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Business News/ Politics / Policy/  Can Narendra Modi sustain the foreign policy momentum?

Can Narendra Modi sustain the foreign policy momentum?

It remains to be seen how NDA will tackle India's unsettled border issue with China and issues with Pakistan

The prime minister’s first foreign tours to Bhutan and Nepal underscores his focus on better bilateral ties with neighbouring countries. Photo: Hindustan TimesPremium
The prime minister’s first foreign tours to Bhutan and Nepal underscores his focus on better bilateral ties with neighbouring countries. Photo: Hindustan Times

New Delhi: For a person who became the Prime Minister of India having limited exposure to the international scene mainly because of his pariah tag, there seems to be a general consensus that Narendra Modi has scored top marks in diplomacy in the 100 days his government has been in office, say analysts.

Be it his path breaking invitation to South Asian leaders to attend his swearing-in on 26 May in New Delhi —the first such move ever by an Indian prime minister—or following it up with visits to some of India’s smallest and long neglected neighbours or attending his first multilateral Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS) summit in Brazil where the leaders of the five countries announced the launch of the BRICS bank, Modi, analysts say, seems to have mastered the art of international diplomacy with aplomb.

“No one expected him (Modi) to show expertise in foreign policy given that he has had limited exposure to the subject" in his previous avatar as chief minister of Gujarat, said former foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. “But he has taken some major initiatives and shown himself to be sure-footed in his approach" starting with his invitations to South Asian leaders to attend his swearing-in to dealing with major powers such as the US, Mansingh said.

Analysts such as Lisa Curtis, senior research fellow at the Asia Centre of the Washington-based Heritage Foundation think-tank, discerned two strands in Modi’s foreign policy: the first is strengthening India’s diplomatic clout in its own strategic backyard; the second is what she described as “multi-directional diplomacy" which involves reaching out to countries such as the US and China to stabilise ties and consolidating relations with partners such as Japan.

Come September, Modi’s focus will be on India rejuvenating flagging ties with the US during a summit with President Barack Obama on 30 September and giving a new direction to India-China relations during President Xi Jinping’s visit to India on 18 September besides paving the way for a greater Japanese role in India’s economic development and scoping prospects for greater cooperation in the military realm during a five-day visit to Japan, his first foreign trip outside the subcontinent. Modi will also host Australian prime minister Tony Abbott on 5 September, the first head of government to visit India after Modi became Prime Minister. The steady stream of foreign visitors to New Delhi since Modi’s election as India’s Prime Minister is a far cry from the days he was shunned by the international community, mainly the West, for his allegedly turning a blind eye to the 2002 Gujarat riots in which many hundreds of people—mostly Muslims—were killed.

One of the factors for the turnaround has been the decisive mandate he received in the April-May polls. Modi is the first Prime Minister to command the support of a majority of MPs—279 out of 543—in the lower house of parliament since 1984. “He’s also being seen as a decisive leader with a distinct style of functioning," said Mansingh.

For someone who focused almost entirely on development, the need for restoring India’s economic growth and investor confidence in India’s growth story besides eliminating corruption and boosting India’s manufacturing base to generate jobs, Modi “has indeed surprised even his followers by the amount of time he has spent on foreign policy in the first 100 days, given that foreign policy issues were completely absent during his (election) campaign," Ashley Tellis, senior associate in the South Asia programme at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in emailed comments.

Tellis and Alyssa Ayres, senior fellow for India, Pakistan and South Asia at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations think-tank, saw clear links between Modi’s domestic economic agenda to revive growth and foreign policy.

“There is clearly a method at work, at least in his regional policies. In India’s immediate neighbourhood, he has attempted to create an environment that will be conducive to India’s continued economic growth," said Tellis.

According to Ayres, Modi’s priorities appear focused foremost on a pragmatic growth strategy to get the Indian economy back on track.

“To achieve that he has indicated that international economics will acquire greater prominence in Indian foreign policy. A muscular foreign policy, Modi seems to have concluded, can only follow when economic strength can be translated into political and military muscle," she said in a recent article published in the YaleGlobal, an online magazine of the Connecticut-based Yale University.

