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Revisiting India’s foreign policy under Modi

Paper No. 5987                              Dated 14-Aug-2015

By Col. R. Hariharan

[This article answers questions raised in a radio interview on August 12, 2015.]

Q: It is about fifteen months since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. During this period foreign relations appear to have been given great importance. What do you think are the changes in India’s foreign policy now?

 A: I am no expert on foreign policy; but as a strategic analyst I find that the basic tenets of our foreign policy enunciated after independence still continue to be the same. Our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was a visionary; he evolved the foreign policy to further his holistic vision for India. It emphasized peace and harmonious relations with all countries and India finding its rightful place in the post-colonial world in keeping with its size and geostrategic location. He understood economic and industrial development as the keys to freeing the country from the shackles of colonial dependency and improving the lives of ordinary people. The five-year development plans were fashioned to achieve this.

From Nehru’s time foreign policy became prime minister-centric and has continued so, though the practice of appointing separate minister to look after external affairs came in vogue in 1964.  Under Nehru’s stewardship, India played a leadership role among the newly independent countries of Asia and Africa. He chose to develop close relations with Peoples Republic of China (PRC) which was shunned by the Western powers. He led the non-aligned movement with emphasis on five principles of panch sheel to avoid Cold War contretemps. Probably, China’s aggression in 1962 was a moment of truth to Nehru as much as the nation bringing home the world of real politick in which we exist.

Nehru’s successors were not visionaries of the same order and they were by and large mission-oriented. As a result the country grew more inward looking and foreign policy became means to the ends of political leadership. However, they stuck to the basic principles of our foreign policy as set by Nehru. The end of Cold War and realignment of global strategic alignments have led to changes in India’s priorities in relationship-building, but the basic contours of foreign policy have remained the same.

Prime Minister Modi is perhaps the first prime minister in a long time who has spelt out his vision for India, soon after he assumed office in May 2014. He articulated it in his Independence Day on August 15, 2014. Since then he has fleshed out his vision at various national forums. Its main ingredients include: boosting India’s industrial growth by inviting foreign investment in infrastructure with emphasis on making things in India to increase job opportunities; to upgrade digital infrastructure for timely delivery of services to the people by developing smart cities; improve grass root public services to provide better governance, education, healthcare and clean environment to help maintain social cohesion with gender equity, and lastly to enlarge India’s strategic influence in the Asia-Pacific region in keeping with its growing global economic power.

The prime minister has adopted a personalized style of relationship building with his counterparts in other countries, particularly with China, Japan and the U.S; this seems to have paid handsome dividends. He prioritised India’s neighbouring countries in his foreign visits to leverage on India’s soft power and influence. Though he has visited 25 countries, his priority seems to be the Asia-Pacific region and as a corollary China, Japan and the US have been his favoured destination.  He has departed from India’s traditional low profile foreign policy projection by making foreign interactions well publicized. Modi’s clear and assertive communication has helped him build bridges with the Indian Diaspora wherever he visited.

Though Modi’s foreign policy initiatives may not have yielded all the results he desired, he has gained the attention of global leaders who have welcomed his development agenda. This is an important take away after 15 months because given India’s massive and confusing socio-political compulsions; in any case to fulfil Modi’s ambitious agenda would take at least a decade.

Q: Though India might have done well in its external front, there seems to be no progress in our relations with Pakistan. How do you visualize India-Pakistan relations in the future?

A: You are right; there had been really no breakthrough in our relations with Pakistan, though Prime Minister Modi’s invitation to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif for his inauguration and meeting thereafter kindled hopes of improvement in the relationship. But unfortunately, such hopes have been belied. In fact it has worsened with the escalation in ceasefire violations, terrorist infiltrations and attacks triggering of separatist agitations in Jammu and Kashmir, even spilling over to neighbouring Punjab.

The core problem in relationship building with Pakistan is its elected government does not enjoy the freedom to fashion and execute its foreign policy and trade (with India) without the concurrence of the army. During the last year or so Pakistan army has enlarged its ability to influence government policy after it became a guarantor to its survival from terrorist threat by successfully carrying out large scale operations against the Pakistan Taliban (Tehreek e Taliban Pakistan) terrorists.

