Narendra Modi’s greatest momentum has been in foreign policy. But the external opportunities he has successfully created for India could be undermined by potential domestic failures.
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi completes the first year in office, his greatest momentum has been in the least expected domain — foreign policy. As a state chief minister with limited exposure to the world of international relations, Modi, it was widely believed, might face a handicap on the diplomatic front and would concentrate on his presumed strength in economic management.
If Modi’s performance on the economic front has drawn mixed reviews, many have acknowledged the vigour and purpose he has brought to India’s renewed engagement with the world. Modi’s frequent high-profile travels abroad have, in fact, generated some concern among the PM’s supporters that he is spending far too much time abroad at a time of slipping domestic primacy.
Over the last one year, Modi has shown a surprising personal enthusiasm for diplomacy and revelled in the international attention he has got. While following the broad foreign policy direction set by his predecessors, Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Modi has been bold enough to make some important departures.
The PM’s main foreign policy objectives have been revitalisation of the stalled partnership with the United States, better management of the China challenge, more productive engagement with neighbours in the subcontinent and Asia, leveraging India’s inherent strengths in soft power and moving New Delhi towards pragmatic internationalism.
In two summits with President Barack Obama, Modi moved quickly to address differences with the US on food subsidies and nuclear liability, inject new energy into defence cooperation and signal flexibility on climate change. Discarding the defensiveness that had crept into relations with the US during the second term of the UPA, Modi, despite his visa problems with Washington, has put America at the heart of India’s international strategy. For the first time since 2005, when the UPA government signed the historic but controversial defence and nuclear agreements with America, there is renewed optimism about the future of Indo-US relations.
Just as he put ties with America back on track, Modi has begun to reset India’s relations with China. He has sought deeper economic ties with Beijing, while prudently managing the border dispute. Unlike the UPA, Modi does not view the relationships with the US and China in terms of non-alignment. He has laid out a framework of greater security cooperation with America and a strong economic partnership with China.
In the neighbourhood, Modi has got trapped in the familiar roller-coaster with Pakistan. Though he reached out to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif immediately after the elections last year, Modi later suspended talks with Pakistan, objecting to political contacts between Islamabad and separatist groups in Kashmir. If his Pakistan policy seemed to flip and flop, Modi has moved decisively to improve relations with smaller neighbours like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka. He has connected directly with the political classes and people in the neighbouring countries. Above all, he has shown the will to resolve long-pending problems with them — whether it is through the development of shared water resources with Nepal or getting Parliament to approve the historic land boundary agreement with Bangladesh.
Modi has rebranded India’s “Look East” policy as “Act East”, with special emphasis on strengthening economic and security ties with Asian neighbours like Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, Australia and Mongolia. His concept of the extended neighbourhood also includes the maritime domain, as he travelled to the far seas — from Fiji in the South Pacific to Seychelles in the Western Indian Ocean.
An intensive outreach to the diaspora and promoting India’s religious and cultural links with the neighbours have been special features of Modi’s diplomacy. Although the engagement with the diaspora had begun to gain some traction since the Vajpayee years, Modi has elevated it to a new level. Equally important has been his emphasis on the projection of Indian culture abroad.
Modi’s most significant contribution could turn out to be his effort to build a new foreign policy identity for India. If India, obsessed with the notion of “strategic autonomy” in recent years, has been able to dump the residual ideological baggage on it, Modi has now begun to develop the idea of India as a “leading power”.
For decades, India saw itself as a balancing power trying to limit the West or the Chinese. Modi is now suggesting that India, with its growing national capabilities, must view itself as a power that takes greater responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the global order.
This has translated into a more self-confident engagement with the other great powers. It has also resulted in a more positive Indian approach to dealing with such global challenges as climate change, where the country was long looked at as part of the problem rather than the solution.
As a leader with a strong mandate, Modi has been well placed to impart a new momentum to India’s diplomacy. But it is by no means clear, in the middle of 2015, if Modi can engineer structural changes in the way the bureaucracy and political classes think and deal with the world. The slow pace of reforms and limited institutional capability to deliver on promises made to foreign interlocutors could re-emerge as important constraints on Modi’s diplomacy. As at home so abroad, Modi has generated expansive expectations. The current global warmth towards Modi could begin to fade if India is seen as returning to a defensive and non-performing mode.
Meanwhile, there are threats to internal peace and harmony that have not gone unnoticed in the rest of the world. The Modi government’s tolerance of the BJP’s extremist fringe and its crackdown on liberal civil society groups have begun to draw criticism, especially in the US. Unless checked decisively, the negative dynamic on the domestic front will, sooner rather than later, cloud Modi’s efforts to project India’s cultural strengths and democratic values. At the end of the first year, Modi faces a paradox: his success in creating significant external opportunities for India could easily be undermined by potential failures on the domestic front.
The writer is a distinguished fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Delhi and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.
This article has been originally published in THE INDIAN EXPRESS on May 21.