Overall, foreign policy under the Modi government is more of continuity from the previous regime than any major new ventures, writes Martand Jha for South Asia Monitor
By Martand Jha
The NDA government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi completed three years in power last month, making this a good time to analyze the kind of approach this government has taken towards foreign policy issues. While it is famously said that foreign policies of a country do not change with the change in regime, there is a certain ‘shift’ in the foreign policy.
In 2014, after a gap of three decades, a majority government assumed power. It was expected, therefore, that the Modi government would not need to worry about satisfying coalition partners while taking bold decisions. At the outset, Modi’s ‘bold move’ of inviting leaders from all SAARC countries for his swearing in ceremony came as a pleasant surprise.
In the case of invitations being given to leaders of all SAARC countries, definitely a ‘new step’ was taken, but it was not a paradigm shift. By doing so, PM Modi emphasized his ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy. He stated the importance of cooperation and having a cordial relationship with all neighbours, including Pakistan, which would be mutually beneficial to India and to its neighbours. He also stated the usual catchphrase that one can change one’s friends in foreign policy but not one’s neighbours.
Three years since the ‘Neighbourhood First’ policy began with a flourish, a lot has happened. Pakistan has become an even bigger headache than it was before. Indo-Pak relations have seen a roller coaster ride: From inviting Nawaz Sharif to his oath taking ceremony to Modi paying an impromptu visit to Pakistan on Nawaz Sharif’s birthday, from Pathankot to the Uri Attack, from Pakistan- backed terrorism in the Kashmir valley to ‘surgical strikes’, the list goes on. The latest being the Indo-Pak faceoff at the International Court of Justice regarding Kulbhushan Jadhav. Clearly, ‘Neighbourhood First’ is turning into ‘Neighbourhood lost.’
India’s other neighbours are constantly being wooed by China, which is investing a lot in each of them. India doesn’t have the economic capability to invest that much in the economies of its neighbours. Therefore, India is not able to attract its neighbours compared to China, which has thereby gained a ‘geo-economic’ as well as ‘geo-strategic’ advantage over India.
The Modi government has spent time in futile chest thumping over the fact that India’s position in the international arena has suddenly taken a ‘giant leap’ in the last three years since the current regime has been at the helm of the affairs. Much fanfare has been created that India, which used to punch below its weight, has suddenly emerged as a power which doesn’t shy away in flexing its muscles whenever required.
The examples cited of this ‘machismo’ are the two ‘surgical strikes’ which India conducted in Myanmar and Pakistan, in 2015 and 2016 respectively. These surgical strikes were presented in a manner where it was made to appear that these ‘strikes’ were the first of their kind, and had never happened before in the history of independent India.
The past three years would also be remembered for the frequent number of foreign visits undertaken by the Indian Prime Minister. Since assuming office in May 2014, Modi has made 56 foreign trips, starting from his first trip as PM in June 2014 to Bhutan. This is the highest number of foreign visits made by any Indian PM in history. There is a large section of foreign policy analysts who believe that these foreign visits are required for India to make its ‘presence felt’ as an emerging power in the international system.
It is also argued that PM Modi, through these visits, makes ‘personal equations’ with leaders of other states, which will help India to secure good ties, thereby ensuring both political as well as economic benefits. India’s entry into the MTCR (Missile Technology Control Regime) has been widely attributed to current government’s robust efforts in the field of diplomacy. However, the groundwork was laid much earlier and the entry reflected India’s track record..
When India hosted the BRICS-BIMSTEC summit in 2016 at Goa, India tried to simultaneously engage with multiple states of different groupings. The BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) is a grouping of mostly south Asian countries, excluding Pakistan. This meant that India tried to shrewdly isolate Pakistan among the SAARC nations.
Russia, considered to be India’s all-weather ally, seems to have been drifting away from India and tilting towards Pakistan. Strategic expert C Raja Mohan said, “As Russia conducts its first ever military exercise with the Pakistan Army, Delhi has to reckon with the prospect that Russia might not necessarily remain India’s best friend forever. Rethinking Russia’s position in India’s strategic calculus will be heart-wrenching for many in Delhi”.
Similarly, India’s relations with China have not shown improvement in the last three years. China’s Silk Road diplomacy has successfully wooed India’s neighbours, most of whom are participants in China’s “One Belt One Road” Project. India decided not to be a part of this project as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which passes through PoK (Pakistan Occupied Kashmir), is a part of this project. India claims PoK as its own territory, so the CPEC is troubling India’s policy makers as this gives both Pakistan and China a strategic advantage over the sensitive region of Kashmir.
India’s engagement with US has seen improvement under Modi, at least the effort put in by the PM is very evident, considering the fact that he has already paid 4 visits to US since he became Prime Minister. Setting out a new vision for the future, he proclaimed that Indo-US ties had ‘overcome the hesitations of history’.
India’s eminent strategic analyst Harsh V Pant analyzed Indo-US relations by opining that “From resolving the prickly issue of civil nuclear energy cooperation to significantly upgrading defence cooperation, and in arriving at a common understanding on a range of international issues, Indo-US relations seem to have reached an ‘extraordinarily good place.”
India’s foreign policy is in a transitional phase where new friendships are being made while the old ones seems to be drifting away. India’s relations with its immediate neighbours have been a matter of concern while India’s engagement with the outside world has been improving.
Increasingly, India’s stature in international relations is rising as India is making desperate efforts to be a part of all the major groupings in the world. Overall, foreign policy under the Modi government is more of continuity from the previous regime than any major new ventures.
(The author is a Junior Research Fellow at Centre for Russian and Central Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)