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Modi's 24x7 Campaign-Style Diplomacy Cannot Sustain Indian Foreign Policy

09/06/2016 6:14 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST
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MUNIR UZ ZAMAN via Getty Images
Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi gestures as he disembarks from the plane on his arrival at the Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka on June 6, 2015. India's prime minister arrived in Bangladesh to seal a land pact which will finally allow tens of thousands of people living in border enclaves to choose their nationality after decades of stateless limbo. AFP PHOTO/ Munir uz ZAMAN (Photo credit should read MUNIR UZ ZAMAN/AFP/Getty Images)

The Prime Minister of India is currently on a five-nation tour -- Afghanistan, Qatar, Switzerland, US and Mexico. This tour comes near the two-year anniversary of the BJP government at the Centre. In this period, the Prime Minister's approach towards foreign policy has come under much review. His extensive travels across the globe have led many to describe him as bold and imaginative. Instead of being relegated to an academic discussion, Indian foreign policy has occupied significant attention in mainstream media. The Modi government has often used this to justify their foreign policy efforts as one of their successes.

A condensed chronology of PM Modi's travels

The flashlights and op-eds began with the coronation of the Prime Minister on 26 May 2014. The visual of the tallest leaders of South Asia standing aside for the premier of the world's largest democracy was spectacular. Since that day, the Prime Minister has drawn the media to follow him on his global travels.

The Prime Minister's approach to foreign policy is very similar to his domestic governance style -- he's on 24/7 campaign mode.

His visits began within the Indian neighbourhood in countries such as Bhutan, Nepal, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Seychelles and Mauritius. Immediately, bilateral trade and investment emerged as a priority as the Prime Minister headed to Japan, US, Canada, Germany. After addressing multilateral summits at the United Nations, BRICS Summit and the G-20, the Prime Minister's appetite for international diplomacy remained unfulfilled. Soon most parts of the globe were covered including Europe, Russia, Central Asia and South East Asia.

Campaign mode

If one looks closely at the hectic pace of his international visits, one can see the Prime Minister's approach to foreign policy is very similar to his domestic governance style -- he's on 24/7 campaign mode.

Both on the domestic and international fronts, the Prime Minister has an insatiable appetite for travel and meetings. If Bihar saw the Prime Minister campaign 30 times in a span of four months, media reports say that 37 different countries saw him in a span of 25 months.

narendra modi

Known for his oratory skills the PM has indeed captivated both media and the public with his attractive slogans. While Indian audiences are treated to Swachh Bharat, Make in India, Skill India and Cooperative Federalism, the global community are listening to Neighbourhood First, Act East (rebranding of Look East), Link West, Project Mausam and Para Diplomacy.

Large political rallies where BJP supporters chant "Modi, Modi" were echoed in the concert-like ceremonies in Sydney, New York and London. Representatives of the BJP were quite happy that the leader of the largest democracy in the world was being compared to a rockstar.

Within his party, the Prime Minister has successfully altered the nature of the BJP from being ideology- driven to being personality-centric. Political decision-making power has been withdrawn from central ministers and state chief ministers and the party has become increasingly centralized. Parallels are drawn in the domain of foreign policy too, with the diminishing role of the Hon'ble External Affairs Minister and the Ministry of External Affairs.

China has succeeded in being the cornerstone of our foreign policy outlook, displacing our own strategic and economic interests.

Even the Prime Minister's silence at times of domestic crisis, as evident during the recent incidents of intolerance, is replicated on the global stage when he remained silent on the increasing hostility between India and Nepal, the umbrage of Myanmar over the brash statements of Indian ministers regarding sovereignty, the sale of US F-16 jets to Pakistan and the constant attacks by Pakistani-supported elements on Indian citizens.

The Prime Minister clearly believes that his election has changed India's reputation, not only amongst the global community but amongst Indians themselves. In his May 2015 visit to Shanghai he stated that Indians were ashamed of their identity prior to his election. While this statement was criticized harshly on social media, the Prime Minister's tendency to promote himself on international forums is evident.

Measuring the foreign policy success

Domestic political observers and analysts agree that the Prime Minister can run an effective campaign. The responses of the global media to the visits of the Prime Minister show they share a similar view. Yet after two years, our performance in international relations and diplomacy can only be measured by our results and outcomes, not by the hours of television coverage or the inches of newspaper columns. Despite being able to generate a significant amount of hype and buzz about India's role in the world, the 24/7 mode campaign mode in our foreign policy has ensured that there is a huge gap between aspirations and reality.

On trade and investments, India has yet to reach the end of bilateral negotiations with the US, EU, Canada and Australia. In fact, in the case of the Australia, the Prime Minister had ordered Indian diplomats to complete the Free Trade negotiations within one year but it still remains pending. Post his 2014 visit to Tokyo, Japanese investments were uniquely granted a special office in the Prime Minister's office for better facilitation, yet significant results remain to be seen. These delays will likely stall the expansion of Indian industry and limit its ability to provide jobs to many Indian citizens.

