Realism of the second year

Consensus may be an oversold virtue, but it could help Narendra Modi beat the last-mile crunch in achieving foreign policy objectives

April 23, 2016 12:57 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:25 pm IST

It is equally clear that despite the large electoral mandate he received in 2014, Mr. Modi will need to reach out to his political opposition on foreign policy as he approaches his mid-term.

It is equally clear that despite the large electoral mandate he received in 2014, Mr. Modi will need to reach out to his political opposition on foreign policy as he approaches his mid-term.

Hours before he left for India this month, U.S. > Defence Secretary Ashton Carter gave an upbeat account of his upcoming trip at the Council on Foreign Relations, in New York. A slew of agreements were in the works, Mr. Carter said, and while he didn’t name the logistical support agreement (LSA, now called > Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement or LEMOA), that was obviously expected to be signed. “We will also conclude several important agreements, including one on commercial shipping information exchange, which will make many new things possible in the future,” he added.

Significantly, neither the LEMOA nor the commercial shipping agreements were actually concluded or signed during the visit that saw the Defence Secretary in India for three days, his second such visit in a year. Officials have variously blamed the fine print, the timing, the unease over the > U.S.’s F-16 sales to Pakistan , and the visits (being planned then) by the Defence Minister and the National Security Adviser to China as reasons for putting off the signing, but none of them fully explains the failure to clinch an agreement that the U.S. considers one of the “foundational agreements”, expected to ease the two countries’ militaries into a tighter embrace. The expectation is the signing may happen in the next few weeks or possibly in months, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is understood to be considering another visit to Washington to bid farewell to U.S. President Barack Obama, but the moment has been missed.

Caution as new watchword The LEMOA story is significant, not because of any perceived impact on India-U.S. ties, but because it fits into a pattern that seems to have defined foreign policy moves in Mr. Modi’s second year in office. If in the first year, he was brimming with confidence, the second year has seen more caution, and while several big announcements were made and Mr. Modi kept up > his frenetic pace of travel, fewer agreements that were negotiated were actually signed or concluded. “It’s the curse of the last mile,” explained a diplomat, who described the disappointment during the Carter visit.

Consider Mr. Modi’s last visit abroad that began with a > stop in Brussels . The visit to Brussels for the EU-India summit had been in the works for more than a year, aimed at restarting negotiations on a free trade agreement, formally called the Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) that had been stalled for four years. More hinges on this than good trade relations — concluding it would signify an end to the four-year logjam between India and >Italy over the marines’ issue , and is also key to India’s aspirations this year to join the missile control and nuclear regimes, not to mention its goal of a UN Security Council permanent seat.

In private meetings, as well at a press conference addressed by the EU ambassador in January 2015, it was clear that the purpose of the Prime Minister’s visit would be to announce the restart of talks with his European counterparts. Eventually, officials said that despite talks going into extra time ahead of the visit, neither side was able to say “I do” when Mr. Modi arrived, primarily because of differences on guarantees and data protection.

> When he went on to Washington, another deal expected to be announced choked at the last minute: for six nuclear reactors to be built by Westinghouse. Like the BTIA, this is about much more than the deal; it would be the first evidence that the India-U.S. nuclear deal announced by Mr. Modi and Mr. Obama in January 2015 was actually “done”. Since January last year, legal teams have travelled back and forth between Delhi and Washington, trying to iron out the last wrinkle over the issue of liability, but proof of their agreement will only come with the announcement of the first commercial deal, that is, with Westinghouse.

Visiting Delhi in January this year, Westinghouse CEO Daniel Roderick said in an interview to Reuters that a “commercially significant announcement” would be made when Mr. Modi came to Washington for the nuclear summit in April, but acknowledged that the liability issue was a sticking point. The visit came and went without any announcement. In another interview on the eve of the Prime Minister’s visit, Mr. Roderick said he now hoped for something “in June”, perhaps in time for when reports indicate >Mr. Modi will go again to Washington .

Delays beyond agreed deadlines With Australia, the delay on the free trade agreement — > the Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement (CECA) as it is known — is equally significant, despite a “hard deadline” of December 2015 set by Mr. Modi and former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott for its completion. This week, Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said the two sides were “probably getting nearer to a conclusion”, but again no firm sign of it being done years after it was started and months past its deadline date.

And then there is the > cliffhanger of the Rafale deal that has kept Indian and French officials on tenterhooks for more than a year now. When Mr. Modi made the unusual move (rare for a Prime Minister to do) of announcing during a state visit to France that India would buy 36 fighter aircraft in a government-to-government “off the rack” agreement, it was meant to signal decisive action that would cut through bureaucratic hurdles in order to procure much-needed military hardware. The year since has proven anything but decisive. Negotiations on offsets had to be rescued by a personal call between Mr. Modi and François Hollande last year, but despite >inviting the French President to the Republic Day parade , no breakthrough was announced on the pricing issue, and only a memorandum of understanding could be signed. In January, Mr. Hollande said the deal would be announced in a matter of days, but a deal has not been announced three months later, although reports indicate it is in its “final stages”.

This list is by no means exhaustive, and it doesn’t even include the list of agreements signed that have not yet gotten off the ground. Clearly, there is no harm in prolonging negotiations for any of the deals listed above or others that are in the works. It cannot also be anyone’s case that bilateral relations hinge on deals alone, or that India alone bears the responsibility of their success or failure. What matters is the quality of the relations and not the ink expended on agreements. But if there is a pattern in all these, it is necessary to investigate why so many agreements that had been envisaged and anticipated in Mr. Modi’s first year in office are not clearing the final hurdles of negotiation in the second.

Pushback to personalised diplomacy One of the obvious reasons is an over-dependence on summit-style diplomacy. With all his flair and forceful manner, there are limits to what the Prime Minister can achieve in one-to-one talks. At best, Mr. Modi and his counterpart can push through a particular logjam, as he did with Mr. Obama on the nuclear deal, but the fine print will still have to be vetted by negotiators. The spate of visits abroad, while excellent for the record books, dilutes the already stretched Ministry of External Affairs’ capacity for preparation and follow-ups. It is to Mr. Modi’s credit that he seems to recognise this and is slowing down that pace heading into the third year of his term. Many of the radical shifts he proposes — on alliances with the U.S., shifting his emphasis from bilateral diplomacy to commercial- and security-driven diplomacy, as well as bypassing red tape on defence and other procurement processes — are also now facing a bureaucratic pushback, and Mr. Modi may have decided to weave a path through them internally rather than externally in the year to come.

It is equally clear that despite the large electoral mandate he received in 2014, Mr. Modi will need to reach out to his political opposition on foreign policy as he approaches his mid-term. Many of his predecessors, from Narasimha Rao to Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, who had lesser majorities, have tackled the Opposition by consulting them on major foreign policy decisions, and even assigning members of the Opposition to major diplomatic roles. In contrast, given the lack of such consultation, every decision taken by Mr. Modi has been followed by open challenges and scathing public criticism from the Opposition. Consensus is, no doubt, an oversold virtue, but it could cushion Mr. Modi’s way when it comes to the last-mile crunch he faces today.


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