modi has shaken India’s foreign policy establishment with his proactive approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths.

All in all, the Modi foreign policy appears geared to reinvent India as a more competitive, confident and secure country claiming its rightful place in the world. A robust foreign policy, however, can sustain itself only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy, a realm where Mr. Modi must prove he can help transform India.

(Brahma Chellaney is a geostrategist and author.)

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