LONDON – It is slightly more than a month since Narendra Modi assumed office as India’s 15th prime minister and began work at breakneck speed. While his government’s focus remains squarely on domestic policy issues, Modi has also charted a rather ambitious course in foreign policy over the next few months.
He has already visited Bhutan and his future destinations over the next few months are likely to include Japan, Brazil, Southeast Asia, Australia and Nepal.
Meanwhile, the Chinese foreign minister has already paid a visit, saluting the new Modi government for injecting “new vitality into an ancient civilization.” In an attempt to woo New Delhi at time when Chinese relations with Japan and Southeast Asian nations including Vietnam and Philippines have been deteriorating, he underlined that China was ready for a final settlement of its border disputes with India and prepared to invest more in India.
Modi’s initial weeks in office and the composition of his national security team convey the sense of his government’s foreign policy and national security priorities. His decision to invite member states of the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) to his government’s swearing-in ceremony was a surprise and was viewed as a great move, underscoring the new government’s resolve to embed India within the South Asian matrix.
Since then, Modi has put in place a formidable national security team that is likely to bring his vision to fruition. The baton of the national security apparatus has been passed from Shiv Shankar Menon, a China specialist and a strategic thinker in the broadest sense of the term, to Ajit Doval, who is widely viewed as an exceptional operations man. A former head of India’s domestic spy agency — Intelligence Bureau — Doval has accomplished some of the most difficult missions in the realm of Indian security policy. His knowledge of regional politics and the terror infrastructure targeted at Indian interests remains unmatched, which should enable him to execute Modi government’s regional and internal security priorities with some success. Doval is credited with the idea of inviting SAARC leaders to the swearing-in ceremony.
Doval’s appointment is indicative that internal security will be Modi’s topmost priority as long-standing inadequacies in intelligence and counterterrorism institutions need to be rectified. Given his long-standing background in covert operations, Doval is likely to be instrumental in shaping India’s intelligence and counterterrorism architecture to meet India’s security challenges, which the Indian intelligence agencies warn will intensify with the withdrawal of NATO forces from Afghanistan.
External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj is a powerful politician in her own right. At one point she was even a contender for the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial position and had been reportedly unhappy with the announcement of Modi as BJP’s candidature. As one of the BJP’s main national leaders for the last several years, she had been a votary of a robust policy in the security realm, especially in responding to the challenge of Pakistan’s use of terror as an instrument of state policy.
After Indian soldiers were killed and their bodies dismembered by the Pakistan Army in January 2013 after infiltrating into Indian territory in Jammu and Kashmir, Swaraj had suggested that if Pakistan did not return the heads of the Indian soldiers, India should get at least 10 heads from the other side.
Of course, as India’s external affairs minister, Swaraj won’t be quite as voluble. But her assertiveness was already evident when she underlined for her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, that while New Delhi will be supportive of Beijing’s “One China” policy, it would expect China to adopt a “One India” policy. This is a significant shift from India’s past positions for more than a decade, an attempt by New Delhi to gain leverage vis-a-vis China.
Focus on South Asia is also emerging as a central strand in Modi foreign policy. The invitation to SAARC leaders was just the start. Since then, Modi has also been to Bhutan for his first trip abroad after being sworn in as prime minister not only because he wants to develop strong economic linkages among Indian’s neighbors but also to check Thimpu’s gravitation toward Beijing.
Swaraj visited Dhaka from June 25 to underline India’s seriousness toward its neighbors. The much-delayed Land Boundary Agreement and the Teesta Water Sharing Agreement were to be ratified during this visit. These pacts were signed by the previous United Progressive Alliance government but could not be ratified because of coalition compulsions. The Modi government will be earning significant goodwill in Bangladesh if it could get these treaties ratified.
Another senior BJP member and one of Modi’s closest aides, Arun Jaitley, has been given the portfolios of Finance and Defense. This underscores the recognition in the highest echelons of the Modi government that, unlike in the previous two decades, in the coming years India will have limited resources to spend on defense. Yet, Indian armed forces face critical shortages. It will be a delicate task to manage Indian defense modernization, a priority of the Modi government, during slow economic growth.
Delhi has been accelerating its program of arms purchases but has failed to broach the reforms that would be necessary for these to translate into improved strategic options.
There is no substitute for strategic planning in defense. Without it, India will never acquire the kind of military muscle that will enhance its leverage, regionally as well as globally. As a result, the acquisition programs of Indian defense forces have been floundering.
The Modi government has promised to “carry out reforms in defense procurement to increase efficiency and economy.” It plans to “encourage domestic industry, including the private sector, to have a larger share in design and production of defense equipment” through, among other things, a liberalized policy on foreign direct investment. There are reports that the government might allow up to 49 percent FDI in the defense sector without any mandatory transfer of technology.
The Modi government’s priorities lie in the realm of foreign and security policy. Modi’s success in achieving his domestic agenda will also depend on how successful he is in getting his external priorities right. The world will be watching as closely as the Indian electorate.
Harsh V. Pant teaches defense studies at King’s College London.