Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has been characterised by great energy, a desire to break the mold of the past and a penchant for risk-taking. Given the vigour he has imparted, foreign relations should have yielded more significant results. They haven’t. This is not only the fault of poor conception and implementation of some initiatives, but to the fact that in foreign policy there are external variables outside your control.
Even before the Modi government assumed office in May of 2014, certain trends in foreign policy had hardened. 1) The Special Representative process of resolving India’s border issue with China had reached a dead-end. 2) The same had happened with the composite dialogue with Pakistan. Actually, minus a Pakistani effort to punish the perpetrators of the 2008 Mumbai terror strike of November 2008, the very basis of a bilateral dialogue to resolve issues had been undermined.
What has Modi sought in his foreign policy ?
The Modi government has, through its publicised Raisina Dialogues, put forward themes it wishes to pursue in its foreign policy. In its first iteration in 2016, “Connectivity” was the overarching meme, associated with its desire to push neighbourhood ties. In January 2017, the dialogue was under the rubric of “Multipolarity and Multilateralism,” signaling a larger vision of India as a regional power.
These do not, however, tell the whole story. India can have only one major goal in its grand strategy –to promote economic growth and secure its periphery. In this, integrating the South Asian economy through enhanced connectivity is logical, though pursued fitfully, primarily because of India’s poor ties with Pakistan.
To secure its periphery, New Delhi must deal with its biggest foreign policy challenge—moderating, if not breaking, the China-Pakistan alliance. Short of this, it remains limited to managing its relationships with the two in a sub-optimal manner. As of today, however, the Modi government appears to be faltering even in this task.
Modi came in with a terrific drive. In just the seven months that he was in office in 2014, he had made nine foreign visits. In his two-and-a-half years, he has visited 36 countries, a handful of them twice, and the United States four times. A remarkable aspect of his visits was that, in many instances, he was the first PM to visit a country, even key neighbours, in years—the first in 17 to Nepal, 28 to Sri Lanka, 34 to UAE, and the first ever to Mongolia.
Modi came to power with a “neighbourhood first” agenda. He signaled his commitment by inviting all the leaders of SAARC nations for his inauguration as Prime Minister. His very first bilateral visit in June 2014 was to India’s “best friend” Bhutan and the second in August was to Nepal. He returned to Kathmandu in November to attend the 18th SAARC summit, where he conducted an important outreach to Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
The neighbourhood pattern was repeated in 2015, but this time focusing on the Indian Ocean when there were visits to Seychelles, Mauritius and Sri Lanka as well as to Bangladesh and Afghanistan. A second important cluster was all the five Central Asian “stans” in July 2015.
A third set of priorities became visible through Modi’s 2016 visits to Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Qatar. He had already visited the UAE in August 2016, and the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al Nahyan became the chief guest at the Republic Day parade in 2017.
Underlying all these were visits to Japan and various European countries with a view to enticing investors and aid. The visits to the US were a special category, aimed at shoring up ties with the only country that could help India offset Chinese power, and whose friendship opened the doors to many other countries and institutions.
The best laid plans…
Somehow things have not worked out as well in the neighbourhood as they could have – and we aren’t even speaking about Pakistan. It was evident in the 18th SAARC summit in Kathmandu that Islamabad was not willing to go along with the connectivity projects being mooted, and Sharif had been domestically hobbled by the Army. By 2016, the India-Pakistan situation had reached a point where a New Delhi-led boycott led to the collapse of the 19th SAARC summit to be held in Islamabad.
Ties with Nepal nose-dived in 2015 following the promulgation of a new constitution that militated against the interests of the Madhesi or plains people. New Delhi woke up at the last minute and sent Foreign Secretary Jaishankar to retrieve the situation, but it was too late. Eventually a road blockade softened the Nepalese, and thereafter a New Delhi-backed constitutional coup led to a break in the CPN(UML)- CPN (Maoist) alliance in Nepal, and the replacement of K P Sharma Oli by Pushpa Kamal Dahal (Prachanda) as Prime Minister. But the damage has been deep, and Oli is now fanning the flames of Nepali nationalism with some Chinese encouragement.
The new Indian assertiveness was also visible in Sri Lanka where New Delhi helped cobble an alliance that saw the defeat of Mahinda Rajpakse in the presidential elections. The man who defeated the LTTE became anathema to New Delhi because of the burgeoning links between Sri Lanka and China. More than this, though, New Delhi was alarmed by the docking of Chinese submarines in Colombo harbour in 2014 and 2015.
There has been no visit to Maldives because New Delhi’s relations with Male remain deadlocked following the removal of Mohammed Nasheed as President, and the steady consolidation of control by President Abdulla Yameen.
But the visits to the island republics of Mauritius and Seychelles have been useful in developing India’s maritime domain awareness scheme, as well as its naval posture in the Indian Ocean.
The elephants in the room
The big failures in India’s ties relate to Pakistan and China. After a thaw of sorts in 2014, India-Pakistan ties never really got off the ground. There were incidents on the Line of Control, and the new government sought to clearly signal its tough intent by conducting an unprecedented counter-bombardment on the LoC.
But New Delhi did not give up on Islamabad. Following the Ufa meeting between Sharif and Modi, their NSAs met in Bangkok in early December 2015. Later on Christmas Day, which happened to be Nawaz Sharif’s birthday, Modi made a surprise descent on Lahore to personally wish him.
