Under Modi 2.0, a course-corrected foreign policy

The Ministry of External Affairs appears to have taken back the reins, with an emphasis on substance over style

December 25, 2021 12:02 am | Updated 12:27 pm IST

State table flag of India. National symbol

State table flag of India. National symbol

There is a new momentum in India’s foreign policy, a clinical sharpness to its external policy design, articulation and implementation, in clear departure from the ‘song and dance diplomacy’ that characterised the foreign policy of Prime Minister Narendra Modi 1.0. After wasting several crucial years in the political promotion of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Prime Minister aboard, there is today a visible transformation in India’s engagement of the world. The Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) appears to have taken back the reins of the country’s foreign policy from the BJP apparatchiks, preferring substance over style.

A conciliatory policy

If Hindutva ideology and imperious aggression characterised New Delhi’s diplomacy towards the region/neighbourhood during Modi 1.0, India’s neighbourhood policy today is an act in careful, well-calibrated and well thought-out policy overtures towards most of the region, with a deep desire to win back the neighbours. During Modi 1.0, relations with Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka (as well as the attitude towards the Taliban until they overran Kabul in August 2021), for instance, were complicated due to ideological overtones and aggressive policies. The intervention in Kathmandu’s Constitution-making process and the subsequent (undeclared) blockade of Nepal; irking the Bangladeshis by offensive references; attempting to be the kingmaker in the Sri Lankan elections, among others, seemed to stem from an imperious attitude. Such an ‘either you are with us or against us’ attitude prompted many of India’s neighbours to opt for the latter part of the choice allowing China a free pass, at least to some extent, into India’s traditional sphere of influence.

 

The Sangh Parivar’s deep-seated desire to build a Hindu religious plank with Nepal along the lines of V.D. Savarkar’s vision — “The whole territory including Kashmere and Nepal, Gomantak, Pondicherry and other French possessions constitutes our national and territorial unit and must be consolidated in a free and centralised state” — did not outlast Mr. Modi’s 2014 visit, clad in saffron attire, a rudraksh garland and sandal paste smeared on his forehead, to the Pashupatinath temple in Nepal.

Gone are those days, so it seems. The manner in which the BJP-led government reached out to the Taliban shedding its past reservations and its outreach to the West Asian/Gulf states are noteworthy. India’s new Nepal policy devoid of Hindutva fantasies and diplomatic imperiousness, and friendly outreach to both Bangladesh and Sri Lanka are already yielding results. If indeed ‘illegal Bangladeshi migrants’ do not become an issue in the upcoming elections in India, the warmth generated by the recent golden jubilee celebrations of Bangladesh’s liberation from Pakistan (with Indian help) could further strengthen the relationship. India’s foreign policy interests should not be allowed to become a handmaiden to the BJP’s domestic political ambitions.

Effective multilateralism

New Delhi’s multilateral engagements have also become more result-driven and interest-based which it seems to pursue without getting caught in a holier-than-thou rhetoric. India’s membership and presidency of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) witnessed some resolute positions from the country. New Delhi’s able framing of the world body’s response to the crisis in Afghanistan (especially when India was holding the presidency of the UNSC) along with an outreach to the Taliban, when much of the world was struggling to make up its mind on how to deal with Taliban 2.0, was remarkable. India’s far more determined engagement of the Quad(India, Australia, Japan and the U.S.) and the global climate change negotiations in Glasgow, while at the same time pushing back attempts at securitising climate change at the UNSC, also indicate that it is willing to be a responsible stakeholder in global/regional governance forums. The Modi government’s transition from political rhetoric to purposeful action is clear.

 

Balancing contradictions

For a country like India, located in an unfriendly neighbourhood and caught amidst the vagaries of great power competition among the United States, Russia and China, it is not easy to balance the various geopolitical contradictions. New Delhi’s foreign policy has, of late, exhibited a great deal of agility and flexibility in managing those contradictions to the extent possible. Consider the following. The complex balancing act that New Delhi plays between Russia and the United States at a time when India is closer to the U.S. than ever in its history highlights diplomatic nimbleness and sophistication. Buying the S-400 missile system from Russia risking potential sanctions from Washington, and strengthening its participation in the Quad despite strong words from Moscow show an ability to smart-balance systemic contradictions.

 

In the broader West Asian region too, New Delhi’s balancing acts have been remarkable: between Arab States and Israel, Israel and Iran, Iran and the Gulf states, and Iran and the U.S. In all of these, Iran appears to be the weakest link in New Delhi’s West Asian balancing acts, but that is a different story. The arrival of the West Asian Quad consisting of the U.S., India, UAE and Israel is yet another indication of the new-found foreign policy finesse in New Delhi. On the flipside, however, the question is whether New Delhi can deliver on all these promising partnerships given the acute staff shortage in the MEA. If New Delhi aspires to be a system-shaping power, it must have more men and women to carry out its work.

India’s relations with China too has witnessed a certain amount of careful balancing. Despite the military stand-off on the Line of Actual Control (LAC), bilateral trade has only shot up: India-China trade, for instance, increased by a record 62.7% in the first half of 2021. New Delhi has also been able to engage the China-dominated Shanghai Cooperation Organisation even as it is strengthening its participation in the Quad.

Realities of geoeconomics

Modi 2.0 has also appeared to have realised the folly of resisting global and regional economic integration. Mr. Modi’s first term exhibited a great deal of scepticism towards free trade agreements (FTA). When Mr Modi assumed office in 2014, his government even announced that it would review all existing FTAs to see if they were helpful to the country. What followed was a depressed Indian approach towards FTAs. In 2019, India decided not to become part of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The only FTA signed by the Modi government in the past seven years was with the ASEAN in 2015, even though much of the work for that was done by the Manmohan Singh government.

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However, today there seems to be a rethink in the government about the utility of FTAs. New Delhi is scheduled to begin FTA negotiations with the United Kingdom and Canada in 2022 and may start discussing the possibility of another one with the Gulf Cooperation Council countries. It may finalise an FTA with the United Arab Emirates in 2022. And this comes in the wake of the Government’s decision to resume long-suspended negotiations with the European Union for a comprehensive trade and investment treaty.

The Modi government seems to have realised that its desire to make India a $5 trillion economy (from the current $3 trillion) by 2024-25 will remain a fantasy unless it is able to proactively pursue trade agreements, among other things.

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In sum, New Delhi appears to have realised that the pursuit of national interest is a serious business and must move beyond the promotion of ideological predilections and personality cults. A rebooted Indian foreign policy must find ways of imagining a new regionalism with or without the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and must shed its obsession with Pakistan and terrorism. Pakistan or terrorism pose no existential threats to India nor should New Delhi spend too much diplomatic capital on them. You are, after all, defined also by your obsessions.

Happymon Jacob teaches at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi and is the founder of the Council for Strategic and Defense Research

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