Narendra Modi’s foreign policy over the past three months has been marked by three distinctive traits – warmth and close engagement with smaller South Asian neighbours; reconciliation followed by a tougher stance vis-a-vis Pakistan; and multi-layered engagement with the big powers.
Modi set the ball rolling by inviting SAARC leaders and Mauritius for his inauguration. It was in line with his private interactions where he has said he believes India cannot grow unless it stabilises its relations with its smaller neighbours. Modi chose Bhutan as a first port of call. In early August, he became the first prime minister to land in Kathmandu in 17 years on a bilateral trip and gave a historic speech to the Himalayan country’s Constituent Assembly, addressing Nepali insecurities about India.
But his vision of a peaceful and harmonious South Asia hit a roadblock soon after when he cancelled planned bilateral talks with Pakistan, because the Pakistani High Commissioner met Kashmiri separatist leaders from the Hurriyat. Previous governments had turned a blind eye to such engagement between Islamabad and the Hurriyat, but Modi drew a new red line – the decision was largely driven by domestic political compulsions. The Pakistan policy looks more like a strategic overhaul than a tactical position with Modi stressing on the bilateral frameworks of the Simla pact and Lahore declaration as the basis for engagement.
In another display of tough talking, Modi told visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry why India refused to back a global trade pact under the World Trade Organisation. Unfazed by the flak New Delhi received over its decision, the prime minister stuck to his guns and displayed directness in diplomacy. All eyes are now on Modi’s meeting with US president Barack Obama in September and the big question is whether the prime minister will be able to wrest any big bang deals from Washington.
The prime minister has creditably managed ties with China and Japan. After initial hiccups with Tokyo over visit dates, he has reached out to the Japanese prime minister personally and made an effort to collaborate with Beijing by agreeing to accept a BRICS bank headquartered in Shanghai.