PM Modi’s foreign policy a welcome sign of maturity

  • Rajdeep Sardesai
  • Updated: Jan 07, 2016 23:57 IST
Foreign policy, particularly towards Pakistan, has been the oldest victim, in a sense, of this highly-surcharged, polarised political atmosphere, writes Rajdeep Sardesai. (AP Photo)

Heads of our soldiers are being cut but we are feeding their prime minister chicken biryani. This country is ruled by weak leaders,” Narendra Modi speech in May 2013.

“Mr Prime Minister — No dialogue over dead bodies. Please cancel your meeting with Nawaz Sharif,” Sushma Swaraj tweet in September 2013.

Two and a half years can be an eternity in politics, and yet remembering the not so distant past is often useful in understanding the present and the future. In mid 2013, Narendra Modi had just been anointed the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. He was offering a vision of muscular leadership to the Indian voter to contrast with the seemingly effete Dr Manmohan Singh: The “chhappan inch ki chhati” (56-inch chest) rhetoric demanded that Pakistan be “taught a lesson”, that even the common courtesy of a luncheon for a visiting Pakistani head of state be mocked as an ‘anti-national’ act. Sushma Swaraj too was part of the chorus: After all, the BJP has for years claimed that Nehruvian leaders have been pusillanimous in their foreign policy, be it towards Pakistan or China. How could a party whose ideological fountainhead speaks of an “Akhand Bharat” not be seen to talk tough to Islamabad?

That was then when the BJP was a party in opposition eyeing power in Delhi. As events of the last fortnight have confirmed, the view from Raisina Hill is very different from Gandhinagar or Jhandewalan. Then, the BJP could afford to call for retributive action, including crossing the LoC to target Pakistan-based terror camps, because there were no costs to be incurred for potential adventurism. Now, after Pathankot, when the Prime Minister and senior ministers speak with restraint and refer to a terror attack being carried out by “enemies of humanity” without any explicit reference to the Pakistani State, there is a recognition that being in government imposes duties and responsibilities that cannot be wished away easily. As the Congress MP Shashi Tharoor rather neatly put it, “Where you stand depends on where you sit!”

Interestingly, Mr Tharoor’s own party is no different now that it sits in the opposition. A Mani Shankar Aiyar type backbencher is a rare exception. To his credit, through good times and bad, Aiyar has maintained that the “guftagu” with Pakistan must continue. But what of those Congress leaders and spokespersons who now fulminate at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s reach out to Nawaz Sharif or insist that talks must be called off in the aftermath of Pathankot? How do they square their rhetoric with the stand that Dr Singh’s government took in seeking a dialogue with Pakistan even after the horror of 26/11 (recall the joint statement in Sharm-el-Sheikh in 2009)?

What is true of diplomacy is equally true of the economy too. When the Goods and Services Tax legislation was introduced by the UPA government, it was the BJP chief ministers, and more specifically, Modi as Gujarat chief minister, who were its most vocal critics. Now, the roles are reversed with the Congress finding one new excuse after another to scuttle the GST bill. Indeed, economic legislations have been particularly prone to competitive opportunism in politics: The bill providing 49% FDI in insurance, for example, took almost two decades to pass parliamentary gridlock (the joke is, it literally took a generation in North Block from Yashwant Sinha to his son Jayant Sinha!).

Even more amusing is the manner in which Aadhar — the digital identification scheme of the previous government — has now been appropriated by the Modi regime to ensure the successful implementation of direct cash transfer subsidies to the truly deserving. In 2014, during the South Bangalore general election campaign, Congress candidate and Aadhar mentor Nandan Nilekani came under fierce attack from his BJP rival, Ananth Kumar, and was accused of creating a “white elephant”. At a public meeting, Mr Modi vowed to “review” the scheme even as Kumar and his supporters cheered wildly.

Sadly, the nature of competitive politics has meant that the space for consensus on any kind of policy or legislative reform is shrinking. Foreign policy, particularly towards Pakistan, has been the oldest victim, in a sense, of this highly-surcharged, polarised political atmosphere. Rising studio decibels, prodded by retired generals and diplomats calling for stern action — the kind which they would never probably countenance while in service — are matched by a political class which sees benefit in playing to the gallery with strident rhetoric. It is natural in such an environment for even the most rational politician to back off rather than stay the course.

Which is the why the Prime Minister deserves to be lauded at this juncture for not being swayed by the war-mongers within and outside his party. His Pakistan initiative was a bold risk, one that could still easily flounder in the face of a hostile army-jihadi nexus across the border. When an Atal Bihari Vajpayee undertook his Lahore bus yatra, he carried the trust and goodwill of a lifetime spent being seen as a statesman-politician. When Modi took the helicopter ride with Sharif, he was actually defying the image of being the hardline Hindutva hero who would never concede an inch to Islamabad. It is so much easier to live up to an image than break away from it and re-invent yourself.

Yes, Pathankot makes any attempt at peace with Pakistan that much more difficult. But that should not be a reason not to institutionalise a dialogue that goes beyond the photo ops and jhappiyans (hugs). For once, the BJP and the Congress should be on the same side: A side that fights terror, but doesn’t stop talking.

Post-script: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s army on twitter has an uncanny knack of producing old tweets to expose the double standards of their rivals. Just a cursory glance of tweets by their leader between 2011 and 2014 on Pakistan would only show how far their leader has travelled in the last few years. Some may call it ‘duplicity’, others could well see it as a sign of welcome ‘maturity’!!

Rajdeep Sardesai is an author and a senior journalist. The views expressed are personal.

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