However, the attack, a week later on January 1, 2016, on the Indian airbase at Pathankot has changed the Indian narrative on Pakistan. Prime Minister Modi has since then, repeatedly called on Pakistan to be sanctioned as a state sponsor of terrorism, and to be isolated by the international community. The Uri attack of September 18, 2016 and the Indian response through the so-called surgical strikes ten days later on September 28/29 are an indication that India and Pakistan are back to the future. Modi’s obsession with “terrorism” from Pakistan is puzzling considering that since 2011 we have not suffered a mass civilian casualty attack. It appears to be designed to appeal to the domestic electorate.
With China, nothing so dramatic is happening. Indeed, to go just by one metric, Chinese “transgressions” on the Line of Actual Control have actually decreased. The peculiar drama that played out in Chumur sector during the state visit of Xi Jinping in September 2014 was the last such major event. But the border talks are stalled and there has been no significant political or economic outcome from either the Xi visit of 2014 or Modi’s return visit in 2015.
But a CBM regime ensures that its disputed border does not trigger conflict, while India participates in Beijing-led initiatives like the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), and BRICS, and goes through the motions of cooperation.
Our natural ally
The one area where India has had unalloyed success is in its relations with the United States. This is not because we have an identity of interests, but a congruence of needs that the other can fulfill. India needs the world’s foremost military power to maintain a balance against China, while the US needs India because it is the only credible partner it has in building a coalition in East Asia to confront China. These ties were not a Modi initiative, but arose during the presidency of George W Bush. In fact, it can be argued that the given the momentum, the outcome has been sub-par.
Relations with Japan are a subset of ties with the US, and again, serve mutual needs—India wants Japanese investment and technology, while Tokyo seeks India’s participation in the East Asian coalition.
What about the main agenda: seeking an economic transformation of India? According to the government, Modi’s foreign visits have resulted in a sharp rise of FDI into India. In 2015, for example, India attracted $ 44 billion a 29 per cent jump over the figure for the previous year. The figure could be higher for 2016, but it needs to be recalled that the 2012 figure was $46.55 billion, and so to attribute the growth to Modi’s foreign policy alone would be an error.
As part of this, Modi has also been active in multilateral forums like BRICS, East Asia Summit, and the G-20. However, the political part of the agenda often became more important than the economic. Thus, the Ufa BRICS summit became more important for the Modi-Sharif meeting than the substantive agenda. The BRICS summit in Goa in October 2026, became an occasion to corner Pakistan on account of its support of terrorism.
Despite the self-inflicted wound of demonetisation, India’s economy will remain a growth magnet and attract foreign investment. But the India story may be affected by questions about the competence of its government and its whimsical ways. More importantly, there are concerns over its failure to deliver much-needed domestic reforms to ease the rules of doing business in India. Modi seems to be on a permanent election campaign, unable to take the tough decisions needed for the next wave of reforms.
Our worries are undiminished. Pakistan, far from being isolated for its support to terrorism, it is getting enhanced attention because of the compulsion of the great powers like the US, Russia and China to obtain peace in Afghanistan. Indeed, the Russia-Pakistan entente and the Russia-China relationship pose troubling questions for New Delhi.
China continues to swarm over us in South Asia. The latest sign of this has been the $24 billion aid, loans and investment commitments made by Xi Jinping during his visit to Bangladesh in 2016. As it is, all three of the wings of the Bangladesh military are equipped with Chinese equipment. Indian aid to Nepal has dipped, while China has now pipped India as the top aid donor. More worrisome are the internal trends suggesting growing Chinese influence in the country.
The new Srisena government had promised to review many of the allegedly pro-Chinese actions, but as time goes by it is apparent that there has been no real change. Chinese influence is now a growing reality that India must take into account in Sri Lanka.
In the mid 1990s, India thought of itself as a player in Central Asia, but today, the Chinese have swamped everyone, including the US and Russia. Chinese bilateral trade with the region is in excess of $ 50 billion, compared to India’s roughly $ 1.3 billion. Chinese banks hold a significant portion of the government debt of several of the “stans”. And Chinese pipelines and railroads are turning away the region from their historic ties to Russia.
A major problem in India’s foreign policy is its illusion that it is somehow competing with China. We are certainly a budding rival of China, the only one with sufficient physical size and population to offset its power. But we are a long way from actualising the potential. In the meantime, we urgently need a strategy to do so. Because of the enormous difference in economic and military power between India and China, what we need are asymmetrical means of dealing with Beijing. We have substantial soft-power assets, but those can only be effective together with the real currency of hard power— cash and exportable military goods.
The broad thrust of India’s foreign policy remains is legitimate and worthwhile. But what is needed is retrenchment and focus. We cannot take on China across-the-board. Our South Asian neighbourhood is a priority, and Modi’s outreach to the Persian Gulf has great value because that is the most important external region for India. It is where it gets most of its oil and where it has 7 million citizens who send back substantial remittances. Saudi Arabia, UAE and Qatar have huge sovereign wealth funds which are always looking for good investment destinations. India needs to not only access these funds, but build security linkages to secure its oil and its nationals there.
The Chah Bahar project offers us a relatively inexpensive riposte to the One Belt One Road strategy by enabling a multi-modal link to Europe through Iran, the Caucasus and Russia. If we can provide sub-continental and Indian Ocean linkages, we, too, can be in the connectivity business.
Though the first indications are that there could be opportunities in the Trump era, there is need for caution since there are too many imponderables at play at this juncture. But real success for Modi’s foreign policy will necessitate an effective domestic policy focusing primarily on investment and economic growth. This requires not just vision—which Modi has in surfeit—but competence and execution, which seem to be in short supply.