India’s Foreign Policy Overdrive

Muralidhar Selvamani

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President Obama with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Washington – US Government via Flickr

It has been a year since a new government headed by Narendra Modi assumed office in New Delhi. Political pundits believe India has since done better at managing its external affairs than its internal affairs.  Foreign policy has figured prominently as a focus area with the Prime Minister himself leading from the front. He  spent 44 days abroad visiting 15 nations in the past 11 months and has hosted 12 world leaders including the Presidents of USA, China and Russia. He will be on a state visit to China on the first anniversary of his inauguration. His foreign minister Sushma Swaraj, a political heavyweight and considered Modi’s Hillary Clinton,  made Asia the focus of her attention making  17 of her 20 foreign visits to countries in the continent. This wasn’t expected of a Prime Minister whose Achilles heel was assumed to be international affairs.

The surprises started right from the word go when he invited all SAARC leaders, including Pakistan’s Prime Minister, for his inauguration. He followed that up with another surprise by picking Bhutan  for his maiden state visit. But the biggest surprise of them all has been the swiftness with which he transformed ties with the United States , especially given his own past visa troubles. Ties between the two democracies hit an all time low following the US’s arrest of an Indian diplomat in late 2013. Just over a year later, President Obama was sipping tea with Prime Minister Modi as his Republic Day chief guest, the first time an American President has been accorded this honor. India’s then ambassador to the US, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was instrumental in turning things around. Mr. Modi rewarded his efforts by making him India’s Foreign Secretary, a clear sign of the importance he attaches to ties with the United States.

These seemingly random events convey a key message- that India is not going to be a prisoner of the past and will actively court whoever is vital for its future. This means securing its sphere of influence and forging alliances with key global powers. Consequently, it has started tightly embracing countries in its backyard and the message has not been lost on China.  With two giants wooing, countries in the region have never had it better. There is also an effort to integrate domestic policy with foreign policy. While Japan, Germany and USA are important for his pet domestic projects like Make in India and smart cities , the immediate neighborhood is vital to ensure the security environment remains investment friendly. Ajit Doval, a former senior intelligence officer whom Modi handpicked to be his National Security Advisor(NSA), has managed to steer the country clear of any major security mishaps – no mean achievement for a country with porous borders and hostile neighbors.

All this warmth hasn’t been at the expense of autonomy. India resisted international pressure on the  WTO Trade Facilitation Agreement and ratified it only after its concerns were addressed. Its independence was also on display in its approach towards the BRICS bank and Indo-Iranian trade ties. It is also insisting on charting its own path on  climate change. Such hardball tactics have been paired with softer tactics like getting the UN to approve an International Yoga Day. It is so much more sure footed on the international stage that western countries looked up to it for rescuing their citizens from conflict hit Yemen.

This foreign policy overdrive is sure to confound those responsible for crafting India specific strategy. China has the hardest task because Modi likes Chinese style development – he visited the country multiple times as Chief Minister of Gujarat- but is also an assertive nationalist not afraid of confrontation. Pakistan too has a tough job because the current Indian leadership is very different from the ones it is used to handling.

All this doesn’t mean there haven’t been bumps along the road. Afghanistan’s new found love for Pakistan is sure to cause some stomachs to churn in New Delhi. Sensing a change in the direction of the wind, Russia is striking defence deals with Pakistan, the first time a historical friend is arming an arch rival. Modi’s charm offensive has generated good will that must be transformed into tangible outcomes. While the optics have been spectacular, outcomes have so far been incremental. The historic nuclear deal with the US is still bogged down by wrangling over liability laws. Modi has been frantically announcing visas on arrival for many countries. Although, this is a win-win for foreigners as well as India (increased tourism revenue), there is yet to be large scale reciprocation by other countries. Even low hanging fruits like the bilateral totalization agreement with the US to exempt Indian professionals from US social security taxes have proved elusive. Foreign policy is a long term play and it is too early to judge the impact of the work done so far. If this were a class, Modi and Swaraj would get full marks for class participation and discussion. They have shown a lot of promise. Their final grade will depend on converting promise to performance.

Modi and Swaraj

External Affairs Minister Swaraj and Prime Minister Modi [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

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