To characterise the foreign policy of the most peripatetic Indian Prime Minister as ‘nationalist’ may appear contradictory. The popular demand today is that he should be in India more often, to deal with the crying needs of the country. He is selective in his eloquence on domestic issues, but he is opening out his heart to >foreign audiences . He is seen more in the company of foreign leaders, not only political leaders, but also leaders in technology, finance and economics. But the core of his agenda is domestic, not international. His >arena is international , but his concerns are domestic.
The transformation of India’s foreign policy from an ‘internationalist’ one to a ‘nationalist’ one may well have begun after Jawaharlal Nehru and V.K. Krishna Menon. Domestic preoccupations were brought to centre stage, though the old tradition of engagement in world affairs remained alive. The torrent of international issues — such as the conflicts in Indo-China and Korea, the Suez Canal crisis and even the conflict in Austria — in all of which India played a role without any specific agenda for itself, became a trickle.
Perhaps our early day interventions happened because of the activism of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), which pronounced itself on every major international issue in its declarations. By shaping those pronouncements, mainly by balancing and moderating them, India found fulfilment in playing its international role. It did not find it necessary to take initiatives to resolve disputes or avert conflicts, except in its own neighbourhood. Our insistence on bilateralism in resolving issues may also have been an inhibiting factor.
From international to regional In the post-Cold War era, India’s internationalism began to be confined to regional and other groupings, most of them economic. Concerns about the protection of the global commons, such as the environment, assumed importance. We began looking at protecting our own interests, taking positions like ‘no mandatory reduction of green house gases for the developing countries’. We realised that our interests coincided with those of the great powers and the large developing countries like Brazil and even China. Copenhagen was a real turning point in our environment policy when we virtually disowned the Kyoto Protocol except in name. Our nuclear tests in 1998 and the subsequent nuclear deal with the United States left India with no like-minded countries in disarmament. It was the arm-twisting by the U.S. that made the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) provide us an exemption.
UNSC membership We had earlier used the non-aligned position that only non-permanent membership should be increased until comprehensive reform is accomplished, just to thwart the U.S. sponsored quick fix solution of Germany and Japan being made Permanent Members. However, we then moved on to the G-4 initiative — under which India, Brazil, Japan and Germany would seek permanent membership — which has very few takers among the small developing countries. The G-77 virtually disappeared from many forums because India’s leadership in it withered away.
India continued to take a >global view in G-20 and the World Trade Organization (WTO), primarily because of the reputation of Dr. Manmohan Singh as an economic guru, even for Barack Obama. Dr. Manmohan Singh’s withdrawal from the international arena and his close relationship with the U.S. in India’s interests changed the Nehruvian view that India’s dreams coincided with the world’s dreams. During our last term at the U.N. Security Council, India seemed to be in a dilemma as to whether we should work with the nonaligned caucus or plough a lonely furrow; we ended up in flip-flops. Both the Permanent Members and the nonaligned caucus found our term a mixed blessing.
“ A study of Prime Minister Modi’s visits and speeches reveals that his strategy is that of a businessman, one who makes deals only for benefits. His neighbourhood policy is an example ”
Mr. Modi’s surprise initiatives in foreign policy from day one seemed to project him as an internationalist. As Raja Mohan summarised in his book Modi’s World , “he warmed up to America, recast the approach to China and Pakistan, sustained the old friendship with Russia, deepened the strategic partnership with Japan and Australia, boosted India’s neighbourhood policy, wooed international business leaders and reconnected with the Indian diaspora.”
We could add to this his championship of the >reform of the Security Council ; his stress on the environment; and him taking initiatives on getting closer to France, Germany, Canada, the island states and now Africa. But the change is not only in style and eloquence, but in turning Indian foreign policy inward. He has abandoned internationalism, genuine in the case of some of his predecessors and a cloak in the case of some others. In any relationship, the litmus test now is: what India can gain for itself, not what India can contribute to the humanity.
Focusing on national interests in formulating foreign policy is fundamental for all countries. But turning statesmanship to salesmanship is a new phenomenon in Indian foreign policy. Our tradition has been to provide leadership to the world, not to demand it as our right, as Mr. Modi did in the case of the permanent membership of the Security Council. Speaking of our eminent qualifications is one thing, but claiming it as a right may drive our supporters away. Our case was that we were willing to serve on the Council to restore the balance there and to make it more relevant, not to claim membership as a right to protect our interests. Even the Permanent Members never claim that they have a right to be there.
A close study of the choice of countries Mr. Modi has visited and the speeches he has made would reveal that his strategy is that of a pragmatic businessman who will make deals for his benefit, but the moment the profit dwindles, he will go in search of new clients. His neighbourhood policy is a case in point. He started off with the ambition to remove poverty in South Asia through a >renewed South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), but soon discovered the perfidy of Pakistan. He persisted for a while as India had much to gain from a transformation in India-Pakistan relations. However, SAARC is no longer a priority in his development agenda. Nepal is another case where his hopes were belied. Remember the cordiality and the oneness he projected with Nepal in the name of the eternal values the two countries shared? However, today, he has virtually imposed an embargo on Nepal for not listening to our advice. Indira Gandhi did the same once, but she had explained repeatedly to the international community the rationale for her actions and had restored normalcy after a while. The world will watch our policies and make conclusions on our reliability and statesmanship.
Misplaced notion of grandeur The common elements in Mr. Modi’s speeches abroad can be clearly identified. First and foremost, it is the grandeur of India and his own role as its man of destiny. Second, he claims that things have changed dramatically since he took over and that India is now ready to receive investments and recognition as a global player. He feels the world has a stake in India’s development and security and that it is imperative for other countries to work with India.
He does not offer any specific concessions but expects the others to respond to his initiatives for their own benefit. According to him, ‘ >Make in India ’ and ‘ >Digital India ’ are opportunities for the world to promote India and derive benefits for themselves. In other words, the logic is one applied to a honest business in which every partner makes profit.
Statesmanship demands every national leader to have a global vision — he should place his country in the larger context of the well-being of the mankind. In Mr. Modi’s case, India is at the centre of the world. In his speeches at the UN, he claims that what the UN does today was anticipated by India long ago. If India considers the Earth as the mother and calls the whole world a family, it has nothing to learn from sustainable goals, so meticulously put together by other nations.
Mr. Modi raised the reform of the Security Council even in the sustainable development session, without saying what India would do as a Permanent Member for the world. His sticking his neck out on this issue, when there is little hope of progress in the near future, seems ill-informed at best. Similarly, he did not seem to notice that the Presidents of the U.S. and China were grappling with the problems of too much connectivity at the very moment he was > selling ‘Digital India’ to the Silicon Valley. Mr. Modi also seems to take the diaspora’s loyalty for granted and expects the Indian community abroad to extend support to him at all times. History has taught us that the diaspora can be critical of India on occasions. The very people who supported the nuclear tests and the nuclear deal were critical when the deal appeared to fall through. Recent events in India have already sparked adverse reactions from them. In Dubai, they were disappointed that their issues were not addressed directly by the Prime Minister.
Whether or not a foreign policy which is premised on seeking advantages for India — without projecting a grand vision for the world —will benefit India, only time will tell. However, for an India that had once taken greater pride in giving to the world than taking from it, Mr. Modi’s foreign policy is strikingly new.
(T.P. Sreenivasan is a former Ambassador of India and a former Permanent Representative at the United Nations .)