Amb Amit Dasgupta

Amit Dasgupta is a former Indian diplomat.

Foreign Policy Under Modi: Work in Progress

Amb Amit Dasgupta

The NDA government led by Narendra Modi has completed two years in office. We have invited some prominent thought leaders of the country to assess its performance in three areas – defence, diplomacy and economy. For the assessment of the foreign policy of the Modi government, we present two different perspectives by Prof P M Kamath and Amb Amit Dasgupta in this issue.

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Two years ago, Narendra Modi, the chief minister from Gujarat, became the 15th prime minister of India. No political analyst had anticipated the personal interest that Mr Modi would take in matters related to foreign policy and yet, in the two years he has been in office, foreign policy under his leadership has taken centre stage. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the prime minister has consciously put his personal stamp on initiatives and unhesitatingly deviated from the normal. Indeed, his style has been so disruptive that return to the ‘old’ normal appears highly unlikely.
It started with his swearing in ceremony where he deviated from convention and practice by inviting the heads of neighbouring countries to witness his ascendance to power and authority. Governance, he implied, would be completely different and dramatically unpredictable. The Opposition chose to dismiss it as gimmickry and cheap publicity. But on deeper examination, there was a clear strategy and end-objective in mind. Publicly he had reached out to the neighbouring countries, which included a hostile Pakistan and a hostile president in Colombo. He was positioning himself, in the eyes of the global community, as a man of peace, despite depictions of his hawkish attitude and Hindutva agenda. Second, he was conveying a clear signal to the neighbouring countries that enmity with India or actions that were prejudicial to India’s interests would have serious and negative ramifications. It was better, therefore, to have India as a friend. Third, he was not going to be dictated by anyone in terms of what should or could be done. He decided. It was this willingness to break from convention, protocol and the norm that has come to define his style.
He then sought to assiduously cultivate those very countries that had distanced him for the Gujarat riots. Through warm embraces, bear hugs and hotlines, he quickly established a rapport with the movers and shakers in the global arena. Each of these countries did an about-turn and invited him to sit at the high table. He counted the president of the United States among his close friends and allies and this was not lost on anyone.
For most of these world leaders, with the global economy heading towards recession, the sheer size of India’s unopened market was a significant temptation, as also the possibility that New Delhi might be cultivated to emerge, over time, as a counter-balance to an increasingly hostile and hegemonic Beijing. At the same time, PM Modi’s personal initiative in engaging with the global community was refreshingly different from the manner in which UPA-II had inexplicably distanced itself.
At the same time, he chose to send another and equally significant message to the global leadership: Despite being prime minister of India, he enjoyed significant support from the Indian diasporic community, who were not likely to support policies that did not impact India positively. His public outreach programmes whether in the US or Canada, Australia or London, were taken note of. Large crowds turned up to these events and gave him a rockstar reception. In democracies, this resonated significantly. The message was unambiguous: Alienating Modi could be prejudicial to electoral ambitions. Even in the US and in Australia, you needed Modi’s blessings to win a seat! For the first time since negotiations opened with Washington on the 123 Agreement, the Indian diaspora felt important.