So, whether it has been visits to Nepal and Bhutan by Modi or trips to Bangladesh and Singapore by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, economic diplomacy has been a big part of the agenda. In Bhutan and Nepal, Modi sought to dispel India’s much detested “big brother image" in the neighbourhood and the belief that India promises but does not deliver, said Charan Wadhva, an economist with the New Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research think-tank. Increased cooperation in the hydel power sector and India’s commitment to Bhutan’s socio-economic development were points greatly welcomed and appreciated by the Bhutanese, an Indian government official familiar with the visit said. In Nepal, Modi, the first Prime Minister to visit the Himalayan country in 17 years, announced a $1 billion concessional credit to Nepal, offered to build pipelines to transport oil to the landlocked country besides construct roads, information highways and transmission lines.

In Bangladesh, Swaraj conveyed the new government’s resolve to scale up cooperation and break fresh ground in ties. A new bus linking the two countries through India’s remote northeast, liberalising visa norms for Bangladeshi nationals below 13 and above 65 years of age and assuring Bangladesh of additional power supply were the high points of the visit.

The efforts have not gone unnoticed in the region.

“Prime Minister Modi has the right idea, reach out to your neighbours because if you can’t fix your neighbourhood you not going to be able to fix the world. And he has started with the ones that are the easiest and that also makes sense because if he can show progress with the easier ones, he has the key to unlock the more difficult ones," said a South Asian diplomat who did not want to be named. Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh also had the same idea but was unable to work it out due to a weak mandate, the diplomat said.

India’s reaching out to Singapore, Myanmar and Vietnam, too, has had its economic and strategic components. In Singapore, Swaraj sought the city-state’s help in developing so-called environmentally sustainable “smart" cities while in Vietnam, which has a tense relationship with the giant neighbour China, India received the go-ahead to explore two offshore oil blocks in waters which both China and Vietnam claim as theirs.

The latter does not mean India is looking to pick a quarrel with China, the world’s number two economy after the US. India recognises the current “asymmetry" with China which is why there is an emphasis on building up its economic muscle, said Srikanth Kondapalli, professor of East Asian Studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. If India becomes strong economically, that will in its own way act as a deterrent, Kondpalli said, adding: “In any case, Modi came to power with vikas (development) as his main plank, so it all fits in."

India’s main problem with China is its unsettled border issue dating back to the 1962 war. Of late, China’s ballooning trade deficit with India has become another irritant. “Modi’s strategy so far has been to co-opt China, with its massive foreign-exchange reserves, as a partner in India’s development," said Kondapalli referring to a meeting between Xi and Modi on the margins of the BRICS summit. But the new Indian government is also looking at plugging chinks in its armour via measures such as beefing up communication links and security in its northeast where China claims almost all of Arunachal Pradesh.

Another challenging neighbour has been Pakistan.

During his talks with Pakistan’s prime minister Nawaz Sharif after his oath-taking ceremony in New Delhi, Modi said “that the two countries could move immediately towards full trade normalisation", Indian foreign secretary Sujatha Singh told reporters in New Delhi. The two leaders also agreed that the foreign secretaries would remain in touch to explore ways to resume a peace dialogue stalled for more than a year due to tensions along their de facto border in Kashmir. Though India announced the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan would meet on 25 August in Islamabad, the dialogue was called off abruptly after Pakistan met Kashmiri separatists in New Delhi on 18 August. Analysts like Mansingh backed the government’s move saying that Modi who started with a friendly cooperative gesture to Pakistan “has done well to draw the red lines in the relationship", but Lisa Cutis of the Heritage Foundation panned it calling it a “rather petty move".

India’s veto of the trade facilitation agreement at the World Trade Organisation after failing to receive assurances that India could expand its food-subsidy programme, also got mixed reviews.

Tellis described India’s move as “simply disastrous" which “went down very badly in Washington and in many other friendly capitals". Domestically, though, it was seen as Modi’s willingness to stand up for his perception of national interest, protecting Indian farmers—even if it meant opposing the US, said Mansingh.

But Modi’s first outing on the international stage, the BRICS summit, was largely given the thumbs-up. Analysts at home agree with the assessment abroad that the BRICS bank announced at the summit by the leaders of the five emerging market economies will take a while to give serious competition to established institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But it “is an important gesture", said Mansingh. “The BRICS grouping is demanding economic multi-polarity in the world. This is their way of saying that the BRICS are going to play a bigger role in the world," he said adding that Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party manifesto had spoken of restoring India’s prestige on the global stage. “All the actions by Modi so far have been aimed at that," he said.

According to Curtis, “Modi’s participation in the BRICS forum in July and support for the New Development Bank sent an early signal that he places a high premium on working closely with Russia and China, especially on economic and trade issues."

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Updated: 01 Sep 2014, 12:41 AM IST
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