The defensive turn in India’s foreign policy, writes Vivek Katju
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has energetically pursued the full range of multilateral and bilateral diplomatic engagements since his impressive electoral success in May 2019. Some domestic, social, political and external commercial decisions — and the methods adopted in implementing them — though have partly pushed his foreign policy into defensive directions. In contrast, Modi was largely on the front foot in enlarging the scope and quality of India’s external engagements during his first term. He had quickly displayed imagination and flair in his external interactions, while firmly rooting policy in the national interest.
Breaking from tradition, Modi invited South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc) leaders, including former Prime Minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, to his oath-taking ceremony in May 2014. This step signalled a desire to undertake an activist foreign policy and specially to take the immediate neighbourhood along on India’s developmental journey.
He reached out, with a sure touch, to countries to the East and the West. The Act East policy indicated a more active and comprehensive relationship with the Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean). The success of Modi’s approach was manifested in the presence of leaders of all its members on Republic Day 2018. Wisely keeping out of the quarrels of West Asia, Modi cemented relations with all its mutually antagonistic major states.
Modi’s outreach to Africa and the Pacific Island states and his emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region showed a more confident and outwardly focused India. His deepening of ties with the United States, while maintaining the relationship with Russia, and his handling of the European states displayed a deft diplomatic mind. He also dealt with China firmly while seeking to expand the coincidence of interests. Modi also reconciled India’s concerns with those of the world on issues of global significance such as the climate crisis.
In these years, India’s diplomatic machinery was busy giving concrete shape to Modi’s vision and implementing the decisions that flowed from the decisions that emerged from his interaction with his international peers. The diplomatic focus was outward.
Now, as there are questions in important sections of global opinion about the domestic direction of the country, India’s political leaders and diplomats have to refute, clarify and explain. This is, of course, part of the diplomatic process but it expends diplomatic capital and takes some international attention away from issues, such as Pakistani terrorism, that India would like to remain in focus.
Modi’s August 5, 2019, decision on the constitutional status of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) was squarely within India’s domestic sphere. Pakistan’s objections were unwarranted because the changes did not really adversely impact Pakistan’s viewpoint on the issue, which in any case has been overtaken by events. Clearly, the informal consultations in the United Nations Security Council demonstrated, notwithstanding China’s attempts, that the international community, barring a few states, is not interested in this aspect of J&K. However, the detention of political leaders and the communications’ restrictions raised questions that needed India’s diplomatic responses. India also had to reject United States President Donald Trump’s repeated offers at mediation and also similar offers of the United Nations secretary general Antonio Guterres though his predecessors had made similar offers in the past.
The conferment of citizenship to foreign nationals is an exercise of sovereign power by any government within its domestic jurisdiction. The Modi government is correct in asserting that the Citizenship (Amendment) Act does not impinge on any Indians national status. It is also correct that non-Muslims have been discriminated, often persecuted in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh. However, the Act, by itself, and due to the alarm it has caused among large sections of Indian Muslims as a supposed precursor to a National Register of Citizens exercise perceived as harming their interests, has raised a degree of international disquiet that India is moving away from its secular moorings. This has compelled Indian diplomats to refute allegations regarding a dilution of India’s constitutional commitments. In such situations, whatever may be the nature of the refutation, the very fact that it has to be made leads to inherently defensive diplomatic postures.
According to the government, India’s decision, after years of negotiations, to refrain from joining the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was on account of its interests and concerns not being taken on board. If a country feels so, it is undoubtedly the right step to take. However, it led to a feeling of disappointment in Asean and Japan about India’s overall approach not only to trade agreements, but to its economic orientation itself.
This, at a time, when Modi has been pursuing a policy of making Indian industry part of global value chains and aggressively attracting foreign direct investments. Again, India had to clarify its position. It has to be examined if our trade diplomacy under political direction could have done a better job.
Naturally, external criticism should never deter a government from making decisions which are right for the country. The question is if it should examine achieving the same objectives in ways that would not raise such doubts. That is always a prudent choice to make for it prevents going on the defensive.