India’s big foreign policy shake-up

The Modi government’s hyper-activism marks a clear break with the past. But is it also backed by an underlying vision?

October 26, 2019 12:05 am | Updated 11:00 am IST

happy republic day of india banner design, show power or unity of country

happy republic day of india banner design, show power or unity of country

India’s foreign policy is undergoing a series of fundamental transformations in terms of its underlying narratives, processes and desired endgames. There is a conscious and consistent effort to break with the past, no matter how the outcomes might look eventually.

What could potentially make this change last longer than initially thought is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has the mandate, the capability and the willingness to effect major changes and re-conceptualise the country’s external security orientation. And yet, one must ask: Does this really mark a fundamental policy shift or does it just amount to a slew of optics-friendly acts that are well-choreographed but not visionary?

Taking risks

One of the most striking features of the Modi government’s foreign policy is its propensity for risk-taking — quite unlike most previous governments barring perhaps that of Indira Gandhi. Armed with a clear majority, the government is keen to play offensive, undoing the decades-old defensive Indian strategic behaviour. New Delhi’s actions at Doklam; its surgical strikes against Pakistan in 2016 after the Uri terror attacks; and the Balakot air strikes in the wake of Pulwama attacks this February — notwithstanding the questionable material outcomes in all these cases — are examples of this new-found offensive streak and risk-taking tendency.

The August 5 decision by the Central government on Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) to read down Article 370 was also a risk-ridden move. When previous governments engaged in offensive behaviour, they couched it in normative language. Today, speech is act too.

A high-pitched rhetoric around Pakistan, J&K and terrorism complements the Modi regime’s propensity for risk-taking even as these themes remain the mainstay of its foreign policy. There are unfailing invocations to these themes in almost all forums where India is represented as well as in bilateral meetings with countries ranging from the U.S. to New Zealand.

In an overstated manner, then, terrorism and Pakistan have come to dominate our foreign policy pursuits, instead of other forward-looking and system-shaping narratives. One wonders whether this unrelenting obsession would require compromises by the government in its negotiations with other countries in return for their pro-India stance, which is rapidly running out as days pass by.

The fixation with terror, Pakistan and J&K also means that the country’s valuable political and diplomatic capital as well as its accumulated goodwill in the comity of nations would have to be spent on tactical goals.

Clarity at the cost of nuance

Mr. Modi’s foreign policy, for the most part, has displayed unprecedented doses of clarity, though often at the cost of nuanced approaches to complex issues. New Delhi appears, and certainly claims, to know what it wants, is willing to pursue it doggedly, and to pay the associated costs. In politics and foreign policy, there has traditionally been some distance between rhetoric and reality, but in this case, rhetoric seems to closely resemble reality. While past governments tried to balance their rhetoric and reality — for instance, when it comes to India’s relations with Israel — the present government’s policy resembles its rhetoric, with on occasion rhetoric forcing policy choices. A clear example of this rhetoric-reality match is found in India’s ties with the U.S. — the two are unprecedentedly close and despite its nativist leanings, the present regime seems to offer no excuses or qualifiers for getting so close to a superpower, for it knows that hardly any challenges are posed to its foreign policy pursuits in the domestic sphere. Consequently, there is little talk of ‘strategic autonomy’.

However, too much clarity tends to blur out some much-needed nuance. Take, for instance, New Delhi’s apparent inability to play a noteworthy role in the emerging Afghan geopolitics at a crucial time such as this. It is imperative, as many commentators have pointed out, to engage the Taliban, which is bound to be a dominant actor in Afghanistan in the days ahead. And yet, New Delhi is unable to reach out to the group thanks, at least partly, to its hyper-ventilating and un-nuanced positions on extremism and terrorism. How can India talk to the Taliban and at the same time remain adamant that it won’t engage the many militant groups or even the pro-autonomy voices in J&K?

India’s foreign policy has traditionally been, for the most part, couched, if not always practised, in a normative grammar. It desired to practise a normative foreign policy, often struggled to match its rhetoric with its actions, and more often seemed uneasy with the mismatch. As a consequence, New Delhi often refused to act with determination; the use of raw power for political outcomes was tempered with normative language when it did act; and deliberate ambiguity was deployed when this posed a moral dilemma. This moral sheen has seemingly come off now, by design.

New India’s foreign policy has not only given up the Nehruvian normative angst but has even shunned the pretences of normative behaviour. Economic and military power today are seen as tools to gain advantage vis-à-vis others, be it neighbours or the larger international system. To that extent, there is a strong link between internal and external posturing, unlike in the case of most previous governments which made a deliberate attempt to be internally liberal and externally realist.

Weighing domestic costs

Foreign policy, for the Modi government, is a two-level game, to paraphrase political scientist Robert Putnam. While traditionally, foreign policy has had little impact on domestic political outcomes, today, given the manner in which external behaviour has been domestically politicised, the leadership seems to weigh the domestic costs while making foreign policy decisions. More to the point, foreign policy decisions are often undertaken to cater to domestic opinion. To that extent then, audience costs will continue to determine Mr. Modi’s foreign policy choices.

Being cognisant of the domestic political implications of foreign policy behaviour in the age of mass communication and social media is understandable. But the flip side is that it leads the leadership to a commitment trap as well as binds its hands when the external circumstances demand a change in behaviour.

Domestic politicisation of foreign policy also instils a ‘winner-takes-all’ mentality in the ruling dispensation, thereby shrinking the domestic space for consensus building. Looking similar to the Opposition, which domestic consensus building in a way leads to, doesn’t help the government in the eyes of the public but looking different does win it brownie points. This is already making the Opposition irrelevant, and decision making is centralised.

Is there, however, an underlying vision to India’s new foreign policy? For instance, does India’s hyper-activism on the foreign policy front enable it to be a system-shaper and a global rule-maker or is it still a rule-taker? What, in that sense, are the big foreign policy achievements of this government à la, for instance, the India-U.S. nuclear deal of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) vintage? Are membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) or the UN Security Council in the offing? Or has our diplomacy resolved any of our key conflicts? For, after all, it’s the foreign policy outcomes that we should not lose sight of.

Happymon Jacob teaches Disarmament and National Security at the School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi

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