While the large gatherings of the Indian diaspora are visible in the well-orchestrated events abroad, it is imperative that [their] contribution evolves from remittances to investments.

Global investors remain unsure about the consistency and certainty of the Indian policy environment given the risky experiment of the Indian government with retrospective effect on minimum alternate tax.

modi and xi jinping

Despite the visual bonhomie between Prime Minister Modi and President Xi on the swing by the river Sabarmati, our nation's security is made vulnerable by China's support to Pakistan, which is seen as the latter's all-weather ally. In fact, China also thwarted the Indian government's attempts at the UNSC to designate Masood Azhar as an international terrorist. India's ambition to be part of multi-lateral institutions such as the United Nations Security Council and the Nuclear Supplies Group remain a distant dream due to opposition from China.

China has succeeded in being the cornerstone of our foreign policy outlook, displacing our own strategic and economic interests. The Prime Minister has witnessed stronger relationships emerge between China and India's neighbours such as Nepal and Sri Lanka despite the presence of these countries at his swearing-in ceremony. India has been pulled towards strategic alliances with countries such as the US, Japan and Australia, largely on the account of their insecurity with growing Chinese influence in the South China Sea.

The insistence of the big powers on India's role being that of a net security provider has seen this country's objective being pulled from strategic autonomy to strategic alliances. The Prime Minister has yet to articulate the reasons for this shift and explain its merits in terms of addressing India's own economic interests with respect to China and its ally Russia.

India cannot rely forever on the travel itinerary of the Prime Minister to meet its strategic, defence and economic goals.

The Indian diaspora has emerged as a central component of the Prime Minister's foreign visits. Traditionally, the Indian economy has tremendously benefited from the size of its diaspora thanks to its enormous remittances. Yet, while the large gatherings of the Indian diaspora are visible in the well-orchestrated events abroad, it is imperative that the contribution of this population evolves from remittances to investments. Unfortunately, the government has done precious little to support those Indians who left their host countries to invest in India only to face an uphill struggle with complex government rules and laws.

Need for an eco-system

The gap between campaign promises and delivery is a reality that Indians are assessing after two years of the BJP government. Coincidentally, the global diplomatic, diaspora and investor communities are undergoing the same exercise. India cannot rely forever on the travel itinerary of the Prime Minister to meet its strategic, defence and economic goals. With important state elections coming up in 2017 and the advance preparations for the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, it implies that the Prime Minister will soon be occupied by his domestic priorities.

In such a scenario it is imperative that the Indian foreign policy eco-system is built up in order to sustain the momentum that has been generated and fulfill promises. This domestic eco-system will require a series of urgent reforms, long-term investments and capacity building. So that we can fulfill our commitments related to negotiations over trade, investment, cyber-security, defence and strategic co-operation.

Central to creating a sustainable momentum is the investment in the Ministry of External Affairs. Running on a thin budget and starved of sufficient diplomatic strength, the ministry has one of the smallest offices in the world. An example is the United Nations where the strength of the Indian mission is minute in comparison to its peers representing Brazil, Russia and China. The ministry should be appropriately expanded to meet the requirements of our international efforts.

The Ministry of External Affairs and the Hon'ble Minister must be taken into far greater confidence by the PM in order to pursue India's interests in bilateral negotiations.

The Ministry of External Affairs and the Hon'ble Minister must be taken into far greater confidence by the Prime Minister in order to pursue India's interests in bilateral negotiations. There are numerous strategic dialogues and FTA negotiations pending and the experience of the External Affairs Minister cannot be ignored. We can draw inspiration from the US where President Obama depended upon successive Secretaries of State to meet his expectations in Asia (Clinton) and forge a nuclear deal with Iran (Kerry).

The institutional capacity of domestic universities and think-tanks to provide an independent source of research and analysis must be supported by the government. Looking at our Chinese counterparts, we can see the outcome of investment in the capacity of domestic institutions in the release of the "Chinese Military Strategy" paper by the Chinese Ministry of National Defense. Similarly, universities and think-tanks in the UK and Australia play an important role in providing feedback to the political leadership while being funded by the government.

The Prime Minister must realize that while India's strategic engagement with the world has exponentially grown, keeping China in mind, a more sustainable relationship can be built on the foundations of economic and trade cooperation. The world expects India to fulfill both its strategic and economic potential. Constant repetition of the Indian macro-story linked to our demography and democracy will not yield the much-needed investments. Our trade negotiations at bilateral and multi-lateral forums must be concluded within a deadline so that India remains a vital component of the global economy.

The foreign policy of India needs to evolve from being campaign-based to an eco-system of supportive institutions, both government and private.

The blistering campaign of one individual cannot meet our nation's objectives. Linked to the success of Indian foreign policy are industrial expansion, employment of young people, national security, foreign investment and economic growth. The foreign policy of India needs to evolve from being campaign-based to an eco-system of supportive institutions, both government and private. With three years remaining in the Modi government, I hope that it will see beyond the media praise and Twitter mentions in order to provide a strong and coherent architecture to our foreign policy.

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