The foreign policy report card

It is perhaps too soon to try and discern a distinctive ‘Modi doctrine’, but the wider arc of foreign and strategic policy is gradually coming into focus.

August 20, 2014 12:36 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

The 100-day honeymoon of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government will soon be at an end. Despite pressing challenges at home, external engagements have encroached on the government’s time and attention. The calendar has been packed with visits, meetings and negotiations. What has all this added up to? It is perhaps too soon to try and discern a distinctive “Modi doctrine.” But the wider arc of foreign and strategic policy is gradually coming into focus. The government’s early initiatives have been stamped with the Prime Minister’s style, yet the real challenges lie ahead.

Let’s start with South Asia. From the outset, Mr. Modi has sought to accord the highest priority to India’s immediate neighbourhood. The decision to >invite for his swearing-in , leaders of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries showed a subtle grasp of the importance of gestures and interpersonal equations in diplomacy. The subsequent visits to >Bhutan and >Nepal underscored his ability to project India’s leadership in the region without a hint of condescension. In his speeches, Mr. Modi has outlined a generous vision of shared regional prosperity.

Regional policy All this has undoubtedly helped revivify India’s regional policy. Yet, the challenge for India has not been the absence of good intentions. Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Dr. Manmohan Singh shared these aims. Rather, it has been the difficulty of tackling underlying problems that has hobbled our regional policy.

For one thing, India has struggled to evolve a sustainable policy of engagement with Pakistan — one that is insulated from the pressures of predictable events. After a promising start, the government’s approach to Pakistan seems to be spluttering. Take the decision to >cancel the Foreign Secretary’s visit to Islamabad . The government may be rightly miffed at Pakistan for meeting the Hurriyat leaders despite being warned of India’s displeasure. But it is not clear why a redline should have been drawn on this issue. At a time when the civilian government in Pakistan is on the back foot, New Delhi’s digging in of its heels will only comfort the military.

A related issue is that our policy towards neighbours is pulled in different directions by the concerns and interests of various stakeholders in the government. Think only of the deleterious role of our intelligence agencies in Nepal or the stonewalling of the Army on the Siachen glacier. Equally problematic is New Delhi’s unwillingness to meaningfully engage the States in fashioning regional policy. If anything, they tend to be seen as thwarting the government’s policy — an attitude that has created considerable problems in the past. Finally, nothing has hurt India’s claims to regional leadership as much as its inability to make good on promises. The largesse of our lines of credit is simply not matched by a capacity to complete projects. Redressing these problems is critical if India is to retain the goodwill flowing from the shift in rhetorical gears.

Extended neighbourhood The extended neighbourhood has posed more of a challenge to the government. West Asia has been wracked by a series of crises that could potentially undermine Indian interests in the region. The government was energetic in >organising the rescue of Indian nationals from Iraq . Yet, it is not clear that New Delhi has come to grips with the waves of change washing over West Asia. Nor is there any indication that it is looking beyond short-term measures such as the evacuation of Indians from hot spots. This will be unsustainable if the crisis escalates and spreads. There are nearly seven million Indians living in the Gulf region: almost 7,00,000 workers migrate to the Gulf every year. Evacuating even a fraction of these numbers will be nigh impossible. Never mind the attendant problem of resettlement.

Gaza crisis India’s interests in West Asia can best be secured by carving out a larger role in the geopolitics of the region. This may be an unprecedented opportunity to do so. On the one hand, the ongoing crises are rapidly corroding long-standing structures and configurations of power. On the other hand, India has equities with several regional players who are arrayed against one another. At a time when India could expand and cement its influence, the government has not shown a sure touch.

Nowhere was this clearer than in the response to the crisis in Gaza. The political predilection for Israel was evident in the stance initially taken by the government. This not only equated Israel and the Palestinians but used stronger language against the latter. The subsequent vote against Israel in the Human Rights Council was a course correction, but only served to highlight the lack of a clear strategic assessment. To be sure, India does have an important relationship with Israel. However, this had to be weighed not against some abstract notion of solidarity with the Palestinians but our wider regional standing and interests in a time of crisis and far-reaching change. Strategic dithering will hardly help win friends and influence people.

On the wider, global stage, the government has been more attuned to India’s interests. New Delhi has sought to steer clear of the re-emerging rivalry between Russia and the United States. It is also keen to strike a balance in its ties with Japan and China. Mr. Modi has indicated that India’s dealings with each of the great powers will be conditioned by the interests at play — and not coloured by the perceptions of others. This is a long-standing principle of Indian foreign policy going right back to Jawaharlal Nehru. The problem, of course, is that issues cannot be neatly compartmentalised.

Consider the recent World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations. Despite American attempts at cajoling and arm-twisting, the government took a >strong stance to preserve subsidies for farmers . Mr. Modi observed that his government was not playing for brownie points. Indeed, the government’s position and rhetoric were tougher than those of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government which allegedly kept America at arm’s length. In so doing, though, India has, yet again, been portrayed as “obstructionist” and incapable of coming up with positive proposals.

The government may seek to shrug this off, but it will present larger challenges; not least in our attempts to resist new trade regimes like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) that are currently being negotiated under U.S. leadership. Regional pacts like the TPP seek to introduce new norms on international trade that will subsequently be imported to the global regime. These norms are inimical to India’s interests. But our stance in the WTO weakens our ability to shape coalitions elsewhere. Preserving India’s interests, then, is about more than just “standing-up” to any great power or a set of powers.

Military modernisation Then again, meaningful engagement with the U.S. may prove to be something of a challenge. The Obama administration seems too distracted and disinterested in India. The level of interest can be gauged by the fact that the administration has been unable — or unwilling — to appoint an ambassador to India. Mr. Modi has mooted the idea of joint development of weapon-systems. If this gains some traction in Washington, the relationship could acquire much-needed focus and momentum.

The Prime Minister’s proposal sits well with his wider plans for deepening the defence industrial base in India. With a view to attracting technology, the government has announced 49 per cent foreign direct investment (FDI) in defence. Merely raising the FDI cap is not likely to help. All manufacturers of weapon-systems operate under national laws that restrict exports and transfers. They will be encouraged to set-up shop in India only if there is a strategic agreement with their home governments.

The development of defence industries is only one aspect of the larger problem of military modernisation. A host of institutional and operational reforms need to be urgently considered. The most fundamental of these is the dysfunctional civil-military relationship. The government began with something of a handicap on this issue. By awarding a ticket to General V.K. Singh, and by subsequently rewarding him with a ministerial portfolio, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) dealt a blow to an already problematic relationship between the government and the armed forces. Be that as it may, the government has to work to restore a harmonious relationship between the military and the civilian bureaucracy. A number of proposals are on the anvil. It remains to be seen if the government will consider such serious reforms as the appointment of a Chief of Defence Staff.

It will be a pity if, as in the past, reforms are forced on to the table by a crisis. The government would do well to seize the initiative on strategic issues. Appointing a full-time defence minister would be a good start.

(Srinath Raghavan is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.)

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