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By Shyam Saran
For a leader unschooled in the arcane world of high diplomacy, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has delivered a most impressive performance on the international stage in the first year of the NDA government. The basic tenets of India’s foreign policy have remained intact, but their pursuit has been marked by rare energy and application. The key messages to our foreign partners have been delivered effectively and often eloquently. This prime minister believes in the power of personal diplomacy and cultivating personal rapport with his foreign counterparts. He has used spectacle and media exposure as props to advance his own persona but also to elevate his country’s profile. India has become more exciting because it is headed by a leader seen as being cast in a different mould from his predecessors. He is not humble, is plain-speaking and outcome-oriented. The image of India today is very much coloured by the imprint of its leader.
Modi endorsed the high priority attached by previous governments to the management of India’s subcontinental neighbours but followed through with imaginative moves that carried credibility. The invitation to all South Asian heads of states/governments to his swearing-in ceremony, the early visits to Bhutan and Nepal and later to Sri Lanka, the commitments made to cross-border and other projects and the renewed focus on Saarc – all these moves, taken together, have added a new energy and weight to India’s neighbourhood policy. The recent passage of the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement by Parliament will add significant momentum to the already improving bilateral relationship with a key neighbouring country. It is only with respect to Pakistan that one could fault the Modi government. After the promising start with Nawaz Sharif’s visit to Delhi for the swearing-in ceremony, bilateral relations have once again slipped into the familiar and unproductive pattern of dialogue-disruption-dialogue. The foreign secretary talks were called off when Pakistan insisted on its high commissioner ‘consulting’ the Hurriyat in advance. If this was a red line being laid down, then it certainly became blurred with the subsequent visit of the new foreign secretary to Islamabad for talks on energising Saarc.
Pakistan today is in a more confident mood with a $46-billion commitment by China to transform it into a key component of its ambitious One Belt, One Road initiative, and the US conceding to it the lead role in the Afghan peace process. With President Ashraf Ghani in Kabul increasingly desperate to obtain Pakistani support for peace talks with the Taliban, Islamabad feels it is fully back into the game. One should expect more trouble in Kashmir and an uptick in cross-border terrorism. One does not see any counterstrategy in place. China remains the major foreign policy challenge. Modi has accepted that, like his predecessors, he must engage with China even while confronting the threat it poses to India’s security as a consequence of the unsettled boundary issue, the Sino-Pakistan alliance and the increasing maritime competition in the extended Indo-Pacific region. The recent high-profile visit to China is part of the engagement dimension. But this is also the first recent instance where the visit to China has been combined with visits to China’s periphery, in this case, to South Korea and Mongolia. This is part of the parallel effort to constrain China through a network of countervailing relationships.
India has pursued closer political and security relations with the US, Japan, Australia and several South-east Asian countries as a countervailing coalition restraining China’s predilection towards unilateral assertion of territorial claims and assertive conduct. It is important that India avoids tactical manouevres to assuage Chinese anxieties. The news that India may not invite Japan to the annual Malabar naval exercises after having indicated that it would is counter-productive. The recent Modi visit to China has been high on atmospherics but with little sign of progress on key issues. Until there is a substantive change in the relationship, having a strong and stable countervailing security partnership with countries that share our concerns is vital.
Modi has been at his pragmatic best in the manner in which he has elevated India’s relations with the US. Given the bitter legacy of the visa-denial episode, it is remarkable how Modi put that aside to give primacy to this most important relationship for India. The invitation to President Barack Obama to be chief guest at the Republic Day anniversary, and the obvious chemistry between the two leaders on display, has restored momentum to a relationship gone somnolent during the waning years of the UPA government.
Though the BJP had opposed the Indo-US nuclear deal, Modi not only acknowledged it as having transformed Indo-US relations but moved quickly to resolve the lingering nuclear liability issue. The adoption of a separate statement on India-US security cooperation in the Indian Ocean and the Asia-Pacific demonstrated a readiness to pursue convergent interests in a region where Indian and Chinese footprints overlap. But Modi also values the relationship with the US since it is an unmatched partner in India’s quest for modernising its economy and as a source of cuttingedge technology. Japan has a similar value for India. It is a country that, like India, confronts the challenge of a rising China. It’s also already a significant source of capital and technology. Modi has done well to establish a good rapport with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. His visit to Japan obviously enthused the country’s business community. But he was unable to clinch the longstanding bilateral civil nuclear agreement which has been under negotiation for several years.
Another important feature of Modi’s foreign policy has been the role given to the Indian diaspora in promoting India’s interests abroad. Highly-publicised interactions with Indian communities abroad have now become a standard routine in his visits. One would hope that these interactions do not detract from, or even overshadow, the primacy objective of the PM’s visits: to forge stronger links with the host country. While there is continuity in India’s foreign policy under Modi, there are new points of emphasis. One, the primacy given to economic diplomacy. Foreign policy must serve to promote India’s economic interests. Two, the priority attached to India’s neighbourhood. And three, the prominence given to reaching out to the Indian diaspora. At the end of one year, on these three counts and in terms of India’s relations with major powers, Modi has displayed good instincts and sound judgement and even a certain flair for diplomacy. He appears to be enjoying his role as an international figure perhaps more than being prime minister of a complex and fractious polity.
The persistent weakness undermining our credibility with our foreign partners has been the lack of delivery. The coming year may well be the year of reckoning when expectations will have to be met and commitments delivered on. First, the world will be watching to see if India attains a sustained and accelerated rate of economic growth. To maintain the excellent momentum which Modi has unleashed during his first year, the second year must get down to putting in place the nuts and bolts of an efficient governance system.
(The writer is a former foreign secretary)