A curious but nonetheless interesting feature of the discourses on the first year of Narendra Modi’s Government was the absence of foreign policy from the list of achievements or disappointments. True, there were the casual asides of Modi being a “NRI PM” or proud assertions of India having regained its position under the sun but these were incidental. Politics being essentially a matter of domestic jugglery, foreign policy attracts little public interest – except, perhaps, when it comes to the question of Pakistan. It is only the handful of people that constitute the so-called “strategic community” that pores over joint statements and the ‘nuanced’ or ‘calibrated’ approaches.
Of course, there is another unstated prejudice. For many members of the commentariat, not least the legion of retired diplomats and military officers that prop up the think-tank industry, Indian foreign policy began and ended with Jawaharlal Nehru. Occasionally, Indira Gandhi, PV Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee get a sideways look in, but in the main Nehru dominates the proceedings. I have always been struck by the awe and reverence that greets any mention of the style, the supposed far-sightedness and the enlightenment that underpinned Nehru’s frequent travels abroad. No one then or subsequently described him as a “NRI PM”, even though it is fairly widely acknowledged that his sensibilities weren’t strictly grounded in Indian realities.
Despite this adulation, there is some grudging acknowledgement of Nehru’s foreign policy shortcomings. First, it is realised that in having a “world view” and preaching incessantly to the world leaders of the evils of colonialism and the virtues of global peace, Nehru took his eyes off the ball in his immediate neighbourhood. Non-alignment secured brownie points for India in countries such as Yugoslavia (now, alas, extinct), Egypt, Tanzania and among ‘progressives’ in Bloomsbury and Hampstead, but the India he bequeathed to his successors in 1964 stood more diminished than it was when Lord Mountbatten passed the baton to him in 1947.
The two things that contributed to this shrinkage in global standing were economic underperformance and the 1962 humiliation at the hands of China. The missed opportunities resulting from the relentless pursuit of doctrinaire paternalism – a.k.a. socialism – led to India preaching to the West and begging for aid simultaneously. Whether Mao Zedong chose to puncture this pretentiousness to divert attention from a devastating famine in China or was settling a personal score with a man Beijing saw as being infuriatingly arrogant is a matter of detail. The harsh truth is that in 1962 China showed the world that the Panditji had no clothes on.
Modi is a leader not given to flaunting a doctrine. His approach to foreign policy may seem a tad too flamboyant for grey-suited practitioners of diplomacy but it is grounded in an astonishing measure of pragmatism and purpose. In the course of 12 months, he has engaged with nearly all the major economies of the world and, more important, made a decisive mark in the neighbourhood. After the many false starts of the past, he appears to have revived the buzz around India. He has taken decisive steps to make India truly matter in the world community.
At the risk of some over-generalisation and glossing over specifics, an unstated Modi doctrine in foreign policy seems to be emerging. What are its parameters? First, it is important to appreciate that Modi’s foreign policy – and indeed his approach to national security – is an extension of his domestic thrust. It can best be captured in the over-used phrase ‘capacity building.’ Domestically, India is engaged in a series of initiatives to increase growth, raise the levels of prosperity and create new and sustainable opportunities for Indians. Modi’s overseas missions have been undertaken with a clear view to facilitate this programme and meet India’s appetite for capital, technology and markets. The desire to become a global power isn’t based on some manifest destiny, it flows as a reflection of India’s economic and human potential. The more this capacity is enhanced, the greater will be India’s global influence.
Secondly, there is a proactive neighbourhood policy – neighbourhood being defined as being more than the countries that share common land and sea borders with India. Rather than being bogged down chasing an elusive peace with a Pakistan that is grappling with existential problems of its own making, Modi is attempting to enlarge the reach of the Indian economy. He is attempting to persuade the neighbourhood that ‘big brother’ India isn’t a threat but an opportunity – an approach that will need tact, patience and some generosity.
China is, of course, a case apart. There is the grim reality of China’s ever-growing military might, its less-than-friendly approach to a border dispute and a skewed trade relationship. A meaningful Sino-Indian relationship can emerge when the asymmetry has been narrowed. For this, India will have to build its own capacities at a feverish pace. In the meantime, it was necessary to inform China unambiguously that the squeamish appeasement approach of the past UPA has been junked. Equally, it was necessary to reassure China that India will not willingly join in the anti-China gang-up that seems to be building in the Asia Pacific regions.
The full impact of Modi’s China’s visit will only be judged in hindsight. However, there are some early indications that China may be willing to accept a far greater Indian role in both Asia and the world. Beijing’s unstated commitment to a unipolar Asia may be modified substantially if India lives up to its economic potential.
Finally, Modi has recognised the importance of the Indian diaspora as both a purveyor of soft power and a lobbying force in their countries of residence. He has inspired overseas Indians with an inspirational India Pride that will be an add-on to normal diplomacy. These are still early days but all the indications are that India’s global standing is on a northwards course.
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