It’s a new era in India’s foreign policy as countries compete to woo Modi

    “The new majority government in power in New Delhi, freed from debilitating coalition politics and attaching priority to economic development, has aroused external interest”, says the author.

    In foreign policy, Prime Minister Modi has hit the ground running, taking unexpected initiatives. He reached out to our neighbors, taking the unprecedented step of inviting their leaders to his swearing-in ceremony. While invitations to Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Maldives and Afghanistan carried only positive connotations, those to Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and President Rajapakse carried mixed political implications. It was felt that the plus points in extending invitations to Pakistan and Sri Lanka outweighed the negatives.


    In Pakistan’s case the dilemma is whether we should engage it at the highest level without any ground-clearing move by Nawaz Sharif on terrorism, the Mumbai trial and trade. The Pakistani premier has been, on the contrary, aggressive over Kashmir, invoking the UN resolutions and self-determination as a solution, seeking third party intervention, permitting tirades by Hafiz Saeed against India, maintaining the pitch on water issues and reneging on granting MFN status even under a modified nomenclature.

    In these circumstances, the move to invite him risked suggesting that, like the previous government, the new government too was willing to open the doors of a dialogue in the hope of creating a dynamics that would yield some satisfaction on the terrorism issue. In other words, practically delinking dialogue from terrorism, despite having taken a position to the contrary while in opposition.

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    In Sri Lanka’s case, the whipped-up sentiments in Tamil Nadu against President Rajapakse for his triumphalist rather than reconciliatory policies on the Tamilian issue have upset the overall balance of India’s foreign policy towards Sri Lanka that requires that we adequately weigh the need to counter powerful adversarial external forces are at play there against our interests. Inviting President Rajapakse to New Delhi obviously risked provoking a strong reaction in Tamil Nadu, but the new government had to decide whether, like its predecessor, it would get cowed down by such regional opposition, or it would act in the greater interest of the country even when according importance to the sentiments of a section of our population.

    This dramatic outreach to the neighbors has elicited praise internally and externally, primarily focused on the invitation to the Pakistan president and its implication for the resumption of the Indo-Pak dialogue. Internally, those pro-dialogue lobbies that have espoused the previous government’s placative policies towards Pakistan have naturally welcomed the surprise move by Modi. Externally, India has always been counseled to have a dialogue with Pakistan irrespective of its conduct and its terrorist links, the argument being that these two South Asian nuclear armed neighbors with unresolved territorial conflicts risked sliding into a nuclear conflict unless they found a way to settle their differences for which a dialogue was an inescapable necessity. Such praise from within and without from predictable quarters should neither be surprising nor worth much attention.


    The new majority government in power in New Delhi, freed from debilitating coalition politics and attaching priority to economic development, has aroused external interest. The sentiment outside the country- as well as inside it – has been that the previous government lost its way, leading India into the quagmire of high fiscal deficits and tumbling growth, belying international expectations about its economic rise paralleling that of China.

    If India can be steered back into a high growth trajectory with stronger leadership and improved governance, more economic opportunities will open up for our foreign partners. This would also draw renewed attention to India’s geo-political importance which, though an accepted reality now, has receded from the foreground lately.


    Modi is seen as the man of the moment. This would explain the telephone calls from world leaders to Modi and the invitations given and received. India is being courted, and Modi’s choice of the countries he first visits or foreign leaders he first receives, is drawing external attention as an indication of his diplomatic priorities.

    On this broader front too, Modi is following an unanticipated script of his own. He is being generous to the US despite its reprehensible conduct in denying him a visa, by prioritizing national interest over his individual feelings. He has not waited for the stigma of visa refusal to be erased by a US executive order removing his name from the State Department black-list. He is planning to meet President Obama in Washington in September – the first external visit to be announced – quickly relieving the Americans of fears that the visa issue could become a hurdle in engaging him.

    In another remarkable gesture that the State Department would have noted for its political import, he has agreed to a book launch by an American think-tank at Race Course Road. China wants to complicate moves by Japan to strengthen strategic ties with India. Its decision to send its Foreign Minister to India after the swearing-in seems to have been motivated by this rivalry, apart from seeking to build on the personal contacts established by China with Modi when he was Chief Minister. If the Chinese FM was allowed to be the first consequential foreign leader to meet Modi, it appears Japan may be the first foreign country – barring Bhutan – the latter may visit en route to the BRICS meeting in July in Brazil.

    The Bhutan visit underscores the importance Modi intends attaching to neighbors. Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister is visiting Delhi on June 18. It would seem that Modi’s immediate priority is to reassure all his important interlocutors, friends or adversaries, that they should have no misgivings about him and the direction of his policies, and that he seeks to engage with all power centers in a balanced manner.

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