The nature and magnitude of Narendra Modi’s foreign policy departures

Will the changes to India’s foreign policy being introduced by Narendra Modi be embraced by the successive governments led by parties other than the BJP?


A file photo of  Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Hindustan Times
A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Hindustan Times

Prime Minister Narendra Modi will not attend the 17th Summit of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Margarita, Venezuela on 17-18 September. This has been widely seen as a radical departure from India’s foreign policy, which was once centred on the concept of non-alignment. However, it is not a neat departure — for two reasons. Commentators have indeed dwelled on one of them — Modi is not the first Indian prime minister to have skipped a NAM summit. Charan Singh did so in 1979. More famous as an answer to a popular quiz question—“Who was the only prime minister of India to have not faced Parliament during his/her tenure?”—than for his contribution to India’s strategic vision, Singh’s absence at the summit was hardly of any policy significance.

The other reason can be found in the now forgotten interview Modi gave Gerard Baker, editor-in-chief of The Wall Street Journal. In the interview earlier this year, Modi said: “There is no reason to change India’s non-alignment policy that is a legacy and has been in place.” Modi does indeed have an escape route here as well. After all, a policy of non-alignment is not the same as the non-aligned movement. The former is a tactical, and relatively flexible, weapon which India still deploys, many times quite effectively, to achieve its favoured outcomes. The latter, a movement, flows from a worldview — and a fairly dogmatic one at that. Embedded in the global realities of the Cold War, NAM has been reduced to the brink of irrelevance since the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the emergence of a deeply integrated world.

Albeit not a neat break, Modi’s departure from tradition is significant and can be found in many other foreign policy steps he has taken (more on that below). But is Modi bringing in the most momentous changes in Indian foreign policy since 1947? While the answer is a simple ‘no’—that crown sits most comfortably on P.V. Narasimha Rao’s head—I argue that this is not the most intelligent question to ask.

Also Read: The importance of being Narendra Modi

The changes introduced by leaders are also products of the circumstances. George W. Bush’s interventions in distant lands were a product, inter-alia, of 9/11 and the US that came out of it. Barack Obama’s withdrawal from those lands was driven, on the other hand, by the failure of Bush’s interventions. Even a Republican President would have acted broadly on the same lines as the Democrat Obama. Similarly, Rao’s tenure, which coincided with the end of the Cold War and a balance of payment crisis that necessitated the opening up of the Indian economy, bore the seeds for many of the changes he ushered in. And Rao was visionary enough to seize the opportunity to open up India not just to the US but also to South-East Asia and Israel —steps that would increase New Delhi’s manoeuvring room many times over.

Other prime ministers too, like Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, sometimes broke from the past to set new terms of engagement for India on the global stage. But most of these changes, including radical ones of Rao, have been embraced and persisted with by the succeeding prime ministers and governments. The much talked about continuity in foreign policy across dispensations is not just a good soundbyte but has been adhered to quite steadfastly. If the consensus was broken and India’s path was changed by a particular leader, that change became the new consensus. The Left parties are still behind the curve but most others have moved ahead.

The more intelligent question to ask, therefore, is: Will the changes being introduced by Modi be embraced by the successive governments led by parties other than the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)? The answer to this will determine if the Modi’s radical departures will live as long as Rao’s, for example. If the leaders so far have embraced changes made by their predecessors, why will Modi’s successors not follow suit? Where is the doubt even emanating from? Perhaps from the nature, if not the magnitude, of Modi induced departures.

Also Read: Gradually burying non-alignment

Let’s start with the Congress party’s opposition to India signing the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) with the US. But since Congress is making the same mistake as the BJP which disapproved of the Indo-US nuclear deal from the opposition benches in Parliament, it is easy enough to imagine the Congress executing an impeccable somersault—just like BJP’s on the nuclear deal after coming to power—to support LEMOA if and when it regains power.

But surely it is not easy to envisage a Congress prime minister following Modi’s footsteps on NAM. Do not forget that Jawaharlal Nehru was among the founders of the movement in 1961.

There are more such difficult scenarios for the future Congress prime minister. In response to Pakistan’s unrelenting support to insurgency in Kashmir and the noise made by their leaders in global forums on alleged human rights violations in the Valley, Modi has—in the words of this newspaper—opened up another (political) front in Balochistan. At the moment it looks highly unlikely that a future Congress prime minister will continue to deploy Modi’s Balochistan card. Of course the assumption—and admittedly not a robust one—here is that Modi will himself stick with the Balochistan card during the rest of his tenure.

What about the South China Sea? The Modi administration has been fairly active on the South China Sea dispute. Much to the annoyance of China, India has repeatedly asked the parties to the dispute to abide by the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea – a position favoured by all the claimants but China (and Taiwan). Besides, India has been unhesitatingly mentioning South China Sea in joint statements with the US, Japan and Vietnam since the ascendance of Modi.

These moves by India have irked China and are partly responsible for the current sag in bilateral relations. For future Congress prime ministers to follow Modi’s South China Sea activism—and it will be difficult not to—it will require the recognition that non-alignment or strategic autonomy or “strategic military neutrality”—the phrase the party used in the press release criticizing LEMOA—has limited utility in the milieu of current geopolitical flux which is being shaped by, most notably, the rise of China.

If a future prime minister of Congress or any other party discards Modi’s foreign policy shifts, should Modi be blamed for not creating a consensus around his policies? Or will the future leader be blamed for not recognising the changed world which Modi did? The answer, unless Modi by that date is discredited to the extent Manmohan Singh was by the end of his tenure, will depend on one’s political inclinations.

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