So it is doubtful whether we can expect any change in Pakistan’s attitude to improve its relationship with India in the near future. The first step for it would involve Pakistan government taking firm action against all jihadi groups (patronized by the army) operating against India from Pakistani soil. Pakistan army has a deep seated grudge against the ignominy it suffered after Indian armed forces threw it out of East Pakistan, resulting in the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. Given this background, the future of India-Pakistan relations looks bleak as long Pakistan government continues to remain hostage to Pakistan army. The recent boost to Pakistan’s strategic relationship with China has introduced a new and unpredictable element in the bipartisan relationship with potential to indirectly influence it.

Q: How about India’s relations with China? Can we expect any major improvement in India-China relations in the near future?

A: We must be realistic in our expectations regarding China. Resolving the hardy perennials bugging India-China relations – China’s illegal occupation of Indian territory, large Chinese claims on Indian territory in the Northeast and finalizing a mutually acceptable demarcation of India-China boundary (as China has refused to accept Mc Mahon Line as the boundary) may take a long time. Though the two sides have nominated special representatives to discuss the issues, China does not seem to have an urge to bring them to a closure in the near future. Though modalities to avoid accidental intrusions and conflict have been worked out between the two countries, there had been no real progress on these issues. So avoidance of conflict, rather than resolving disputes once for all seems to be the agreed flavour of the parleys between the two countries.

However, fortunately China’s President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Modi are focusing on realising their dreams of benefiting their people through peaceful and harmonious relationship. Realising that there was no point in waiting for the resolution of their long standing disputes, both leaders have focused on building a strong economic, trade and commercial relationship by pooling their resources and geographical advantages for mutual benefit. China has reciprocated Modi’s invitation to invest in infrastructure and manufacturing industries in India. India has shown its readiness to join the BCIM (Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar) corridor project linking India and China, though India has not made up its mind on joining China’s ambitious ‘Belt and Road’ initiative in linking China to Central and South Asia as well as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road to access Indian Ocean.

At the strategic level, there are both positive and negative developments. India has joined two international economic initiatives close to China’s heart – the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Bank launched by the Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) grouping. India has also joined the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), started by China originally as an instrument of regional anti-terrorism cooperation, now evolving its own regional strategic dynamics. At the same time, India cannot afford to ignore China’s mega entry in Af-Pak region practically elbowing out India from the scene. Coupled with the whittling down of American presence and China’s massive aid of $46 billion aid to Pakistan (much more than the Marshall’s Plan outlay for post-war Europe), we can expect China to play increasingly an assertive role to further its strategic interests on our Western borders. This could emerge as a major, as yet unfathomed, factor in India-China relations in the coming years.

Q: With the rapid spread of Islamic State (ISIS)-spearheaded jihadi terrorism the world over, why India is not joining the global war on terror? Don’t you think it would be in India’s interest to do so?

Firstly, I would not use the Western coinage “global war on terror” to describe the operations of the U.S. and its Western and Gulf allies are carrying out in Iraq and Syria and elsewhere. There are a number of factors preventing India from joining the war against ISIS. The role of those carrying out the operations is suspect as their strategic objective is change of regimes in the Arab world which do not toe their line; as a result an arc of instability from Libya, Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Yemen has been created rendering at least a million refugees. The resulting instability has been exploited by ISIS, which is a clone of Al Qaeda.

This war has been made more complex by its Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict of interest involving Saudi Arabia on side and Iran on the other. India has a huge Shia population, next only to Iran, and India’s role has to take this aspect into reckoning. There is an economic aspect also relevant to India. The conflict has affected Indian expatriates working in these countries and further escalation of the war or spread of destabilization would only increase the plight of nearly two million strong Indian-workforce in this region. 

There is no strategic context for India’s participation in this war, particularly when India has to safeguard its national security from Pakistan-based partners of Al Qaeda terrorists. In any case, India will have to deal with ISIS threat which could loom large at our own gates as when ISIS takes over the client groups of Al Qaeda in Pakistan. Moreover, militarily speaking, India does not have enough troops to spare for such a resource consuming counter-terrorism operation. Indian involvement could also worsen the operational capability of our armed forces at home, particularly when they are already reeling from shortage of weapons and armaments. Our first priority to should be to protect our own national interest; only then we should consider other requirements.

(Col R Hariharan, a retired MI specialist on South Asia, is associated with the Chennai Centre for China Studies and the South Asia Analysis Group. E-mail: haridirect@gmail.com Blog: http://col.hariharan.info)

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