An avid supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently asked me to name at least three of his foreign policy successes to be fair to the woefully biased leader of the nation. I am not particularly interested in being fair to those of the right and communal, nevertheless, for a journalist, it a good exercise and occupational hazard. Try as I did, I couldn’t think of much.
Nirupama Subramanian, an ace foreign correspondent formerly with The Hindu, has written on “The foreign policy challenge” in the Indian Express today. Simply put, it must have riled people in South Block, although Subramanian’s been more than diplomatic in laying down the challenges faced by the country as we step in to a new year, but more importantly, into an election year.
China tops the list with the reminder that the Asian giant’s “economic and geostrategic ambitions will continue to shape India’s responses”. Despite the difficulties of the recent past, it will be important for New Delhi to make use of the opportunities that have arisen with the slowing down of the Chinese economy and the looming trade war with the US. Subramanian quotes former national security adviser Shivshankar Menon’s strategic framework:
“respect for each other’s core interests; new areas of cooperation like counter-terrorism and maritime security and crisis management; a clearer understanding of each other’s sensitivities; settling or at least managing differences; and, a strategic dialogue about actions on the international stage”
Whether this government is capable of making use of the opportunity is to be seen.
Pakistan is certainly going to continue to be an obsession. It will be deployed in full force to serve the ruling party’s election comeback effort. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise if this government is upstaged by the wily Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, with moves like Kartarpur.
Even as Modi tom-toms Trump’s latest thumbs up (Donald Trump signs law to step up India defence ties) the cold fact is, as Subramanian puts it: “One fallout of the 10-year freeze in India-Pakistan ties is that New Delhi has painted itself out of the Afghan picture.” That is not going to change at least till the elections are over, a good six months from now.
As for Nepal, Sri Lanka and Maldives, Subramanian says: “India’s vision of itself as the self-declared ‘regional power’ has been cut to size by the smaller countries in South Asia…” That’s the China effect.
The current US government’s protectionist posturing, the painful changes to visa rules and the problem with Iran, are the flip side to Modi and the right’s love for their Trump card in the White House.
So, no, Modi has precious little to show as far as foreign policy is concerned. He might have done better if he genuinely had a fulltime Foreign Minister. There is a big ‘if’ there.