South Block in the shade

Foreign policy has been at the heart of Prime Minister Modi’s public profile. Two years on, he needs to reaffirm the Foreign Ministry’s role as India’s primary interlocutor

Updated - May 13, 2016 02:57 am IST

Published - May 13, 2016 02:34 am IST

Style or substance? “While Mr. Modi has been rightly lauded for his out-of-the-box thinking, the kilometres clocked are no longer telling the whole story.” The Prime Minister at Madison Square Garden in New York

Style or substance? “While Mr. Modi has been rightly lauded for his out-of-the-box thinking, the kilometres clocked are no longer telling the whole story.” The Prime Minister at Madison Square Garden in New York

Within hours of being elected in May 2014, Narendra Modi had begun work on his first big project as Prime Minister: to invite leaders of all neighbouring countries to his swearing-in ceremony. The phone calls, made from a makeshift office space at a senior party leader’s home, sent a powerful message. To the outside world, it was that Mr. Modi was ready to be the reconciler, a magnanimous subcontinental leader. The domestic message was equally clear: he would steer the foreign policy ship, rather than paddle to Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) instruction.

MEA in the driver’s seat

Within weeks, the shift in command structure was obvious within South Block. Prime Minister Modi would decide, often surprising his officers with his decisions, and the MEA had to scramble to keep pace with his distinctive style. When he decided to put off a visit to Japan in July 2014, the message reached the Japanese Prime Minister directly, minutes ahead of even the Indian Ambassador in Tokyo. A few months later, when he decided to cancel Foreign Secretary Sujatha Singh’s trip to Pakistan if the Pakistan High Commissioner wouldn’t call off meetings with the Hurriyat, Ms. Singh herself was caught unawares. Other visits were announced with an equally firm grip and planned outside the MEA: details of his U.S. itinerary were decided by the Prime Minister and his personal advisers. Soon, surprise became the routine, and when he tweeted his invitation to U.S. President Barack Obama to be the Republic Day chief guest, the MEA had settled down to the idea that it wouldn’t be in the driver’s seat. By the time Mr. Modi landed in Lahore in December last year, it didn’t surprise anyone that the Pakistan division of the MEA was not consulted, and the Indian High Commissioner couldn’t make it to the tarmac in time.

Mr. Modi is certainly not the first Indian Prime Minister to take a strong role in guiding foreign policy; in fact, there are very few who have not. When Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri set about trying to institutionalise the MEA in 1965 by appointing the Pillai committee, it was seen as a counterpoint to Jawaharlal Nehru’s “personalised decisional style” by scholars such as former diplomat Jayantanuja Bandyopadhyaya. Others followed the Nehru, not Shastri model: Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reportedly decided on foreign policy postings herself, and Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi famously sacked his Foreign Secretary during a press conference for statements that diverged from his thinking. Prime Ministers P.V. Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh are all noted for their foreign policy initiatives.

Rise of the security establishment

What separates the Modi government from its predecessors, however, is the manner in which the MEA has been sidelined when it comes to execution even by structures other than the Prime Minister’s Office. Chief amongst these are India’s security agencies. In the past two years their prominence has grown in bilateral relations, while National Security Adviser (NSA) Ajit Doval himself runs ties in special dialogues with the U.S., Pakistan, U.A.E., China, and others.

The most obvious recent example of the security establishment’s growing influence was the decision to hold a conference of Chinese dissidents in Dharamsala. Amongst those who received visas in January this year were prominent Tiananmen Square protesters, Uyghurs and Tibetan activists in exile, European and American human rights activists, including one from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom hitherto denied a visa to India. A planned gathering of this sort in any part of the country, let alone the Tibetan refugee headquarters, that is crawling with intelligence officials, could not possibly have escaped attention. Neither could the invitations, issued in the name of U.S.-based democracy groups that are publicly funded by the U.S. administration, have slipped through the cracks. Privately, senior officials say the MEA was not consulted “100 per cent”, and it seems amply clear that the “conference that wasn’t” was planned by the security establishment, which was then responsible for the subsequent flip-flops over the visas.

Pakistan is another one of the many spheres where diplomacy is playing second fiddle to security establishment formulations. The government’s decision to engage with Pakistan at the NSA level was hailed by all as a novel way to restart dialogue. That script went awry after the Pathankot attack. It is anybody’s guess why when Foreign Secretary talks were finally scheduled in April on the sidelines the Heart of Asia conference, they were described by the government in Parliament as “not official, simply courtesy”. This isn’t just farcical, it diminishes the MEA, given that Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar spoke with his Pakistani counterpart Aizaz Chaudhry for more than 90 minutes.

Meanwhile Pakistan has spun a narrative about Indian spies and intelligence agency presence after the arrest of former naval officer Kulbhushan Jadhav. Similarly, with Sri Lanka under then-President Mahinda Rajapaksa, and now with Nepal under Prime Minister K.P. Sharma Oli, Indian foreign policy has been associated with allegations of destabilising governments more than with bilateral bonhomie. Relations with Myanmar took a hit when members of the government disclosed in June 2015 that Indian troops had crossed over the international border in pursuit of militants who had killed Indian soldiers in an ambush. The bravado — accompanied by comments about India’s muscular power in its neighbourhood — has meant twice the work for India’s diplomats smoothing over the ruffles.

Enter non-governmental actors

Even more noteworthy is the influence of non-governmental actors in Indian foreign policy and planning of Mr. Modi’s many international forays. Here it is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that calls the shots, particularly on visits where the Indian diaspora is the focus. When Mr. Modi travelled to the U.S. in 2015, his programme was first announced weeks ahead on the private website narendramodi.in, that is registered with the BJP, not on the official pmindia.gov.in or mea.gov.in. that are based on government servers.

Private think tanks like the Vivekananda International Foundation, and the India Foundation, that boasts three Cabinet ministers on its board, are another counterpoint to the MEA and government’s think tanks for visiting dignitaries. As a result, there were more serving leaders and dignitaries at the India Foundation-run “Counter-Terrorism Conference” in February than there were at the MEA’s own “Raisina Dialogue” a month later. When Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited India in September 2015, he began his only public address at the foundation by saying, “There were only two appointments in Delhi I wanted to confirm: one with Prime Minister Modi, and the other with the India Foundation.”

It is precisely this multiplicity of command and interface that is catching up with Mr. Modi as he embarks on his third year in government. While he has been rightly lauded for his out-of-the-box thinking and dynamic outreach on 40 visits abroad, the kilometres clocked are no longer telling the whole story. Instead, the questions being asked are about substance more than style, with a demand for better preparation ahead of surprise initiatives, and more coordination between the government agencies that impact foreign policy. More than anything, a reaffirmation of the MEA’s role as India’s primary interlocutor for the world is called for.

suhasini.h@thehindu.co.in

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