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Last Updated : May 15, 2019 07:46 PM IST | Source:

Podcast | Digging Deeper: India and the world — The Modi years

On part 2, we will try to decode the five years that have passed. This is a look at India's foreign policy in the Modi years.

Moneycontrol Contributor @moneycontrolcom

On part 1 of our two-part special 'India and the World,' we focussed largely on the way we were before 2014 and today on part 2, we will try to decode the five years that have passed. This is a look at India's foreign policy in the Modi years.

How we began negotiating with the world

After gaining independence in 1947, foreign policy was an unknown entity for Indians.But then there was in existence a foreign department created by the Indian National Congress, during 1925 to synergise with international supporters.

And overtime, government policy emerged under the aegis of the Ministry of External Affairs headed by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The Indian Foreign Service also played an important role in representing the country abroad. Nehru was also one of the forces behind Panchsheel or the Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence.

Our foreign policy was based primarily on internal consolidation in the fifties and gaining international respect for our moral authority as a functioning democracy even though we relied to a great extent on outside assistance for developmental activities. We joined the Commonwealth of Nations and threw our weight behind independence movements in other countries.

One of the most debated and controversial aspects of the domestic and foreign politics has been the continuous clash between India and Pakistan over Kashmir with even the United Nations failing to intervene satisfactorily. Not to mention the wars with both China and Pakistan. As also a significant military operation when India became the second country to recognise Bangladesh as a separate and independent state on 6 December 1971 and helped "liberate" it from West Pakistan in 1971.

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) has played a big part in shaping India's relationships with countries like Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka and of course Pakistan in areas like anti-terrorism, narcotics control, agriculture, rural development and more. It is another matter though that the frequent tensions between India and Pakistan have made the synergy sluggish. Recently a scheduled SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad was postponed due to the Uri attack.

In the 1990s, the Kargil war won a major diplomatic victory for India when the United States and the European Union recognised the Pakistani military's role in the conflict and several anti-India militant groups based in Pakistan were labelled as terrorist groups by the United States and European Union.

But that was much later. Even when we were taking a non-aligned stand in the early years as far as global conflicts went, we ended up signing the Indo-Soviet Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation in August 1971 to counter the support Pakistan was getting from US and China. From the late 1980s, India began to synergise with countries other than the Soviet Union and these included the United States among other developed countries and yes, even China. Not to mention the continuous preoccupation with South Asian neighbours like Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.

The end of the Cold War, the fragmentation of the Soviet Union led to diplomatic and economic ties not just with the United States, or the European Union trading bloc, but member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the African Union, the Arab League and Iran. The Narsimha Rao government in the early nineties has been widely credited for India's 'look east' foreign policy. Subsequently, news reports have quoted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's take on this change, "It was also a strategic shift in India's vision of the world and India's place in the evolving global economy".

For its security needs, now India relies on its strategic and military equations with different countries like Russia, Israel and the United States. Significantly, once an ideological ally of Palestine, in 1992, India established formal diplomatic contact with Israel and this relationship has especially strengthened during the spells of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led governments and also subsequent UPA (United Progressive Alliance) led governments. Russia is at the moment the largest supplier of military equipment to India, followed by Israel and France.

By the 1970s, the country also had the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW)—functioning covertly to gather sensitive information. Over time, it has become indecipherable whether our foreign policy is formulated by the Ministry of External Affairs or the Prime Minister himself. In the little time the Minister of External Affairs, Sushma Swaraj has been accorded by her health and a tenure marked with showmanship of the Prime Minister, she has displayed an exemplary and proactive concern for the well-beings of Indian abroad.

Looking East in the present

At present, the current government has made all the obvious moves to take advantage of the markets waiting to be tapped in ASEAN.

On the military front, there have been defence deals and joint military exercises with US and European nations and a fillip to bilateral trade.

India's candidature for a permanent seat at the UN Security Council is still not a foregone conclusion even though during a state visit to India in November 2010, US president Barack Obama had announced US support for India's bid for permanent membership to UN Security Council as well as India's entry to Nuclear Suppliers Group, Wassenaar Arrangement, Australia Group and Missile Technology Control Regime. As of January 2018, India has become a member of Wassenaar Arrangement, Australia Group and Missile Technology Control Regime.

One significant and rather unexpected turn of events has been that the bilateral trade between the two countries surpassed $65 billion by 2015, making China the single largest trading partner of India almost as if the occasional military skirmishes don't matter.

What observers say

On May 7, 2019, Asia Society carried an interview with Bharat Karnad who is a Research Professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. The article tries to understand if, and we quote, the credit for "ushering a bolder and more engaged foreign policy" can be attributed to the current government..

