21/06/2016 8:29 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:27 AM IST

Two Years Of Modi's Foreign Policy: More Highs Than Lows

Mohammad Ismail / Reuters
India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves as he boards a plane after his trip to Kabul, Afghanistan December 25, 2015. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail

Two years ago, Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister from Gujarat, became the 15th Prime Minister of India. No political analyst had anticipated the personal interest that Mr. Modi would take in foreign policy and yet, in the two years he has been in office, it is his personal involvement in external affairs that has dramatically taken centrestage.

Indeed, it would be fair to say that the Prime Minister has consciously recrafted Indian foreign policy interventions and initiatives and unhesitatingly deviated from predictability. Indeed, his style has been so disruptive that the return to the "old" normal appears highly unlikely, even for successive governments.

Mending fences

It started with his swearing-in ceremony where he dramatically diverged from convention by inviting the heads of neighbouring countries to witness his ascendancy to power and authority. Governance, he implied through that single gesture, would be completely different and far removed from expectation and thus, predictability. The Opposition chose to dismiss it as gimmickry and cheap publicity. But they had clearly lost the plot because on deeper examination, there was a strategy and end-objective that Mr. Modi had in mind.

Over the past two years, it is [his] willingness to break from convention, protocol and the norm that has come to define his style.

It bears recalling that when he reached out to the neighbouring countries it included a recalcitrant Pakistan and a hostile President in Colombo. Through that singular masterstroke he positioned himself, on the very first day in office, in the eyes of the global community as a man of dialogue and an advocate of peaceful coexistence, challenging, thereby, depictions of his persona as a hawkish leader with a Hindutva agenda. Second, during his bilateral meetings, he unambiguously conveyed a clear signal to the neighbouring countries that enmity with India or actions that were prejudicial to India's interests would not be taken lightly under his watch. Third, he let his Cabinet colleagues, party workers, elders and, more importantly, the bureaucracy know that he was not going to be dictated by anyone in terms of what should or could be done. It was he who decided. Over the past two years, it is this willingness to break from convention, protocol and the norm that has come to define his style.

His next step was to assiduously cultivate those very same countries that had distanced him for the Gujarat riots. Through warm embraces, bear hugs and hotlines, he quickly established a rapport with the movers and shakers in the global arena. Indeed, each of these countries now invited him to sit at the high table! He counted the President of the United States as among his close friends and allies and this was not lost on anyone. More importantly, he deliberately broadcast each instance of bonhomie in the public arena through efficient use of social media.

Overtures worth taking

So how has Modi shifted from a near-pariah status to centre stage? Pragmatists would say -- and rightly so -- that for most world leaders, with the global economy heading towards recession, the sheer size of India's market is a significant temptation, as also the possibility that New Delhi might be cultivated to emerge, over time, as a counter-balance to an increasingly belligerent and hegemonic Beijing. At the same time, PM Modi's personal initiative in engaging with the global community was refreshingly different from the manner in which UPA 2 had inexplicably distanced itself. In pragmatic diplomacy, there are no permanent friends but, more importantly, there are no permanent enemies.

In pragmatic diplomacy, there are no permanent friends but, more importantly, there are no permanent enemies.

Mr. Modi is shrewd enough to realize this. Consequently, he delivered a strong message to the leadership in democratic countries through his effective outreach programme with the Indian diaspora: this community was not likely to support policies that did not impact India positively. In the US, Canada, Australia, Dubai and London, large and adoring crowds turned up to the events where he spoke to them. Standing ovations clearly cemented his rockstar status. In democracies, this resonated significantly because the message was unambiguous: alienating Modi could be prejudicial to electoral ambitions. For the first time, since the negotiations opened with Washington on the 123 Agreement, the Indian diaspora felt important.

The challenge of assessing Modi's performance

A foreign policy assessment based on a two-year report card might be tempting but it can also be hugely challenging, especially when trying to assess first-time ministers and a PM who did not have prior experience in national-level politics. But it bears recalling that Mr. Modi's campaign was based on a single theme: acchhe din or "better days". For an electorate that had been witness to standstill governance during UPA 2, a slew of corruption charges, outlandish behavior from the young Rahul Gandhi including against PM Manmohan Singh, Mr. Modi's promises whetted the appetite. There was, in fact, no real opposition to him because not only did Rahul Gandhi represent the Peter Principle by rising from his level of competence to the level of abysmal incompetence but young and old in the Congress party refused to reimagine the party without the Gandhis. This left Mr. Modi with no opposition other than what came from within his own party, which he eliminated with ruthless speed.

[T]he Prime Minister's penchant for being his own man has left the ministers and the bureaucracy behind. Without delivery, image suffers.

But once victory was achieved, the sheer scale of expectations and more importantly, urgency were both intimidating and unrealistic. People wanted transformational change overnight. At one level, PM Modi also believed it was possible. The unrealistic timelines for the India-Australia Comprehensive Economic Cooperation Agreement is a telling example of failing to deliver on promises. Going by the Prime Minister's public pronouncements, the Agreement ought to have been signed last year. We are presently nowhere in sight of a mutually acceptable document. Substantively, therefore, the Prime Minister's penchant for being his own man has left the ministers and the bureaucracy behind. Without delivery, image suffers. PM Modi needs to be cognizant of this.

