Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has been continuous with that of his predecessors but he has also sought to push the boundaries of certain engagements much further.
Foreign policy is all about securing permanent interests. As such, it may be best judged in the long run. Nevertheless, since foreign policy has been so prominent during the government’s first year in office, an interim assessment may be useful. What are the areas of continuity and change, the successes and blind spots?
Since the early 1990s, the overarching goal of our foreign policy has been a stable and conducive external environment for India’s internal economic transformation and a larger international profile. Towards these ends, successive governments have sought simultaneously to preserve India’s key security interests and to deepen its ties with the global economy. From this standpoint, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has been continuous with that of his predecessors. Yet, Mr. Modi has also sought to push the boundaries of certain engagements much further. This is not just a question giving a fresh vim to foreign policy, although the vigour is palpable.
The U.S. and China
Consider his approach to dealing with the two most important powers: the United States and China. For over two decades now, every Indian government has tried to impart more substance to relations with these countries. Even as New Delhi has moved steadily to forge strategic ties with Washington, it has sought to place its relations with Beijing on an even keel. However, Mr. Modi has been exceptionally clear in articulating India’s interests and trying to leverage the relationship with the U.S. and China. Thus, during U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to India in January 2015, India issued a separate joint statement on security in the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean. And on Mr. Modi’s trip to China this month, a separate joint statement was issued on climate change in the light of the upcoming conference in Paris. In both cases, there may be a gap between rhetoric and reality. Still, Mr. Modi is clearly attempting to push the envelope and advance India’s interests without making binary choices in its engagement with these countries.
In South Asia
Closer home, he has consistently outlined a vision of shared prosperity for South Asia and has credibly projected Indian leadership in the region. His visits to Nepal, in August 2014, and Sri Lanka, in March 2015, have gone a long way in helping reset relations with both these countries. Similarly, his decision to abandon the Bharatiya Janata Party’s stance and ratify the Land Border Agreement with Bangladesh has given a shot in arm to the bilateral relationship. Yet, the real challenges lie ahead of him. The earthquake in Nepal will certainly delay — and may even complicate — the arduous task of drawing up an agreed constitution. India will not only have to prepare for longer-term assistance in reconstruction, but will also have to engage Nepalese parties more proactively to prevent the political process from drifting. In Sri Lanka, the present government has rolled back the worst features of the presidential system. It has also moved to return the land acquired by the security forces, including in the Tamil areas. But it remains to be seen if Sri Lankan President Maithripala Sirisena is open to a political settlement with the Tamils. After all, his own base includes a slice of the Sinhala chauvinists. In any event, the Tamil question remains a potentially thorny issue in bilateral relations. Colombo’s relationship with Beijing is another sensitive area. On campaign trail, Mr. Sirisena had spoken out against his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s tilt towards China. In office, he has struck a more equivocal note. This is hardly surprising given China’s economic importance to Sri Lanka — ties that will deepen further with China’s plans for a maritime silk route.
During his forthcoming trip to Dhaka, in the first week of June, Mr. Modi will undoubtedly seek to capitalise on the boundary agreement. Bangladesh also seems open to improve transportation and transit links with India. So far, New Delhi’s inability to deliver on an agreement on Teesta river waters had led Dhaka to hold back on transit arrangements. It is unlikely that Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will execute a complete volte-face and fall in with India’s requirements. Yet, growing international pressure on her government may make her more amenable to Indian interests. New Delhi has done well to stand by Ms. Hasina in the face of the ongoing onslaught by the Islamists. Yet India must also be mindful of the problem of being identified solely with the Awami League. A stable two-party democracy in Bangladesh is in India’s long-term interests.
The Pakistan question
As ever, the sharpest challenge for India’s regional ambitions comes from Pakistan. Despite getting off to a good start with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mr. Modi has been unable to craft a coherent and consistent approach to dealing with Pakistan. Like his predecessors, he has swung from engagement to disengagement — only to be forced to pick up the diplomatic pieces and return to the table. There is something curious about India’s policy towards Pakistan, which consists of doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result. Mr. Modi has to break this mould. Diplomatic engagement should not be seen as a reward for Pakistan’s good behaviour. The symbolism of diplomacy should be reduced — even if substantive progress remains tough to achieve.
The current impasse with Pakistan also impinges on our ties with Afghanistan. Here, Mr. Modi faces a situation that has turned rather unfavourable from New Delhi’s perspective. Afghanistan President Ashraf Ghani’s attempt to cosy up to Pakistan has led to an inevitable downgrading of ties with India. Whether or not this yields results, India has to ensure that its interests in Afghanistan are not placed on the chopping block. China’s backing for reconciliation with the Taliban will further complicate India’s position on Afghanistan. Unless New Delhi adopts a clear strategy, Mr. Modi may well find himself presiding over a retrenchment in Indian engagement with Afghanistan.
While the overall record in South Asia has been mixed, there has been a startling lack of focus on our extended neighbourhood to the west. Even as West Asia is roiled by a range of conflicts, the government has remained content with mounting rescue missions for Indians living in trouble spots. This policy will prove unsustainable if instability deepens and widens in West Asia: some seven million Indians live in the Gulf countries. India needs to position itself as a force for stability in the region, which in turn will require enormous diplomatic engagement. So far, the government has proved purblind on West Asia.
Part of the problem is the persisting flaws in the institutional set-up on foreign policy and security. Despite considerable centralisation in the Prime Minister’s Office, the silos between various ministries seem intact. The lack of functional integration of expertise is evident in several areas. Think of the ill-considered decision to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets. The Defence Minister is still unable to explain how the remaining 90 aircrafts will be procured — if at all. The inability to grasp the import of mega regional trade pacts being negotiated under American leadership is another case in point. The Ministry of Commerce has done little more than set up a company to invest in countries like Vietnam—hoping thereby to secure access to other markets if the Trans-Pacific Partnership goes through. There is still no indication of a strategic response to attempts by leading industrial economies to change the rules of world trade. The government’s stance on Intellectual Property Rights in yet another example. Conflicting statements issued by the government have unnecessarily put India on the defensive.
Fine-tuning the institutional support for foreign and strategic policy is imperative to following through on the early successes as well as addressing various gaps. Recall that the first United Progressive Alliance government chalked up rather more impressive accomplishment after just over a year in office: the joint statement with the U.S. on the nuclear deal and the agreement on parameters for settling the boundary with China. The challenge is to sustain focus and momentum in the tougher years that lie ahead.
Srinath Raghavan is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research