Karnad has written a book, Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India’s Global Ambition, in which he describes the current foreign policy as “inept” and “short-sighted.”

We quote, "The book makes the cases that Modi has been anything but bold on the international stage. While Modi’s efforts may have garnered small successes, Karnad believes he has failed in the grander ambition to propel India toward great power status. Instead, Karnad sees Modi’s India as “great power lite,” being stuck for the past five years in “neutral gear.”

The book’s critique of Modi comes from an unexpected angle. While Modi is maligned by the left in India and abroad for his Hindu nationalist, strong-man approach, Staggering Forward is a takedown from the other side of the political spectrum. Karnad, a research professor at the Center for Policy Research who describes himself as “India’s foremost conservative strategist,” faults Modi not for being hawkish but for being diffident."

The article is authored by New York based Anubhav Gupta, Assistant Director for the Asia Society Policy Institute, and Karnad told him during the course of the interview that the current foreign policy is just a continuation of policies pursued by the previous governments in the new millennium.

Said Karnad, "Based on the long history of the factors that command the respect of China's rulers, I have been advocating for some two decades now and also in this book that India adopt a tit-for-tat approach. For instance, the most obvious way to react to Beijing's very successful initiative to arm Pakistan with nuclear missiles and use that country to contain India would have been for Delhi to transfer like armaments to many more small adversarial states on China's borders to equalize the strategic context. It would have signaled India's intent to respond in kind and equal measure and would have quickly sobered up Beijing and telegraphed to all Asian states India's ability to take on an ambitious and oppressive China. It would have crystallized India as a competing power node to China in Asia. A similar attitude to inform India's trade policy would have prevented the skewed trade and severe balance-of-payments problem India now faces."

About the government's much publicised victory in the war of perception against Pakistan, Karnad had this to say, "Pakistan, I believe, is Modi's greatest failure. Rather than resorting to covert warfare methods to discreetly drive home the message to Islamabad that two can play at the terrorism game, Modi has sought to make political capital out of forcefully countering actions by Pakistan-sponsored terrorist organizations, such as Jaish-e-Mohammad, that are active in Indian Kashmir. This has a dual purpose of also communally polarizing the Indian society, which the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) hopes to benefit from. This is base tactical thinking."

We wonder what the founders of Panchsheel would have to say about this suggestion of playing "terrorism games," but according to Karnad, "a more strategic-minded leader would have used covert means when and where necessary while also seeking to influence the Pakistan government with a spate of economic incentives, such as open access to the vast Indian market, and unilateral military measures, such as demobilizing and reconstituting the Indian Army's three strike corps — which the Pakistan Army most fears — into a single composite corps sufficient for any Pakistan contingency, and withdrawing forwardly deployed nuclear missiles from the border with Pakistan. By such means, India could have and still can reassure Pakistan, preclude it from acting the Chinese cat's paw in the region, and regain for South Asia the unitary strategic space lost in 1947 with the Partition of India."

About the Prime Minister's extensive “personalized diplomacy," Karnad said that if all politics is local, then Modi has been sensitive about actions that fetch him domestic political dividends.

Says he about the government's equation with the Gulf countries, "A large section of Indian society gains from the remittances, estimated by the World Bank in 2018 as some $80 billion annually; sent home by skilled and unskilled Indian labor employed primarily in the Gulf countries. These remittances make for India's healthy hard currency reserves and help sustain the economies of several Indian states, chief among them Kerala, Uttar Pradesh, and Bihar. The remittance beneficiaries also constitute a large voter base, which Modi has kept pleased by cultivating, in the main, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Intimacy with these Sunni majority states also balances India's ties with the Shia majority Iran, giving India a role in the ongoing Shia-Sunni tussle in West Asia. More generally, close ties with Islamic nations symbolizes the fact that India has the second largest Muslim population in the world (after Indonesia), and is a counterpoise to India's deep relations with Israel, on the one hand, and on the other hand, limits Pakistan's influence in the Islamic world."

Inner divisions, outer cracks

Karnad also states that this tenure has exacerbated “tensions in society along caste and religious lines" and these could prove detrimental to India's image abroad. He explains why that is and we quote, "India has long projected itself, successfully, as an inclusive democratic country suffused with liberal values and exemplifying secular ideals. This image cannot but be hurt when domestic politics are communalized. India's recent downgrading by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, for instance, will have repercussions in that many countries may be influenced by its findings, and the Modi government's desire for India to be seen as a bastion of liberal thought and democratic action will take a hit. Further, anti-Muslim rhetoric will begin to impact India's interactions with the Islamic world, alienate Muslim states, and cumulatively affect India's quest for great power."

