Prime Minister Narendra Modi is clearly adept at carrying forward the edifice of foreign policy built by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh regimes. However, his government has not come up with incisive ideas that would be of economic or strategic significance to India.
The mounting challenges that India faces on the external front indicate inherent problems in the conceptualization and implementation of foreign policy by the National Democratic Alliance government since 2014. The foremost problem, rather a shortcoming, of this government is a lack of novelty. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is clearly adept at carrying forward the edifice of foreign policy built by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh regimes. However, his government has not come up with incisive ideas that would be of economic or strategic significance to India. To be fair to the current dispensation, the declaration of 21st June as International Yoga Day by the United Nations, and the formation of the International Solar Alliance were very much the ideas of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Beyond this, the newness in matters of foreign policy is visible in matters like the direct passenger flights to Israel, the gifting of the Bhagvat Gita to heads of foreign states and peace prizes awarded to the Indian Prime Minister by a few countries on the eve of the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign.
On the other hand, Prime Minister Modi has been overzealous in championing some of the important breakthroughs achieved by his predecessors, particularly by Dr Manmohan Singh. He shouldered the responsibility of fructifying a civil nuclear deal with the United States, even though his party opposed it in 2008-09. He carried forward the Indian partnership with the United States, aimed at the strategic containment of China, even when the Donald Trump administration ditched Obama’s Pivot to Asia policy. Prime Minister Modi enthusiastically embraced the idea of an annual summit with the Russian President, which was initiated during Vajpayee’s Prime Ministership and continued under Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure. Similarly, PM Modi took pride in his presence in BRICS and G-20 that were founded under the leadership of Dr Singh as a part of his comprehensive vision of a multi-polar world.
The second issue with the Modi government’s foreign policy, or rather a short-sightedness, has been concerning China. Like many other foreign policy frameworks, the Modi government simply carried forward the direction of bilateral engagement with China. It led to the emergence of a contradiction that is playing a role in the present stand-off between India and China. The Modi government continued the same understanding of China as his predecessors until yesterday. Thus, it treated China more as a co-operative competitor rather than a rival. When leaders from Narasimha Rao to Manmohan Singh had this understanding concerning China, it was with a particular context wherein Beijing itself attached great importance to its peaceful rise. However, the context changed with the ascent to power of Xi Jinping in 2013. China’s assessment of itself changed rapidly under Jinping, but the Indian government’s perception of Beijing remained constant under Modi’s leadership. As a result, India did little to chalk out a fresh strategy to counter China’s growing influence in South Asia and to bridge the deficit gap in bilateral trade. The Modi government even allowed China to complete the China Pakistan Economic Corridor through Indian claimed Gilgit-Baltistan. Rather than confronting China in its neighbourhood, India inclined more towards a rhetorical anti-China coalition of western and Asian countries. At the same time, it continued to pursue a friendly policy towards China, particularly in bilateral trade. Today, it is becoming increasingly clear that such a coalition will not be effective in moulding China’s behaviour towards India. The grand anti-China coalition is relevant and would be effective in the scenario of an all-out third world war, but not for the slice by slice ground assertion by China. Today, China is sensing India’s under-confidence in down-grading bilateral economic ties and is well aware of the American, Japanese and European reluctance to plunge into a conflict on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) between two Asian rising powers. The LAC is not the South China Sea, wherein the maritime importance of the latter is immense for large trading nations.
The third problem with the BJP-led NDA government’s foreign policy is the dominance of an ideologically obstinate Hindutva agenda. At least on three fronts, it has hurt Indian interests in its neighbourhood. First, the government’s grudge against Nepal for inscribing secularism in the first-ever constitution of the republic has not helped keep bilateral relations on track. On the contrary, it has pushed Nepal into China’s lap and the repercussions of this are out in the open now.
Secondly, Bangladesh is rightfully upset as a result of the high decibel anti-Bangladeshi campaign by BJP’s star campaigner and the country’s powerful Home Minister, Amit Shah. This is even though Prime Minister Modi attached great importance to improving bilateral relations with Bangladesh in the first two years of his premiership. He took great personal risks when he ensured the smooth passage of the Indo-Bangladesh Land Border Agreement in the parliament. The same was radically opposed by the BJP while they were in the opposition, and proposals of land enclave exchange with Bangladesh had always irked the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh. However, the bonhomie between Modi and Sheikh Hasina did not last long as Hindutva politics trumped India’s national interest after the BJP’s resounding victory in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.
Thirdly, the Indian government is considering engaging the resurgent Taliban in Afghanistan. The spectre of the return of the Taliban in Kabul must be causing India’s National Security Advisor, Ajit Doval, sleepless nights. A development with deeply adverse strategic implications for India has been shaping up in Afghanistan since 2013-14. Yet, India was unable to grasp these developments and formulate its response to the evolving situation. This inability was a result of the BJP refusing, on ideological grounds, to engage with the Taliban, even though most of the countries having stakes in Afghanistan agreed to take the Islamist organization on board. It has resulted in India’s easily conceding strategic space in Afghanistan to its arch-rival Pakistan. Thus, 6 years after the proclamation of its highly popularized Neighbourhood First policy, the Modi government is groping in the dark in India’s neighbourhood. Sadly, it is not just the government or the ruling parties but India as a country that is facing the odds with regards to its foreign policy.
Parimal Maya Sudhakar
30 Jan 2020