Is India’s foreign policy at a cusp? The question is far from trivial. Since assuming office, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has visited well over a dozen countries ranging from India’s immediate neighborhood to places as far as Brazil. Despite this very active foreign policy agenda, not once has he or anyone in his Cabinet ever invoked the term “nonalignment”. Nor, for that matter, has he once referred to India’s quest for “strategic autonomy” — a term of talismanic significance to the United Progressive Alliance government.
Modi’s studious avoidance of these terms, along with a series of choices during his first year in office, may well bespeak new era in India’s foreign policy. Apart from his avoidance of such fraught language Modi has taken decisions that suggest a clear break with the past. For example, without much fanfare he invited President Barack Obama as the chief guest at India’s annual Republic Day Parade. Long after the Cold War’s no, no other prime minister had even considered such a gesture. Given the many past vicissitudes in Indo-US relations, his invitation to Obama was laden with meaning: India was now ready to move toward a more cordial working relationship with the United States.
His ability to take touch decisions was also on display during his visit to France. Thanks to the vagaries of India’s complex defense procurement process, the purchase of 126 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft has long been in abeyance. While in France, cognizant of the acute needs of the Indian Air Force, Modi chose to purchase 36 aircraft in a “fly away” condition. Admittedly, this abrupt decision is not without its critics. Nevertheless, it did demonstrate a clear-cut willingness on his part to make a demanding decision affecting India’s vital security needs.
Closer to home he has also demonstrated a remarkable degree of verve and imagination in the conduct of the country’s foreign policy. Past regimes had ineffectually protested the Pakistan High Commissioner’s feckless dalliance with various Kashmiri separatists on the eve of many Indo-Pakistani bilateral talks. However, in August 2014, when High Commissioner Abdul Basit chose to do yet again, despite a clear warning from the Ministry of External Affairs, the Prime Minister’s office simply called off the Foreign Secretary level talks.
Similarly, even though intent on courting better economic ties with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and attracting investment from that country, Modi apparently did not mince his words in his conversations with Xi Jinping during his trip to the PRC in May 2015. According to multiple press reports he candidly informed his Chinese host about India’s concerns about the long-standing border dispute.
Not only has Modi displayed gumption in dealing with India’s two most nettlesome neighbors, but he has also displayed a degree of magnanimity in his handling of smaller neighbors. A number of past governments had failed to tackle the trying issues of enclaves along the Indo-Bangladesh border. Once again, Modi moved with dispatch to settle the issue even though it required a constitutional amendment. It remains to be seen if he can demonstrate similar skill in resolving the issues surrounding the Teesta river waters.
The vast majority of these choices and decisions show a willingness on his part to embark on a more bold and inventive foreign policy. That said, there are at least two potential pitfalls that could dog his footsteps. First, his foreign policy seems to be mostly a function of his own ideas and initiatives. It is far from clear the extent to which he has been able to persuade India’s substantial bureaucratic apparatus to get on board with his novel moves. Unless he succeeds in convincing the stolid foreign policy apparatus of the wisdom and necessity of his actions he may well face considerable foot dragging in the future. Second, at a more substantive level, apart from a stated interest in visiting Israel, he has evinced scant interest in other parts of the Middle East. Given India’s current and foreseeable dependence on petroleum from the region, the remittances of its guest workers and the danger of the spread of radical Islam, his inattention to this critical region is disturbing. It can only be hoped that in due course he will turn his gaze toward this vital area.
Barring serious missteps and some focus on persuading India’s foreign policy establishment of the virtues of his policies, Modi may well be able to bring about much-needed shifts in India’s foreign policy orientation.
Featured Image: “President Barack Obama speaks with Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the 2015 Republic Day Parade”, by Pete Souza. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.