All form, little substance

In two recent speeches, the Foreign Secretary, Dr. S. Jaishankar, has enunciated the strategic underpinnings of India’s foreign policy under Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The speeches are characteristically incisive, thoughtful and provide useful insights into New Delhi’s evolving approach to international relations. Nevertheless, since these speeches were public interventions, a few thoughts may be worth bouncing off their polished surface.

Srinath Raghavan

The burden of the speeches was to flag apparently far-reaching shifts in India’s approach to foreign affairs. Even while the Foreign Secretary conceded some continuity with the past, he insisted that we are witnessing “different times”. A simple “smell test” of the diplomacy of the last year would point to this “reasonably clear conclusion”. Foreign policy under Mr. Modi is marked by “greater confidence, more initiative, certainly stronger determination” as well as a series of innovative approaches.

Engaging with the neighbourhood The Foreign Secretary rightly held that Mr. Modi’s decision to invite South Asian leaders for his swearing-in, in May 2014, heralded a “big shift” in India’s policy towards its neighbours. By engaging intensively with the neighbourhood, Mr. Modi has indeed managed to project India’s leadership without ruffling sensitivities in the region. In particular, his engagements with Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan have given a fillip to plans for subregional connectivity and integration.

That said, our relationships with the Western neighbours leave much to be desired. It is not surprising that the Foreign Secretary slurred over Pakistan in his speeches. Here, the government has struggled to reap dividends of the “big shift” — largely because it shifted away from its original position. By calling off talks last year and by taking the initiative to resume them now, the government has showcased its inability to craft a sustainable approach to Pakistan. The position with Afghanistan is worse still. Repeating platitudes about “Afghan-led reconciliation process” and “internationally accepted red-lines” is unlikely to get us very far. In reality, there is an ongoing Pakistan-facilitated process to arrive at a settlement with the Taliban. More importantly, this process has the approval of the United States, China and Russia. The limitations of our policy towards Afghanistan over the past year are amply clear — not least in the manner in which traditional partners like Russia have edged closer to the Pakistani position.

Looking beyond the subcontinent, the Foreign Secretary underlined the government’s pattern of engagement with various other regions. The Prime Minister’s “integrated” tours to countries in East Asia, the Indian Ocean and Central Asia are evidently indicative of a different approach — one that also seeks to exploit the openings that may be offered by local balances of power. The prime ministerial itineraries certainly lend credence to this claim. And the outreach to some neglected countries is to be welcomed.

But is there a novel strategic approach at work? Take the case of the Indian Ocean region. The Foreign Secretary stated that there is a new, integrated approach in place — with emphasis on “exchange of information and coastal surveillance, building of infrastructure and strengthening of capabilities”.

Assessing policy In fact, each of these initiatives began under the previous government. For instance, the maritime domain awareness systems inaugurated during Mr. Modi’s visit to Seychelles, in March 2015, were the outcome of an older initiative encompassing several Indian Ocean countries. As for beefing up our maritime capabilities, it may be worth pointing out that this year’s Budget actually cut the Indian Navy’s share of defence allocation to 13.5 per cent from 16 per cent in the last year. Perhaps the real problem of integration lies within the Government of India.

Beyond such quibbles, there is the larger question of how to assess our foreign policy. A “smell test” can hardly suffice. The real test of a foreign policy is coherence of design, consistency in execution, and efficacy in outcomes. The last in particular is the litmus test.

Compare the outcomes secured by this government with those of the National Democratic Alliance government under Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and the first United Progressive Alliance government under Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. Over a similar period in office, Mr. Vajpayee tested nuclear weapons, travelled to Lahore, repelled Pakistani aggression in Kargil, and opened new avenues in our relationship with the U.S. and China. In the same time frame, Dr. Singh concluded the agreement on parameters to settle the boundary with China, announced the nuclear deal with the U.S., and made headway with Pakistan in backchannel talks. By this standard, the present government’s foreign policy looks ordinary. To be sure, the government has a long way to go and there is no reason to judge it by the performance so far. Still, the government might wish to refrain from talking up its own policies.

Bonhomie and the results Talking up, however, seems to be an integral part of its conception of foreign policy. Indeed, this was a running theme through the various innovations pointed out by the Foreign Secretary. “Personal chemistry” has apparently emerged as a “powerful tool in our diplomatic kit”. There is a measure of truth to this. The Prime Minister does seem to have a personal affinity for leaders such as the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. In other cases, as with the American and Chinese leaders, there was more of orchestrated bonhomie. In any event, the role of personalities in diplomacy can hardly be denied.

Yet, as the British diplomat Harold Nicolson observed, diplomacy is ultimately “disagreeable business”. The mere fact of leaders getting along well can hardly ensure convergence in policies and actions. The Foreign Secretary’s claim that Mr. Modi’s visit to China, in May 2015, resulted in the “world’s most powerful selfie” — when Mr. Modi posed with China’s Premier Li Keqiang — may be true; but it can scarcely disguise the fact that the Chinese refused to accede to Indian wishes on such key issues as clarification of the Line of Actual Control or increased market access. The number of followers on Twitter or Facebook is no measure of real power or influence. There is a danger here of getting trapped in a social-media echo chamber of tweets and posts, “likes” and “favourites”.

Creating narratives This is equally true of the government’s emphasis on creating narratives about India and coining neologisms. The Foreign Secretary was perceptive in highlighting the role of strategic narratives. The importance of moulding opinions held by a variety of constituencies and actors is undeniable in contemporary international politics. Narratives differ from ordinary stories in that they deal with the way in which issues are framed and responses suggested.

A successful narrative will enable the consumer to distinguish between important and trivial issues, good and bad news. It will suggest ways of piecing together seemingly disparate developments while disentangling others. The fundamental requirements of any strategic narrative are appropriateness and credibility. The government seems a bit oblivious to both. The notion that highlighting India’s role in the First World War buttresses its demand for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council falls short on the first criterion. Making large claims for a “Neighbourhood First” policy while eliding the missteps on Pakistan or Afghanistan fails the second criterion. Moreover, communication is currently too focussed on personality and style as opposed to ideas and outcomes.

The Foreign Secretary has coined his own neologism in these speeches: India as a “leading power”. Hitherto, he argued, India had remained content to be a “balancing power”. It is perhaps time to take the lead on global issues and demonstrate our willingness to shoulder global responsibilities. This seems unexceptionable, though his suggestion that in the past India had been “neutral or risk averse” is a gross misreading of our diplomatic history.

So far, the real constraint on such ambitions has been weak state capacity. This affects both our ability to grasp the big strategic picture and our ability to get the nuts and bolts right. On the former, we only need to look closely into the Ministry of External Affairs’ flawed assessment of the prospects of a nuclear agreement between Iran and the United States. Equally striking is the absence of any coherent response by the government to the major changes sweeping the global economic landscape: the mega-regional trade deals driven by the U.S. and the ‘One-Belt One-Road’ envisioned by China. On the latter, think only of our inability to deliver on any number of regional promises of cooperation and connectivity. Instead of focussing on flaky “soft power” initiatives such as Yoga or Buddhism, the government should aim to get its institutional muscle into shape. Otherwise, our partners may come to see us not as a “leading” power but as a misleading power.

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

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