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 A foreign policy assessment based on a two-year report card might be tempting but it can also be hugely challenging, especially when trying to assess first time ministers and a chief minister who had never had exposure to national level politics. But it bears recalling that Mr Modi’s campaign was based on a single theme: aache din or ‘better days’. For an electorate that had been witness to stand-still governance during UPA-II, a slew of corruption charges, outlandish behavior from the young Rahul Gandhi, including against PM Manmohan Singh, Mr Modi’s promises whetted appetite. There was, in fact, no real opposition to him because not only did Rahul Gandhi represent the Peter Principle by rising from his level of competence to the level of abysmal incompetence, but young and old in the Congress party refused to reimagine the party without the Gandhis. This left Mr Modi with no opposition other than what came from within his own party, which he eliminated with ruthless speed.
But once victory was achieved, the sheer scale of expectations and more importantly, urgency were both intimidating and unrealistic. People wanted transformational change overnight. At one level, PM Modi also believed it was possible. The unrealistic timeline for the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement is a telling example of making promises and failing to deliver. Going by the prime minister’s public pronouncements, the agreement ought to have been signed last year. We are presently nowhere in sight of a mutually acceptable document. Substantively, therefore, the prime minister’s penchant for being his own man has left the ministers and the bureaucracy behind. Without delivery, image suffers. PM Modi needs to be cognizant of this.
Assessments of achievement are based essentially on three criteria; first, has there been a foreign policy gain; second, has a crisis been handled successfully and third, has a long-standing conflict been resolved. Let us consider each of these.
There most certainly has been a foreign policy gain in terms of renewed interest in India among the global community. The shift from the inertia that crippled UPA 2 has impacted perceptions about India positively. PM Modi is undoubtedly engaging world leaders. Brand rehabilitation is occurring. At the same time, as mentioned earlier, the government needs to consciously guard against a mismatch between expectations and delivery.
Second, the report card on crisis management has been mixed. Take Nepal for instance. The response to the devastating earthquake was rapid and incisive. But the breast thumping made enemies when we ought to have been flooded with friends. The ‘blockade’ following the Madhesi agitation on an unbalanced and unfair constitution promptly catapulted Kathmandu to Beijing’s embrace. Perceptions in Nepal brought back images of the blockade during the Rajiv Gandhi era and the perception doing rounds in most of Nepal was that India would never change the way it deals with its smaller neighbours. The poor handling of the Maldives crisis is yet another example, as is the case with the Italian naval officers. But the worst disaster is possibly the manner in which the Pathankot attacks by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists was dealt with, where a golden opportunity to once again expose Islamabad’s complicity appears to have been frittered away.
On the third element, the general assessment based on PM Modi’s utterances and allegiances is that he would be a hard-liner against Pakistan. Over the past two years, he has refrained from making any harsh comments about Islamabad or castigating its military leadership, who are openly antagonistic towards India. Indeed, he has made overtures of peace and friendship though no one realistically expected a breakthrough in bilateral relations. While there are no permanent friends, there cannot, similarly, be permanent enemies. There is hope that the rise in numbers of aspirational Pakistanis coupled with opposition to homegrown terrorists, who are now launching repeated and deadly attacks on innocent Pakistanis, could put pressure on Islamabad to focus on economic and social well-being rather than on continuing tensions with New Delhi. But all negotiators know that if the talks are to be successful they need to be done quietly, consistently and with the right people. Each terrorist attack only vitiates the atmosphere and halts possibility of negotiating a peace.

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Based on these three criteria, India under PM Modi has had limited success on the foreign policy front so far. But then again, two years is hardly sufficient time to benchmark success or failure. It remains to be seen as to what the agenda would be for the remaining years of the term.
India could be at the cusp of transformational change because of the manner in which the economy has defied odds and expectations. Whether this growth story would translate into overall economic well-being and the next generation of economic reforms, needs to be seen. With the global economy facing the spectre of economic downturn, all eyes are on how welcoming the Indian government would be to foreign capital and products. If the prime minister is able to open the Indian market, including education and health care, it would translate into a substantial foreign policy victory.
Second, India needs to recognise that in its dealings with Pakistan, there are three elephants in the room that it has to seek the support of: Washington, Beijing and Moscow. Foreign policy is not the pursuance of the interests of other countries. It would be naïve, therefore, for New Delhi to expect Washington to espouse its cause. If Washington is acting tough with Islamabad on the sale of F-16s, it is not to mitigate New Delhi’s fears but rather to send a clear signal to Pakistan that it does not agree with Islamabad’s posturing on a series of issues that directly impact US’ interests. Similarly, New Delhi cannot afford to distance Moscow, as it ended up doing when PM Modi visited Australia. An unhappy Moscow will willingly play ball with Islamabad, as it is doing by agreeing for the first time to sell arms to Islamabad. Beijing will always remain the difficult customer and New Delhi needs to send a clear signal to the Chinese that a friendly India is in their interest rather than a dependent and volatile Islamabad.
A more serious criticism relates to the prime minister’s silence – a charge, interestingly, that he levied on his predecessor. As the prime minister of India, Mr Modi needs to express his disavowal of several statements many of his party members and supporters have been publicly making. Unless he does so, his silence would be interpreted as consent, approval and endorsement.
The next few years will determine whether India has indeed stepped on to the global stage or if the overture was a prelude to yet another unfinished symphony.

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