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Modi's Foreign Policy Agenda

22 May 2014
By Emeritus Professor Ramesh Thakur FAIIA
Prime Minister Modi visiting China. Source: Consulate General of India in Shanghai

Prime Minister-elect Narendra Modi is likely to provide clear strategic direction and efficient execution in implementing India’s foreign policy. The continuity in major foreign policy goals are far more numerous and substantial than the readjustments on the margins.

The world is anxious about the foreign policy implications of India’s dramatic election result. It should stop worrying. The elements of foreign policy continuity under the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Congress-led governments of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh are far more numerous and substantial than the readjustments on the margins. Vajpayee turned around the relationship with the US with sustained engagement after the setback of the 1998 nuclear tests. His diplomatic overtures to Pakistan and China successfully insulated foreign policy from domestic political pressures and delinked the two border disputes from engagement on other fronts.

Singh’s impulse and instincts were the same, but his far weaker position in the domestic structure left him no space to launch and sustain foreign policy initiatives. He outsourced Sri Lanka and Bangladesh policies to coalition allies in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal. Even his signature civil nuclear cooperation deal with the US remains unconsummated because domestic opponents successfully hobbled it with a draconian nuclear liability law.

Vajpayee had injected a healthy dose of realism into India’s penchant for woolly thinking on international issues, bringing greater coherence and focus. Similarly, instead of the vague and nebulous “strategic autonomy” that has no operational meaning, Modi is likely to provide clear strategic direction and efficient policy execution. He is unlikely to abandon nuclear restraint or the pursuit of South Asian regional engagement and economic integration. He will need to reassure Pakistan and will have domestic political space to do a deal if he finds a partner for peace.

Modi-US: Unfortunate actions

Modi had his US visa revoked and, gratuitously and insultingly, a prospective visa denied even though there had been no application, because of alleged complicity in Gujarat’s 2002 anti-Muslim riots. This from the Bush administration that endorsed torture as official policy and was responsible for an illegal war of aggression that caused the death of hundreds of thousands Iraqis. Modi was the elected head of government of a well-run state, was never charged with any crime, independent judicial probes exonerated him, and Gujarat has functioned within the national bandwidth in Hindu-Muslim relations since 2002.

Washington has begun a diplomatic minuet of reaching out to the previously untouchable Modi. President Barack Obama welcomed the democratic process as a vibrant demonstration of shared values of diversity and freedom and looks forward to working with Modi to make the coming years “transformative” for bilateral relations.

A ‘Modicum’ of self-respect might suggest that, pace Groucho Marx, one would not want to visit a country that had ostracised one. But a PM is no longer a private person and must elevate collective interests above personal pique. India’s relationship with the US is too important for the PM to refuse to visit. But maybe he could make it a point to wait and sweat a while. There are many irritants that have crept into the bilateral relationship and Washington is likely to find Delhi more self-confident and assertive than the docile Singh. But India should rescind its self-damaging nuclear liability law and sign deals with Australia, Canada, the US and Russia.

Courtship: China, Japan or both?

Modi’s first overseas tour will probably be to China or Japan. Both have aggressively courted him over the past decade while the West treated him as a pariah. When the US closed its shores to him in 2005, Modi went east to Japan instead in 2007 and opened new investment channels between Gujarat and Japan. During a high-profile four-day visit to Japan in July 2012, he was treated above his protocol status. When Shinzo Abe led his party to a landslide victory in Japan’s 2012 general election, he broke from protocol in taking a congratulatory call from Modi as a state leader. The mutual respect between the two strongly nationalist PMs could pay handsome dividends for both countries now.

As state premier Modi promoted business and trade cooperation between China and Gujarat and led a high-profile delegation to China on a five-day visit in November 2011. He was received in the Great Hall of People in Beijing, an honour normally reserved for heads of state/government. His known commitment to infrastructure development, courting investment and creating special economic zones might lead to more intensified interaction with China, overcoming the traditional reserve of Indians for consolidating and deepening ties with China in strategic sectors.

Multilateral Engagement

Only a strong leader can challenge US economic and political dominance and BRICS provides a ready-made forum to do so in partnership with other like-minded countries, including China. However, a nationalist leader might also pursue a policy of enmeshing India in a web of allies in the neighbourhood as a strategy of forging strategic links around China.

Modi might also consider investing more diplomatic capital in groupings like BRICS. The BRICS have been far more sympathetic to Russia than to Europe and the US on the Ukraine crisis. Will Modi take an interest in the planned BRICS development bank? What will be his personal chemistry with the other leaders in BRICS and, for that matter, the G20?

Finally, India’s bureaucratic set-up is out of date and out of tune with contemporary reality and needs. Modi should appoint a capable and powerful foreign minister who can initiate and oversee a drastic overhaul of the recruitment, training and promotion practices of a greatly enlarged foreign service. And merge India’s foreign policy and trade bureaucracies.

Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of Modern Diplomacy.