By Navroz Singh
Edited by Namrata Caleb
2014 was indeed a decisive year for Indian politics, a year that history shall fail to forget, and one that would be etched in pristine letters for generations to come. After a hiatus of quarter of a century the Indian voter decided against a fractured mandate, bringing to power the one party rule of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), pinning high hopes on its undisputed, immensely ‘popular’ leader, Narendra Damodardas Modi. Policy pundits glorified his achievements in reforming the face of Gujarat, economists played the gamble of predicting his abilities in stabilising the Indian economy, the international community seemed increasingly enamoured by the charismatic leader’s ability to stir masses, evoking emotional reactions no matter which region of the globe he chose to address- all this while the ‘Aam Aadmi’ revelled in the rise of a ‘chaiwalla’ to the highest seat of India’s political power game. Through crisp khadi kurtas and sharp bespoke Savile Row suits, the chants of ‘NaMo’ created ripples across the globe, whether at the ‘Modison’ Square Garden, Tokyo or Brazil. To say that 2014 was momentous and crucial for India’s Foreign Policy would be rather an understatement compared to the successive sequence of events which decisively shaped India’s bilateral and multilateral relations, an evaluation of which is in order as the year draws to a close and the dawn of 2015 breaks with renewed hopes for peaceful international relations.
The Modi foreign policy appears geared to reinvent India as a more confident, competitive and secure country. Since sweeping to power in May in India’s biggest election victory in a generation, Narendra Modi, as some political scholars choose to argue, has made more of an impact in diplomacy rather than in domestic policy. It needs to be understood, however, that a robust foreign policy can sustain itself only on the foundation of a strong domestic policy. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall 25 years ago, the world has witnessed the most profound technological, economic and geopolitical change in the most truncated period in history. Unfortunately, India – home to more than a sixth of the human race – punches much below its weight and despite impressive overall economic growth, much of this period for her has been characterized by political weakness and drift turning the country into its own worst enemy, something which resonated in a 2013 Foreign Affairs journal essay, titled “India’s Feeble Foreign Policy” which stated that, to say India is resisting its own rise would be an expression of endearment as compared to the actual expression of the status quo. Come 2014, and there seems to be a refreshing change. Since the beginning of his mandate, Modi has given focus and ambition to India’s muffled and ill-defined foreign policy. With the economy under control – India’s stock market has risen by 30%, GDP growth is tracking nearly 6% and Standard and Poor has recently raised India’s credit outlook to ‘stable’- Modi is free to indulge in international relations. He has two main foreign policy goals: to consolidate India’s status as a regional hegemon in South Asia and to attract the Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) considered critical for India’s growth. Modi has surprised many by investing considerable political capital in high-powered diplomacy, even though some consider his prior foreign policy experience relative ‘inadequate’ for the ‘supreme chair’. Even his critics would resent arguing against the fact that Narendra Modi has taken to foreign policy engagements like a duck to water. He genuinely seems to enjoy the camaraderie he shares with world leaders, be it Abe, Jinping or Obama, is seemingly comfortable with the selfie generation, galvanises the otherwise dis-Indian diaspora and brings a smile to the India-sceptic global industry. Just after hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin, Modi is preparing to receive Barack Hussein Obama at a time when America-led sanctions against Moscow have underscored the risk of a new Cold War. No American president before was the chief guest at India’s Republic Day. The Time Magazine’s “Person of the Year” also seeks to strengthen bilateral ties with Germany, Japan, Australia, Israel and the South-East Asian countries, an effort with the latter visible through the enhanced Look East policy. The then Prime Minister elect’s swearing-in ceremony, a glittering soirée of sorts featured leaders of nearly all SAARC nations. The presence of Pakistani premier Nawaz Sharif, Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Prime Minister of the Tibetan Government-in-Exile Lobsang Sangay were prominently recorded. The leitmotif of Modi’s foreign policy is clear – build closer ties and strategic partnerships with important democracies. Upon winning the election, most of Modi’s critics claimed that he shall pursue the doctrinaire approach. However, one characteristic trademark of his foreign policy tactics is that it is shorn of ideology, particularly pragmatism being the hallmark of his approach. Such a visible spectrum of pragmatism powered by a plethora of high powered ideas has been immensely successful in maintaining the focus of the government on the grand chessboard of politics to underpin national interests suggesting a credibly demonstrated strategic bent of mind, remarkable in credo and policy. International manoeuvres balanced with skilfully implemented, rather level headed strategies through the ‘Swach Bharat Abhayan’ and the ‘Make in India’ campaign continue to back the appraisal of his abilities to translate ideas into transformative accomplishments. That pragmatism is the defining feature of his foreign policy shouts loud and clear through his dealings with the United States. He chose to put behind him the experience of being denied a US visa, an incident which, as some may argue piled a heap of humiliation on him for over nine years, and prioritised normalising and restoring momentum in the relationship with America to the top of his rather diplomatically maintained ‘list’. His efforts at lifting the Indo-US relations to unprecedented levels of engagement are indeed noteworthy especially seen through his commitment to pro-market economic policies and defence modernization. The result, United States already conducts more military exercises with India than any other country and in recent years has rather inconspicuously taken over the Russian Federation as the largest arms supplier to India. Another example of his pragmatism can be seen in his efforts to ‘befriend’ China. Who can forget the famed ‘jhoola-khandvi’ diplomacy during Xi’s visit to India in September, also reflective of Modi’s diplomatic gamble, with Jinping’s visit coinciding with Chinese military incursions into India’s Ladakh region, which evoked strong criticism from the Indian Foreign Office. Pakistan, as a regional adversary poses a difficult set of challenges for Modi, given the Pakistani military’s use of terrorist proxies. Pakistani authorities recently helped United Nations designated terrorist Hafiz Saeed, dubbed as the architect of the Mumbai attacks, to stage a large public rally, including by running special trains to ferry participants. The recent controversy over the granting of bail to Zaki ur Rehman Lakhvi added insult to injury, as some political analysts argue. Modi’s Pakistan policy is a fine blend of firm handedness and friendly signals-his strong response to Sharif while addressing the United Nations General Assembly in New York, while simultaneously condemning the Peshawar attacks in the strongest voice and calling for a two-minute silence in solidarity with the innocent victims evoked favourable popular reactions.
