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Modi’s foreign policy agenda

by Ramesh Thakur

On the one hand, the world is intrigued by India’s new leader, Narendra Modi, who inflicted such a devastating defeat on the grand old party of Indian politics and has replaced the well-known and widely respected Manmohan Singh.

On the other hand, the world is anxious about the foreign policy implications of someone who has held no national post and will lead the government of a billion-strong, nuclear-armed country with the world’s fourth-biggest economy in purchasing power parity ($5.4 trillion to Japan’s $4.7 trillion).

The world should stop worrying. The elements of foreign policy continuity under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress-led governments of AtalBihari Vajpayee (1999-2004) and Manmohan Singh (2004-2014) are far more numerous and substantial than the readjustments on the margins.

Vajpayee turned around the relationship with the U.S. with sustained engagement after the 1998 nuclear-tests setback. His diplomatic overtures to Pakistan and China successfully insulated foreign policy from domestic political pressures and delinked the two border disputes from deepening engagement on a broad range of other fronts.

Singh’s impulse and instincts were the same, but his far weaker position in the domestic structure left him no space to push foreign policy initiatives. He outsourced Sri Lanka and Bangladesh policies to difficult coalition allies in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Even his signature civil nuclear cooperation deal with the U.S. is unconsummated after domestic opponents successfully hobbled it with a draconian nuclear liability law.

Vajpayee had injected a healthy dose of realism into India’s penchant for woolly thinking on international issues, bringing greater coherence and focus. Similarly, instead of the vague and nebulous “strategic autonomy” that has no operational meaning, Modi is likely to provide clear strategic direction and efficient policy execution. He is unlikely to abandon nuclear restraint or the pursuit of South Asian regional engagement and economic integration. He will need to reassure Pakistan and will have domestic political space to do a deal — the Nixon goes to China model — if he finds a partner for peace. A welcome early portent is the invitation to all South Asian leaders to attend his inauguration.

Modi had his U.S. visa revoked because of alleged complicity in Gujarat’s 2002 anti-Muslim riots and, gratuitously and insultingly, a prospective visa denied even without an application. This from the Bush administration,which endorsed torture as official policy and was responsible for an illegal war of aggression that caused the death and displacement of millions of Iraqis. Modi was the elected head of government of a well-run state, was never charged with any crime, independent judicial probes exonerated him, and Gujarat has functioned within the national bandwidth in Hindu-Muslim relations since 2002.

Washington has begun a diplomatic minuet of reaching out to the previously untouchable Modi. President Barack Obama welcomed the democratic process as a vibrant demonstration of shared values of diversity and freedom and looks forward to working with Modi to make the coming years “transformative” for bilateral relations.

A “Modicum” of self-respect might suggest that, with apologies to Groucho Marx, he would not want to visit a country that had ostracized him. But a prime minister is no longer a private person and must elevate collective interests above personal pique. India’s relationship with the U.S. is too important for the prime minister to refuse to visit.

Still, maybe Modi could make it a point to let the U.S. wait and sweat a while for its spectacular act of self-harm: yet another example of the validity of Churchill’s claim that we can always trust Washington to do the right thing, after they have tried everything else first.

Many irritants have crept into the bilateral relationship, including the unresolved row over the arrest and strip-search of India’s deputy consul-general in New York by a publicity seeking and overzealous prosecutor while the State Department was off-duty. Washington is likely to find Modi’s Delhi more self-confident and assertive than the docile, hand-wringing Singh. But India should rescind its self-damaging nuclear liability law and sign deals with Australia, Canada, the U.S. and Russia.

Modi’s first bilateral overseas tour will probably be to China or Japan. Both have aggressively courted him over the past decade while the West treated him as a pariah. When the U.S. closed its shores in 2005, Modi went east to Japan in 2007 and opened new investment channels between Gujarat and Japan.During a high-profile four-day visit to Japan in July 2012, he was treated above his protocol station.

When Shinzo Abe led his party to a landslide victory in Japan’s 2012 general election, he broke from protocol in taking a congratulatory call from Modi as a state leader. The mutual respect between the two strongly nationalist prime ministers could pay handsome dividends for both countries now.

As state premier, Modi promoted business and trade cooperation between China and Gujarat, and led a high-profile delegation to China on a five-day visit in November 2011. He was received in the Great Hall of People in Beijing, an honor normally reserved for heads of state/government. His known commitment to infrastructure development, courting investment and creating special economic zones might lead to more intensified interaction with China, overcoming the traditional reserve of Indians for consolidating and deepening ties with China in strategic sectors.

Only a strong leader can challenge U.S. economic and political dominance. The BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) provides a ready forum to do so with other like-minded countries, including China. But a nationalist leader might also pursue a policy of enmeshing India in a web of allies in the neighborhood as a strategy for forging strategic links around China, and will look askance at China’s anti-Indian links with other South Asian countries, especially Pakistan.

Modi might also consider investing more diplomatic capital in groupings like BRICS. The BRICS have been far more sympathetic to Russia than to Europe and the U.S. on the Ukraine crisis. Will Modi take an interest in the planned BRICS development bank?

What will be his personal chemistry with the other leaders in BRICS and, for that matter, the Group of 20?

India’s antiquated bureaucratic setup is out of tune with contemporary reality and needs. Modi should appoint a capable and powerful foreign minister who can initiate and oversee a drastic overhaul of the recruitment, training and promotion practices of a greatly enlarged foreign service.

And merge India’s foreign policy and trade bureaucracies to help turn India’s legendary miles of red tape into a red-carpet welcome.

Ramesh Thakur is a professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University, and co-editor of “The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy.”

  • rai

    An objective analysis!