Five Years of Modi’s Foreign Policy
The five years of Prime Minister Narendra Mod’s foreign policy began and ended with India’s neighbourhood.
The assemblage of South Asian heads on the day of his swearing in ceremony was as dramatic as the attack on Balakot towards the end of his first term in office.
The period covered the whole spectrum from peacemaking and the promise of economic growth of the whole region through cooperation to a military conflict with Pakistan.
The 'Neighbours First’ policy, which sought to overcome the hesitations of history was haunted by the compulsions of history and geography and remained elusive.
He confronted more or less the same problems faced by his predecessors and he had to tackle them with firmness and flexibility with mixed results.
The greatest irony was that the very organisation, which was founded to increase economic cooperation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) became moribund because of the worsening of relations with Pakistan and the bilateral relations with the other countries also fluctuated during the period.
Instead of regional cooperation leading to better relations with the outside world, Modi claimed that the success of his foreign policy elsewhere helped him to win the battles with Pakistan both on the border and the UN Security Council.
Modi’s biggest challenge was China, which was at the root of every issue he faced in external relations, including the neighbourhood, which was deeply influenced by China emerging as an alternative to India as a regional power, capable of providing economic and political support to the countries in South Asia.
China’s Bridge and Road Initiative (BRI) offered an attraction for them to build their infrastructure and their development plans became an instrument of China’s expansionism.
Modi maintained a continuous dialogue with China and did his best not to provoke it, but China did not help to resolve any of the old problems and added new ones involving serious threat to India’s security and sovereignty like Dokalam and the BRI through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir.
The border discussions made no breakthrough and China created obstacles to India’s minor aspirations like the membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, not to speak of India’s candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
The greatest success of Modi was the “new symphony” he choreographed with the United States from 2014 to 2016, taking India closest to the United States as a “close defence partner” of the US as part of the Make in India programme, including co-designing and co-manufacturing of defence equipment.
He signed defence agreements with the United States, which his predecessors had hesitated to do. The second visit of any US President to India in 2015 resulted in a historic agreement on co-operation between the two countries in the Asia-Pacific.
The “Quadrilateral” for cooperation among the US, India, Japan and Australia began to take shape. Investments grew and it appeared that India-US relations would reach unprecedented levels.
Both China and Russia watched these developments with concern and began showing signs of diversifying their relations in South Asia.
But like the “deus ex machina”, a totally unexpected person or event that descends on the path of Shakespearean heroes, the advent of President Donald Trump altered the course of India-US relations.
It appeared initially that Trump would be a valuable partner in our fight against terrorism, in balancing China and in building trade and economic growth, but his isolationist “America First” approach and dislike of globalism made the trajectory of bilateral relations unpredictable and rough.
Trump did not go against India’s interests in any significant way, but his immigration and trade policies caused concern in India.
In other words, the major investment that Modi made in cultivating President Obama and laying the foundations of a significant partnership with the US as a pivot to India’s foreign policy did not create the intended benefits.
Trump’s policy of withdrawing assistance to Pakistan for failing to fight terrorism was a blessing, but his dependence on Pakistan to find a compromise arrangement in Afghanistan, together with Taliban and to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan was a setback for India.
At the time of Dokalam and other instances of China’s adversarial approach to India, Trump’s silence was eloquent.
Modi came to the inevitable conclusion, therefore, that he could not rely on the US as a strong partner in the circumstances, but remained engaged with the US on the basis of the existing arrangements for cooperation.
The last two years of Narendra Modi saw a reshaping of foreign policy. The Wuhan and Sochi informal summits made efforts to reset relations with China and Russia, but the details of any new initiatives were not announced.
But there is clear evidence that India scaled down its position on BRI, Dokalam and even the Dalai Lama. No concomitant commitments were made by China with regard to NSG or Azhar or any other matter.
The purchase of S-400 missiles from Russia removed some doubts about India’s diversification of defence imports. The waiver given by the US on the purchase of missiles from Russia was also significant in the context of the love-hate relationship between Trump and Putin.
The intensification of the “Act East Policy” and improvement in relations with the Europeans, Japan, Iran, the Arab countries and several middle powers were also features of the last phase of Modi’s term.
He also began emphasising strategic autonomy in international relations, even though he had not found any value in his participation in the 17th Nonaligned Movement Summit in Venezuela. Indian Prime Ministers had not missed these summits except in exceptional cases.
Modi had defined his priorities right from the beginning as development, security, neighbourhood and overseas Indians. His travels, which were often criticised, were quite focused on these priorities.
He had justified them on the ground that it was necessary to carry the image of India to the world. The world was impressed with his mission and his willingness to work with the rest of the world.
The one message he carried was the need to fight terrorism around the globe at a time when several acts of terrorism had shocked the globe. He was able to secure the support of the international community for India’s own effort to fight terrorism, including cross border terrorism pursued by Pakistan in Jammu & Kashmir, which was universally condemned. In fact, India was given the leadership of the global efforts to fight terrorism.
A significant achievement of his foreign policy was the acknowledgement of the role of India in fighting terrorism and the encouragement it received from the international community.
Foreign and security policies rarely influence elections and history is replete with examples of leaders, who win wars and lose elections.
But Modi chose to highlight his achievements in foreign policy and national defence in his campaign and if he returns to power, it will be largely because of his tough policy towards Pakistan.
He had won the elections in 2014, promising a firm line on Pakistan and China, but having left no stone unturned to normalise relations, he is now sadder and wiser to formulate a new foreign policy of firmness and flexibility.
But any leader has to create internal cohesion, inclusive development, economic and military strength and reliable and strong friends to succeed as Prime Minister. Foreign policy can only be the icing on the cake.
(The writer is a former Ambassador of India and Governor for India of the IAEA. He is also the Chairman, Academic Council and Director, NSS Academy of Civil Services and Director General of the Kerala International Centre)
(Disclaimer: The opinions in this article are those of the author’s alone and not necessarily those of The Lede)