Assessments of achievement are based essentially on three criteria:

1. Has there been a foreign policy gain?

2. Has a crisis been handled successfully?

3. Has a long-standing conflict been resolved?

Let us consider each of these.

modi foreign policy

Has there been a foreign policy gain?

There most certainly has been a foreign policy gain in terms of renewed interest in India among the global community. The shift from the inertia that crippled UPA 2 has impacted perceptions about India positively. PM Modi undoubtedly enjoys a strong and growing rapport with Western leaders. The series of meetings he has had with the US President is clear indication of his personal equation and stature. US endorsement of India's entry into the exclusive NSG is yet another strong reflection of this.

Has a crisis been handled successfully

The report card on crisis management has been mixed. Take Nepal for instance. The response to the devastating earthquake was rapid and incisive. But the breast-thumping made enemies when we ought to have been flooded with friends. The "blockade" following the Madhesi agitation on an imbalanced and unfair Constitution promptly catapulted Kathmandu into Beijing's embrace. Nepal was reminded of the blockade during the Rajiv Gandhi era and the perception doing the round in much of Nepal was that India would never change the way it deals with its smaller neighbours. To dismiss Kathmandu's reaction would be naïve, foolish and damaging to our long-term interests.

[T]he worst disaster was possibly the manner in which the Pathankot attacks by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists was dealt with...

Similarly, the handling of the Maldives crisis and that of the Italian naval officers has been unprofessional. But the worst disaster was possibly the manner in which the Pathankot attacks by Pakistan-sponsored terrorists was dealt with, where a golden opportunity to once again expose Islamabad's complicity appears to have been frittered away.

An opportunity now presents itself as to how New Delhi would handle Beijing's opposition to India's entry into NSG. Victory would be largely symbolic, which strengthens India's negotiating mandate. This is not a make-or-break deal but should Beijing finally support India's entry, it would undoubtedly be a diplomatic success.

Has a long-standing conflict been resolved

Two years ago, the general assessment based on PM Modi's past utterances and allegiances was that he would be a hard-liner against Pakistan. However, since taking office, he has refrained from making any harsh comments about Islamabad or castigating its military leadership, who are openly antagonistic towards India. Indeed, he has made overtures of peace and friendship though no one realistically expected a break-through in bilateral relations. Islamabad cannot remain the permanent enemy.

There is hope that the rise in numbers of aspirational Pakistanis, coupled with opposition to the homegrown terrorists, who are now launching repeated and deadly attacks on innocent Pakistanis, could put pressure on Islamabad to focus on economic and social well-being rather than on continuing tensions with New Delhi. But all negotiators know that if the talks are to be successful they need to be done quietly, consistently and with the right people.

Future directions

Based on the three criteria, India under PM Modi has had limited success on the foreign policy front so far. But then again, two years is hardly sufficient time to benchmark success or failure. It remains to be seen as to what the agenda would be for the remaining years of the government's term.

The next few years will determine whether India has indeed stepped on to the global stage or if the overture was a prelude to yet another unfinished symphony.

India could be at the cusp of transformational change because of the manner in which the economy has defied odds and expectations. Whether this growth story will translate into overall economic wellbeing and the next generation of economic reforms needs to be seen. With the global economy facing the spectre of a downturn, all eyes are on how welcoming the Indian government would be to foreign capital and products. If the Prime Minister is able to open up the Indian market, including education and healthcare, it would translate into a substantial foreign policy victory.

Second, India needs to recognize that in its dealings with Pakistan there are three elephants in the room that it has to seek the support of: Washington, Beijing and Moscow. Foreign policy is not the pursuance of the interests of other countries. It would be naïve, therefore, for New Delhi to expect Washington to espouse its cause. If Washington is acting tough with Islamabad on the sale of F-16s, it is not to mitigate New Delhi's fears but rather to send a clear signal to Pakistan that it does not agree with Islamabad's posturing on a series of issues that directly impact US interests.

Similarly, New Delhi cannot afford to distance Moscow, as indeed it ended up doing when PM Modi visited Australia. An unhappy Moscow will willingly play ball with Islamabad, as it has started doing by agreeing for the first time to sell arms to Islamabad. Beijing will always remain the difficult customer and New Delhi needs to send a clear signal to the Chinese that a friendly India is in their interest rather than a dependent and volatile Islamabad.

A more serious criticism relates to the Prime Minister's silence -- a charge, interestingly, that he levied on his predecessor. As the Prime Minister of India, Mr. Modi needs to express his disavowal of several irresponsible statements many of his party members and supporters have been publicly making. Unless he does so, his silence will be interpreted as consent, approval and endorsement. He will, most certainly, lose allies.

The next few years will determine whether India has indeed stepped on to the global stage or if the overture was a prelude to yet another unfinished symphony.

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