Challenging times for Indian foreign policy as new foreign secretary takes charge

Shringla, who came in from Washington where he served as India’s ambassador, will have his work cut out, writes  Nilova Roy Chaudhury for South Asia Monitor 

Nilova Roy Chaudhury Jan 29, 2020
Harsh Vardhan Shringla

Harsh Vardhan Shringla assumes office as India’s top diplomat in challenging times for Indian foreign policy. As Foreign Secretary (FS), he will have to contend with countries in the neighbourhood and beyond actually questioning India’s credentials as the world’s largest and most thriving democracy, which the world, until recently, held up as a shining example.
On January 29, when he took charge as FS, the European Parliament was set to debate and possibly even vote on an unprecedented six resolutions, tabled and backed by six political groups, totalling 626 MEPs (Members of European Parliament) out of 751, critical of India’s passage of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), the National Register of Citizens (NRC) in Assam and even the government’s abrogation of Article 370 of India’s Constitution, stripping Kashmir of its special status. The resolutions claim these measures reflect a “dangerous shift in defining citizenship” and a “dangerously divisive” trend in Indian policies.
The European Union has distanced itself from the anti-CAA resolutions, with EU Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Virginie Battu-Henriksson, saying the opinions expressed by some of its members was not reflective of the "official position" of the 28-member political and economic union. In fact, the EU is busy preparing for Modi’s visit to Brussels in March for the 15th India-EU summit, aimed at bolstering the strategic partnership.
Technically, the Indian government has nothing to worry about, because these resolutions are not binding, nor will they lead to sanctions, but the optics are a problem. India’s image does take a beating when something like this happens and New Delhi is certainly embarrassed by the move, which comes just weeks after it flew in 23 right-wing MEPs for a guided tour of Kashmir to showcase the situation in the Kashmir Valley. The Indian government has reacted strongly to the resolutions, saying the CAA was India’s internal matter, while the Speakers of India’s houses of Parliament have written to their counterparts saying legislatures had no business to comment on legislative decisions taken by other democracies.
When Shringla’s predecessor, outgoing Foreign Secretary Vijay Gokhale, assumed charge exactly two years ago, he came in on a platform of India’s global stature being considerably enhanced by standing up for a small neighbour, Bhutan, against the mighty Chinese military at Doklam. India’s enhanced global stature was on display when all 10 ASEAN leaders were present for India’s Republic Day celebrations, which also commemorated India’s Constitution. Soon after Gokhale took charge, the India-China informal summit happened in Wuhan (now, of course, infamous for being the place of origin of the deadly Coronavirus), raising the bar for the troubled bilateral discourse and showcasing the power of Indian diplomacy.
This was soon followed by a similar summit between Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Russian President Vladimir Putin and, in the neighbourhood, a series of fortuitous events, like the election of the MDP in the Maldives, and the re-election of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh. The outreach to West Asia also saw extraordinarily warm ties between India and Saudi Arabia and the UAE and, at global summits like the G-20, trilaterals between Japan, the US and India and Russia, India and China. Relations with France and Japan also saw immense synergies and warmth.
India’s Kumbh Mela, the 12-yearly Hindu pilgrimage, was feted as the largest gathering of humans on the planet, with an extraordinary participation diplomats and delegations from a range of countries, and the general elections of 2019 cemented that growing stature of India as the world’s largest and most diverse democracy.
Modi’s landslide victory saw Modi 2.0 usher in his second tenure with leaders from BIMSTEC nations, signalling its intent to keep Pakistan out of its neighbourhood priorities, while also focusing on its maritime interests and the Indo-Pacific. Since then, the government has taken a series of domestic policy decisions which, after a long period, are bringing critical comment from even countries counted among India’s close partners, among them Bangladesh, Japan, France and even the US, where legislators are gathering numbers to table resolutions critical of India.
Shringla, who came in from Washington where he served as India’s ambassador, will have his work cut out. He has managed to get an assurance from US President Donald Trump that he will visit India in February. That is likely to add some heft to New Delhi’s global stature. But it is important to remember that the Trump administration has also just helped Pakistan stay out of the UN’s FATF blacklist and needs Islamabad to help him broker a deal in Afghanistan. Also, in this difficult election year right after a strong effort to impeach him, Trump requires the support of the almost four million Indian Americans in the US to get re-elected.
There are many challenges, but Dhaka, where Shringla was envoy before he moved to Washington, is among the key focus areas where the new foreign secretary will have to move carefully and swiftly to assuage the disquiet and even anger caused by the mention in the CAA of Bangladesh as a place where minorities are persecuted.
(The writer is Editor, India Review & Analysis)