The decision of the Narendra Modi government to call off a meeting between the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan, drawing a Lakshman rekha on the issue of Pakistan’s official contact with Kashmiri separatists, has surprised many in India and abroad. Coming after an initial unexpected generosity of spirit in the outreach to Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, this tough stance has been likened by some to a similar pull back in multilateral trade negotiations at the World Trade Organisation after early declarations of intent to be more open to the world.
Critics of the government see inconsistency in this apparently contradictory posture. However, observers of Indian foreign policy and strategic thinking must pay closer attention to the underlying message emanating from Prime Minister Modi.
The first principle of foreign policy that Modi enunciated as PM, carrying forward the thinking of his predecessors, was that his government would give primacy to India’s economic development and interests in pursuing its external relations. The second principle, which is, in fact, derived from the first, is that India would maintain good relations with its immediate neighbours because its own security and prosperity are intrinsically linked to those of its neighbours.
Having defined these two principles, Modi went on to demonstrate his commitment to good relations with India’s neighbours and major powers through a series of interesting initiatives. His outreach to India’s South Asian neighbours was reinforced by meaningful engagement with Bhutan, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. He reached out to Pakistan through a series of moves aimed at calming nerves all around.
He established his credentials with the US by accepting an invitation to visit from President Barack Obama, despite the earlier shabby treatment meted out to him by the US. He gave his imprimatur for signing the additional protocol required to further operationalise the India-US civil nuclear agreement. By opening up defence production to foreign direct investment and taking other steps to ease FDI inflows, he has shown his willingness to utilise economic interdependence as a way of building political and strategic relations.
However, having made these gestures, Modi has not hesitated to draw his Lakshman rekha with respect to both principles of his foreign policy. On the first principle, of placing India’s economic interests at the centre of its foreign policy, he encouraged his minister for commerce and industry, Nirmala Sitharaman, to take a tough stand at the World Trade Organisation on what was viewed by India as a dubious move by the US and the European Union to get an agreement on trade facilitation before dumping the Doha Development Round.
On the second principle, good relations with neighbours, a red line was drawn by calling off the secretary-level talks with Pakistan after the latter ignored India’s suggestion that the Pakistan high commissioner continued…