Modi’s silence on foreign policy is rather intriguing. “Our most severe external challenges are driven not by economics but politics, relating to territory, terrorism, religious extremism, nuclear blackmail, constraining our strategic options and boxing us in the subcontinent. Loosening the Centre’s control over foreign policy will cause confusion in its conduct and open our polity to more manipulation by outside interests”, says the author.
Narendra Modi has not yet expressed his thinking on India’s foreign relations. His sundry remarks that the external affairs ministry should focus on “trade treaties” rather than on strategic issues and states should be given a greater role in promoting ties with select foreign countries need not be taken as definitive thinking. Our most severe external challenges are driven not by economics but politics, relating to territory, terrorism, religious extremism, nuclear blackmail, constraining our strategic options and boxing us in the subcontinent.
Loosening the Centre’s control over foreign policy will cause confusion in its conduct and open our polity to more manipulation by outside interests. Modi’s critique that India has “failed to give leadership to SAARC on economic issues” stems from the view that we should link the smaller economies of our neighbors to our larger economy and create dependency bonds that would act a cushion against adversarial politics. Pakistan’s prevarications on MFN, Sri Lanka delaying the Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement and Nepal still resisting cooperation on water resources reflect the limits of such a policy.
How much a Modi-led NDA will follow or depart from the A B Vajpayee-led NDA’s foreign policy is an important question. Modi will not be working on a clean slate and any big departure from Vajpayee’s legacy will be queried. The continuity in our foreign policy under the NDA and UPA governments adds to the complexities. Vajpayee called the US a “natural ally” and reached out to it strategically. The seeds of the India-US nuclear deal were laid during his time, US intervention in Afghanistan was supported and even the logic of US withdrawal from the ABM Treaty was acknowledged. He made key overtures to China too, agreeing to a Chinese-desired formulation on Tibet against a formulation on Sikkim that we sought. Vajpayee made several overtures towards Pakistan too. With other neighbors, he grappled the pluses and minuses of our relations just as the UPA governments did.
The Russia relationship was nurtured by him with regular summit-level meetings and defense tie-ups. The Look East policy was pursued energetically. With Iran, a strategic partnership was established. If our foreign policy choices are conditioned by geopolitical and other realities, major changes in policy under Modi would appear unfeasible, but not a course correction in areas where the UPA has fumbled. We have been supine in reacting to China’s provocations, ceding it strategic space and letting it outflank us diplomatically by concepts like the BCIM corridor and the Indo-Pacific maritime silk route, even as its disinclination to resolve the border issue is patent and the consolidation of its influence in our neighborhood continues.
Should he become PM, Modi’s recent vow on Arunachal Pradesh’s soil not to yield an inch of our territory and decrying China’s expansionism would need consolidation with a visit to Tawang. Modi can change our psychological equation with China, boosting our relations with ASEAN and Japan. With Pakistan, the diplomatic ground we have yielded cannot be fully regained, but the UPA’s cardinal mistake in delinking dialogue from terrorism and equating ourselves with Pakistan as victims of terrorism needs correction. No self-defeating anxiety either to resume the dialogue or visit Islamabad should be shown.
The impression that our soft posture towards Pakistan has been US-driven needs to be removed. Modi could well be advised that to soften his “anti-Muslim” image, he should reach out to Pakistan early, but this would be inadvisable as the Pakistanis would size him up as one more Indian politician at a loss to find an answer to India’s Pakistan problem. Modi has wisely refrained from reacting personally to the US’ shabby conduct in canceling his US visa. Its obstinacy even now not to clarify the visa issue should not be easily overlooked.
While allowing our multi-faceted relationship with the US to grow normally, Modi will make India’s hand stronger in dealing with the US if, contrary to advice he may receive, he shows no desire to visit the US till Barack Obama is in power. Modi should also review our handling of water and enclaves issues with Bangladesh and that of human rights involving Sri Lanka. But then, remember, the first critical word will be said by the electorate in the coming elections.