A new era in India’s foreign policy?

During the election campaign of 2014, Narendra Modi rarely, if ever, invoked foreign policy issues. Yet, since assuming office, the Prime Minister has pursued a vigorous foreign policy agenda with visits to a host of major countries as well as to several states in India’s immediate neighbourhood.

Does the vigour that Modi has brought to India’s foreign policy reflect a fundamental shift or are these changes merely cosmetic? The question is far from trivial. At a time when China is pursuing an increasingly assertive foreign policy, when the future of the American re-balancing strategy is unclear and with much of the Middle East aflame, India’s foreign policy choices will have considerable bearing on the country’s overall fortunes. In considerable measure, Modi appears cognizant of the significance of foreign policy. Indeed, barely a year after his assumption of office some broad features of an innovative approach to foreign policy making is now discernible. That said, he still has to articulate a framework for dealing with contending priorities in certain parts of the world.

At one level, his various foreign trips can be dismissed as mere fanfare without any substantial or tangible accomplishments to date. Yet, such an assessment may be premature. His various trips to a number of key states in East Asia suggest that he grasps the significance of attracting foreign investment and building a set of key strategic partnerships, especially at a time when India’s relations with China remains fraught with uncertainty.

He has also sought to improve ties with India’s smaller neighbours. The most significant of these, of course, has been his successful conclusion of a border accord with Bangladesh. This was far from a trivial achievement. A host of previous regimes had tried to tackle the issue, but in the end had failed to bring the matter to a successful resolution.

The critical exception in terms of dealing with India’s immediate neighbours, of course, has been its relations with its nettlesome neighbour, Pakistan. Despite initial efforts to woo Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Modi’s efforts have not yielded useful results. Against this backdrop, it appears that he and his key foreign policy advisers have devised a strategy for the neighbourhood.

Pared to the bone, it seems to have three components. First, it seeks to improve ties with all of India’s neighbours. Second, it makes clear to Pakistan that provocations will be met with a firm response at times and places of India’s choosing. Despite a seemingly tepid response to the latest Pakistan-based terrorist attack in Punjab, it would be a mistake to believe that the government will not fashion a befitting reply in due course. Third, if and when the Sharif regime demonstrates a willingness to improve trade and commercial relations with India, his regime will reciprocate. This approach to dealing with Pakistan marks a significant departure from the United Progressive Alliance regime’s willingness to engage Pakistan despite the lack of any reciprocity.

Modi has also brought a sense of urgency and pragmatism to the foreign policy arena. This was on display during his visit to France when he made a decision to purchase 36 Rafale aircraft. This move may well contribute to the breaking of the near-impasse in the negotiations to acquire the medium multi-role combat aircraft.

His practicality has also been on display in his dealings with the US. Given the contretemps with the denial of a visa to visit the US during his tenure as chief minister of Gujarat, he could well have borne a grudge against the country. Yet, his decision to both visit the US soon after assuming office and then to invite President Barack Obama as the chief guest at the Republic Day parade has demonstrated that he is well prepared to set aside past slights and grievances.

The question that remains, however, is whether or not he can now follow up on these symbolic gestures with some tangible efforts to address outstanding issues in India-US relations, ranging from enhanced defence cooperation to the eventual consummation of the civilian nuclear agreement and differences on the issue of intellectual property rights.

Apart from these concrete issues, Modi’s foreign policy has also been bereft of the long-standing ideational (and mostly hollow) rhetoric that had long characterized India’s foreign policy. Not once has he invoked the concept of non-alignment, he has made no hoary statements about the urgent need for global nuclear disarmament and he has also eschewed as reference to the jejune idea of “strategic autonomy”. His silence on these matters again bespeaks of a more imaginative foreign policy attuned to meeting India’s national interests.

The one area, however, where his government has yet to demonstrate much resourcefulness involves India’s ties to the Middle East. Admittedly, he has made clear his interest in sustaining and indeed boosting ties with Israel. However, beyond maintaining this important bilateral relationship, his government has kept a deafening silence on how India might respond to the political upheavals that are now roiling much of the region. Nor, for that matter, has it signalled how it intends to take advantage of the current thaw in US-Iran relations.

There is little question that his government will have to turn its attention to this vital region of the world. India’s energy needs, its vast Muslim population and the presence of a substantial expatriate community in the Gulf all highlight the importance thereof.

If Modi truly intends to make foreign policy one of his legacy issues, he will need to sustain the various initiatives that he has undertaken. He will also need to resist the temptation to fall back on the shibboleths of yesteryear as he charts a new course. And, finally, he will have to turn his gaze to the Middle East because of the sheer significance of the region to India’s national interests. A failure to move on all three fronts could well jeopardize the renewed enterprise that he has brought to this arena.



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