Modi meets the world

“The country will no longer bend. Modi will put national interest first,” Ram Madhav, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) general secretary, told an audience in New York even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was visiting the United States in September. “Pakistan must know that the Modi government is different,” Home Minister Rajnath Singh said while responding to ceasefire violations at the border. Mr. Modi made similar statements during the recent Assembly election campaigns in Maharashtra and Haryana. The impression that is being created through all these statements is that the Modi government is pursuing a strategic policy that is different to those by previous regimes.

Projecting his own uniqueness is characteristic of Mr. Modi. One would recall the Lok Sabha speech of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, after winning the trust vote in 1998, as Prime Minister. “On some issues there has always been a consensus in this country. And foreign policy is one of those … only the government has changed, not foreign policy.” Mr. Vajpayee made significant departures, but he was careful to dress them like a continuum of the past. Mr. Modi’s emphasis is to project all his initiatives as departures.

Now that Mr. Modi has completed the first round of engagement with all major countries of importance to India, it is perhaps time to make an assessment, at least tentatively, as to whether this government is in anyway different from previous governments.

Two-pronged framework

Mr. Modi’s declarations while as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and later as a ferocious campaigner, gave rise to some expectations from him on how he would deal with the world. Apart from his campaign speeches, he has made two full-fledged speeches on foreign policy — the Nani A. Palkhivala Memorial lecture in Chennai on October 18, 2013, when he was prime ministerial aspirant; and the next, as Prime Minister, at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York in September 2014. Though there isn’t a “Modi doctrine” articulated with that label, there is a discernible two-pronged strategic policy framework that he has sketched: a focus on the neighbourhood and a pursuit of India’s economic interests.

Neither is particularly original. Manmohan Singh’s strategic policy also had these two among its key components. But he could not take it far due to domestic political constraints created substantially by the BJP, which was then in the Opposition. The BJP opposed engagement with Pakistan, sabotaged a land border deal with Bangladesh, a country that is crucial to India’s strategic interests and its ‘Look East’ policy, and always kept the rhetoric high on China. The BJP forced a nuclear liability bill that makes nuclear commerce difficult; it opposed liberalisation of the insurance and pension sectors.

Neighbourhood ties

Some commentators have said that Mr. Modi has a capacity to change from “campaign mode” to “governance mode,” as soon as voting is over, and that he has always done so in Gujarat. As Chief Minister, he could simultaneously be the Opposition leader also, against the Congress regime at the Centre. When Mr. Modi was governing and campaigning simultaneously, he frequently attacked the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) on foreign policy issues — be it Chinese “incursions,” the Khobragade diplomat episode or talks with Pakistan. What we are currently witnessing is Mr. Modi’s inability to abandon all that rhetoric. Building up jingoism has been an essential part of this quintessential campaigner. Even if he wants to — which we are not sure about — he is unable to shake off the rhetoric that has built him.

It is in the neighbourhood that the ghost of the past haunts Mr. Modi even more. He was off to a good start at his swearing-in ceremony when he made sure that all South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries were represented. But recurrent Chinese “incursions,” and ceasefire violations on the Pakistan border have trapped him. India suspended talks with Pakistan, and has the precondition that Pakistan will find impossible to meet — it must not talk to Kashmiri separatists. On China, Mr. Modi had to immediately balance his “commerce first” policy with larger doses of rhetoric the day after he hosted President Xi Jinping on the banks of the Sabarmati. One can only hope that the BJP can overcome its own past opposition to the Bangladesh border pact and pass it in the next parliamentary session.

The remarkable beginning in the neighbourhood is the priority that he gave to Nepal and Bhutan, two countries that felt ignored by India.

> Read: Recalibrating India’s foreign policy

Relations with the U.S.

Dr. Singh had faced a lot of flak from strategic experts who blamed him for a “foreign policy drift” in the second term, and particularly for his alleged failure to further relations with the U.S. These experts who derided the Congress’s decision to recalibrate India’s proximity with the U.S. during UPA-II, as being a “revival of third worldi-sm” and “outdated nonalignment,” have been goading Mr. Modi to do something radically different.

Two key challenges to the U.S.-led world order — Islamism and the rise of China — are of direct concern to India too. But the question that has been confronting Mr. Modi’s predecessors has been the desirable and affordable extent of Indian involvement with the U.S. in dealing with these concerns. There can be complete convergence in strategic interests, but a divergence in priorities. The mismatch between the priorities of the U.S. and India are numerous, despite a confluence of strategic interests. Dr. Singh or Mr. Modi, no Prime Minister can overlook that. The U.S’s own vacillating positions towards Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, Myanmar, China and East Asia in general in recent years only underscore the traditional Indian position that India cannot piggyback on the U.S to protect its own interest. In any case, can India afford to end up as the front line of the battles against Islamism and China?

Added to this objective reality is Mr. Modi’s strong Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) upbringing that views both China and the U.S. with suspicion. In stark contrast with Dr. Singh who was ideologically an internationalist, Mr. Modi is a staunch nationalist, though with “commerce in blood,” as he described himself. Therefore, while Mr. Modi would be looking for economic opportunities around the world, he would be much more obsessed than Dr. Singh about India’s autonomy and pride — as it played out in the World Trade Organization. Therefore, those who read in his severe anti-China rhetoric during the election campaign a willingness to offer India as a frontier against China had not given enough attention to the RSS world view — China is a threat, but the U.S. cannot be trusted. “World cannot have new blocs, everyone is linked to everyone. It is a web. No single power can dominate the world,” Mr. Modi had said at the Council on Foreign Relations.

It is not only his relations with the U.S., but Mr Modi’s “economy first” approach that will also have to operate within the nationalist contours of the RSS — there can be 49 per cent, but not 51 per cent foreign direct investment in defence.

> Read: Foreign policy: Modi brings style to substance

A second aspect of the nationalist strategic policy is the vision of India’s emergence as the vishwa guru, a global thought leader. Mr. Modi’s speeches in the U.S., both at Madison Square Garden and the Council on Foreign Relations reflected this imagination. “When Indians move the mouse, the world moves.” Making India militarily and economically powerful to take up that project is Mr. Modi’s dream. Within this framework, he places himself as the 21st century Vivekananda — who introduced Hinduism to the world, on his own terms. India’s uniqueness is associated with Hinduism. “We were under slavery for 1,000-1,200 years,” Mr. Modi said at Madison Square Garden, counting all Muslim rulers of India as foreigners.

What is new

So what is really new and radical is the assertive Hindu nationalistic project that Mr. Modi has globally launched — in Bhutan, Nepal and New York. “A nationalist government under a decisive leader will deal with the world with confidence. We cannot play second fiddle to anyone,” said P. Muralidhar Rao, BJP General Secretary.

Though Mr. Modi projects his foreign policy as being radically different, in terms of outcomes, continuity is evident. What used to be called “strategic autonomy” in saner times is now being projected as “no bending.” That India cannot protect its interests by being part of any axis, and that it would pursue its bilateral relations based on its own strategic calculations is in line with the time-tested approach.

What is indeed different — and worrying — is the chest-thumping rhetoric that accompanies foreign policy, regardless of the fact that we now have a 56-inch one. Balancing his nationalist convictions with the demands of a globalised world will be Mr. Modi’s biggest strategic policy challenge.


Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Sep 16, 2021 1:54:37 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/modi-meets-the-world/article6568121.ece

Next Story