He also believes that the BJP may return to power with a thin majority with the current PM being replaced by someone like the Transportation Minister Nitin Gadkari, who has distinguished himself as a conciliator.

The Diplomat published a piece by Krzysztof Iwanek on April 27, 2019 that asked categorically, "How did Hindu nationalism affect India’s foreign relations?" And if as the piece said, "The spirit of nationalist ideology remained trapped in the body of the country’s pragmatic needs."

The article states that regardless of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh's (RSS), intimacy with the current government, the foreign policy did not divert much from previous pathways.

Despite proving to be bolder in dealings with Pakistan in the second half of its tenure (2016-2019), the government, says the piece, also showed a much more conciliatory stance toward Islamabad at the beginning of the tenure (2014-2015). Neither has the government fulfilled its promise of facilitating the comeback of Kashmiri Pandits though the airstrike on Balakot in 2019 can be considered a firm punitive operation against a radical Pakistani organization and a reply to an earlier terrorist attack in Kashmir.

Another important aspect of the new foreign policy was the visit to Israel. PM Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit that country and this marked the firm sidelining of the Palestine issue although the PM stopped by in Palestine for three hours in 2017 and expressed his government support for a two-state solution and an “independent” Palestine.

As we said before, this government has courted crucial partners among the Arab nations as well with the Prime Minister visiting Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia.

As the piece says, "It would seem that the spirit of ideology was once again locked in the body of India’s everyday needs, as some of the Muslim Arab states house a significant number of Indian workers and export their energy resources to India. Contrary to the most vehement votaries of the free market that declare that money has no nationality, nationalists often declare it does. Both streams of thought are to be found within the coteries of the ruling BJP. Both the party and much more the nationalist organization behind it, the RSS, have been promoting the idea of swadeshi — the promotion of Indian companies and their products and services. But this has hardly translated into any policies under Narendra Modi, himself a major supporter of foreign investment. While in opposition Modi and the BJP had criticized allowing FDI in retail and, yes, they have not overturned this decision once in power. The current government’s flagship 'Make in India' program was in reality all about rolling out a red carpet for foreign investors and not protecting the Indian industries. Even some sections of the RSS took a different stand from the BJP government and had at times scolded Modi’s cabinet for its free market-oriented economic policies."

Religious diplomacy?

An important point the writer makes is that this government has increasingly begun to use religious diplomacy, for instance, as a strategic tool for a variety of ends.

We quote, "The Hindu nationalists perceive Hindu religious identity as the bedrock of Indian national identity and hence perceive any conversion from Hinduism as a threat to national unity. They have been always suspicious – and sometimes even violent – toward Christian missionaries working in India. In this regard Modi’s policy has followed the nationalist spirit by cancelling the licenses of certain foreign Christian NGOs and restricting their activities, although this cannot be considered as part of a direct relation to any state.

Finally, it is perhaps the policy toward refugees where Hindu nationalism surfaced most strongly, as Modi’s government admitted openly that it is unwilling to accept Muslim refugees or to grant citizenship to Muslims of foreign origins. The BJP’s election manifesto of 2014 declared that under its rule “India shall remain a natural home for persecuted Hindus and they shall be welcome to seek refuge here.”

Modi’s government, according to the piece, was clearly unhappy to accept the (predominantly Muslim) Rohingya refugees from Myanmar once they started to be persecuted again in 2017 and started to flee to nearby countries, including India.

We quote again, "The BJP’s decision-makers also ignited a controversy by tabling the Citizenship (Amendment) Bill in 2016 and eventually voting it through the lower house of Parliament. The piece of legislation stipulated that after seven years of residence Indian citizenship would be given to any person who had come from Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Afghanistan provided that she or he would profess any other religion other than Islam. The bill was criticized for a few reasons — as many found it too liberal — but any rate its goal of granting citizenship based on religious denominations was clear. All of this was capped by the declarations of BJP party president, Amit Shah, during the 2019 election campaign, when he stated that “We will remove every single infiltrator except Buddha (sic), Hindus, and Sikh.”

As the writer opines in conclusion, "to sum up, the BJP’s foreign policy took a predictable and rather realistic trajectory. The shades of ideology within the spectrum of its actions and declarations were less visible whenever it came to dealing with the realm of hard power (in aspects such as security and economy) and in relations with stronger nations. They were, however, more apparent whenever domestic politics called for it, and also within the area of soft power (such as culture promotion), as well as in relation to non-state actors and weaker groups (such as Christian NGOs and Muslim refugees)."

With Time now publishing a cover on the Indian Prime Minister with a controversial headline, it will be interesting to see how his own base will regard his domestic and international legacy .

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First Published on May 15, 2019 07:44 pm
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