India’s foreign policy has acquired a hard edge under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s direction. The hyper activity in foreign policy — seemingly to the exclusion of domestic policy imperatives — has gone beyond mere process. That it has stirred the ground beneath relationships rooted in the status quo is its distinguishing feature.
Following the presence of all Saarc leaders at his swearing-in ceremony, Modi has visited eight countries and hosted leaders from nine. India awaits Russian President Vladimir Putin next week and United States President Barack Obama on Republic Day. His presence at the UN General Assembly, 6th BRICS Summit in Brazil, 9th East Asia Summit in Myanmar, G-20 Summit in Australia, 18th Saarc Summit in Nepal, the 12th Asean-India Summit has allowed Modi to change his negative image and touch base with India’s major partners.
We are seeing the assertion of a realistic self-interest-driven approach to India’s foreign policy challenges. Is it a well-thought-out change in the higher direction of India’s foreign policy or will it dissipate into the habits of the past? Over a decade ago Brajesh Mishra, the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s national security adviser, had said, “There is a new India today that is ready to question these [non-alignment and non-violence] shibboleths and take decisions on the basis of national interest.” Are we finally seeing the fructification of that long-standing intention?
Consider some of the stirrings we have seen. The calling off of foreign secretary-level talks on the grounds that Pakistan either deals with the government or the separatists marks a significant shift in goalposts. The decision to not seek flag meetings but retaliate to Pakistan’s border firing and Modi’s eluding any impression of a thaw at the Saarc Summit is its part. Neither has Modi shied away from expressing his opinion on Nepal’s long-delayed constitution process, or conveying to Bangladesh India’s intention to deliver on past commitments while expressing concern at the illegal refugee influx, or subtle references to the South China Sea in his interventions at the East Asia Summit.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s warm reception in New Delhi and commitments to expand bilateral economic exchanges have not precluded a strong position on the Chumar border incursions. The putting off of a Saarc decision on elevating the ‘observer’ countries’ status to that of members evokes India’s situation at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation and its absence from the Beijing APEC Summit.
A counter-balancing strategy has led to strengthening relations with Japan and Australia, reinforcing relations with Vietnam and Singapore while the transition from ‘looking’ to ‘acting’ East has become the goal for building durable Asean links.
Growing scepticism over the India-US strategic relationship was erased in one fell swoop by not making visa denial an issue. The World Trade Organization facilitation agreement, which lets India keep its foodgrain stocks, provided its ballast. Modi’s pet themes of ‘Make in India’, international bank transparency and counter-terrorism received Western support at G-20 and in bilateral interactions. Yet notwithstanding a tepid US-China climate agreement, India has stuck to its guns on not accepting commitments that would sacrifice its development. Finally, the influence of the Indian diaspora on domestic policy-making will now be difficult to avoid after Modi’s receptions in New York and Australian cities.
Nevertheless Obama’s forthcoming visit to New Delhi has brought out the pitfalls in stirring placid waters. Obama kept Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the loop when accepting the Indian invitation, while Russia signed an unprecedented defence agreement with Pakistan.
Whether a change of direction or a course correction, India’s foreign policy is undergoing a catharsis to which its foreign policy structure must attune itself.
Rajendra Abhyankar, a former diplomat, is professor of Practice of Diplomacy and Public Affairs, School of Public and Environmental Affairs, Indiana University, Bloomington
The views expressed by the author are personal