Three months into power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s stamp is more visible in the sphere of foreign policy than on domestic affairs. His decision to invite Saarc leaders to his swearing-in ceremony signalled his intention to give priority to relations with neighbouring countries and take leadership of the region.
The decision to invite Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and Mahinda Rajapaksa (the Sri Lankan President) and herding the former into a group to welcome a leader who has been repeatedly denounced by Pakistani propaganda in the past was a nimble move. This decision, however, had a political downside for India too as it showed that the government is ready to engage with Islamabad without any progress on the issues of terrorism and 26/11. It also implied that the BJP too was ready to delink dialogue from terrorism and make a fresh start with Pakistan, disregarding the negative signals emanating from Sharif’s government. The forthcoming foreign secretary-level meeting is a logical outcome of the creative swearing-in diplomacy, though the spurt in violation of the ceasefire along the LoC has queered the pitch.
The PM’s decision to visit Bhutan was astute because the introduction of democracy there requires broader engagement with the people and also thwarts the Chinese security threat. His Nepal visit was marked by his personality including his extemporaneous address to the parliament that demonstrated his self-assurance and control over his rhetoric while handling this sensitive relationship. Whether his generosity towards Nepal will prod the latter to abandon its self-defeating policy of rebuffing water resources cooperation with India remains to be seen.
Consistent with this is the emphasis on Saarc, which remains underdeveloped as a regional institution. While Modi wants to create regional synergy to advance his development agenda for India, Pakistan will remain an obstacle because his plans would consolidate our regional influence westwards, undercutting many of Pakistan’s political pretensions vis-a-vis India. So India should expand its regional role eastwards where no hostile barriers exist by giving priority to the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation.
On China, the PM has his own priorities. The assumption in some circles that the government would be less accommodating towards China has been proved wrong. Modi has reached out to China, receiving its foreign minister before any other dignitary, inviting the Chinese president to India in September and sending the vice-president to commemorate the Panchsheel Agreement, even though China has violated it repeatedly.
Modi sees China, with its huge financial resources, as a potential partner in India’s development even as we build up our defences against that country, emulating the example of US and Japan, which continue their economic relationship with China despite being locked in several strategic feuds.
Even though it is known that Modi sees Japan as a privileged partner, his decision to postpone his visit to that country did come as a surprise. But that hiccup has been quickly overcome and Modi’s visit to Japan is now scheduled to be held in September. Japan’s record in fuelling the economic rise of countries it has chosen as partners is a powerful argument for knitting close ties with it, apart from evident geopolitical considerations. The nation has financial resources, technology prowess and political will under PM Shinzo Abe to build a strong strategic partnership with India.
Modi’s pragmatism explains his readiness to resume dialogue with the US. He will visit Washington in September, despite the visa denial slight. The vast India-US agenda encompasses both convergence and divergence of views and interests; the latter was highlighted recently by the WTO stand-off.
On Gaza, India voted with the BRICS in Geneva but internally balanced its support for the Palestinian cause with friendship with Israel, a flexible approach on a complex issue involving conflicting diplomatic compulsions. These policy re-orientations are clear from foreign minister’s affirmation that "foreign policy does not change with a change in government".
The guiding ideology of "India first" explains Modi’s willingness to reach out to all without prejudice.
Kanwal Sibal is a former foreign secretary
The views expressed by the author are personal