The policy of multi-alignment is seeking to define unique characteristics for India’s foreign policy as a contrast to the Nehruvian approach of non-alignment. Brahma Chellaney, professor of strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of “Water, Peace and War”, comments that Modi has shaken up the reactive and diffident foreign policy establishment with his ‘proactive’ approach and readiness to break with conventional methods and shibboleths. His policy appears geared to move India from its long held non-alignment to a contemporary, globalized practicality. Building strategic partnerships with major powers to pursue competing interests in diverse settings shall be an enabling factor to allow India to advance its ‘core’ interests while preserving its strategic autonomy, in keeping with its longstanding preference for policy independence. Manoeuvring such strategic interests calls for maintaining a balance such that a closer cooperation with major powers is built without forcing New Delhi to choose one power over the other, thereby effectively advancing India’s economic and security interests. One balancing act is to restore momentum to a ‘flagging’ relationship with Moscow while boosting ties with the United States. The India-Russia camaraderie of the Cold War period, in recent times, has been replaced by the Indo-U.S. bonhomie, the success of which shall be pursued through Obama’s January visit, which shall be intricately followed by policy analysts and makers alike. The strategic location of India is crucial from the point of geo-politics and is the natural bridge between East and West, serving as a link between the competing demands of the developing and developed worlds. Yet, India continues to charter an independent course for itself, refusing to give into international pressure or any sort of arm-twisting by the ‘blocs’, (ideological to say the least), it supports. Modi attaches major significance to the practice of diplomatic symbolism. For example, with the opening of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) Summit coinciding with the sombre anniversary of the Mumbai terror attacks, he gave a cold shoulder to his Pakistani counterpart Nawaz Sharif, for refusing to prosecute the masterminds of the Pakistani scripted and executed operation. Mr. Modi shook hands with Mr. Sharif only the following day at the Dhulikel retreat.
Mr. Modi faces major regional challenges, exemplified by the arc of failing, revanchist or scofflaw states around India. The tyranny of geography demands India to evolve a more dynamic and innovative approach to diplomacy and national defence. India, while attempting to build stronger relations with other neighbours, must also strengthen its Look-East policy. In sarcastic humour, India has little choice but to look East, for when it looks West, it sees only trouble. Chellaney states that that the entire belt to India’s West from Pakistan to Syria is a ‘contagious arc’ of instability and extremism, while the East allows India to join the ‘economic dynamism’ so characteristic of its East. ‘Act East’ further needs to prioritise focus areas in East and Southeast Asia by establishing a comprehensive peace plan for the seven sisters that can integrate with our east-ward foreign policies. Within India’s immediate neighbourhood, Maldivian democracy is slowly unravelling, Lankan economy and strategy needs a serious outlook, Myanmar needs India’s support as it goes to elections and Nepal needs a handholding as it reforms its constitution. It’s clear that India will be called upon to play a greater role in its neighbourhood whether it volunteers for it or not and the role that the Indian PM shall play in charting a course for the country he leads shall be deciding factor in regional and global diplomacy.
Not many would argue that 2014 passed somewhat as a breeze. By and large, the global environment was relatively benign for India. But such predictions are certainly not in order for 2015. European economy is in doldrums, Russia has auto-piloted the self-destruct mode, China is surprisingly slowing down and Japan is still waiting for Abenomics’ metaphorical ‘third arrow’. ISIS is likely to continue its unspeakably brutal death dance in the Middle East. Energy politics will continue to rule geopolitics whether in the Straits of Hormuz, Libya, South China Sea or Arabian Peninsula. A robust foreign policy which balances domestic issues well with international concerns shall ensure that India lives a stable dream, perfecting the reality of stable policy growth and socio-economic development.
Navroz Singhis currently pursuing her undergraduate studies at Miranda House, University of Delhi majoring in Political Science. A voracious reader of economic, political and spiritual texts, she appreciates intelligent and controversial coffee table debates on art, history, culture, current affairs. She is particularly interested by the ‘Third World Perspective’ studies with the South Asian Region forming the core of her research interests. An avid debater, passionate writer, art connoisseur and travel enthusiast, she can be reached at email@example.com