Prime Minister designate Narendra Modi and his key lieutenants have been carefully mature in underlining the fact that foreign policy in India, as in all stable democracies, follows broad continuity. There are indeed changes as elected regimes change but these are more in the nature of fine-tuning, subtle tweaking, embellishments, like a touch of embroidery to lift some familiar old weave.
You could argue both for and against this claim. Broad continuity has been the most reassuring aspect of Indian foreign policy for nearly seven decades now. To such an extent, in fact, that even when ideological power shifts take place, new governments continue with stale, old and idiotic hypocrisies. The non-aligned movement, for example. Or, even more pointless but still cutely exotic, the Commonwealth. It is simpler to understand why nations need foreign policy stability and consistency as governments change. Because at the global high table, nations are reassured relating to other nations, and not regimes. That is one of the factors that makes democracies much stronger states than the most brutally powerful dictatorships.
But you could also argue that within that set tapestry, new prime ministers have made shifts. Indira Gandhi, on her return to power in 1980, sought out Ronald Reagan at Cancun the very next year to break the chill of the 1971 Nixon-Kissinger tilt. Rajiv Gandhi, somewhat more spectacularly, reached out to Deng Xiaoping. P.V. Narasimha Rao, though truly a dyed-in-the-pink Cold Warrior, opened up to Israel, upgrading our relations to full diplomatic status one dramatic January morning in 1992. Atal Bihari Vajpayee later made even bigger shifts, dropping nuclear hypocrisy and then, horror of horrors, hailing America as a natural strategic ally and reaching out to Pakistan despite enduring two and a half war-like phases (Kargil and the Kandahar hijack, 1999, and the Parliament attack, 2001), and nearly reaching a settlement with Nawaz Sharif first and Pervez Musharraf next. We have sufficient evidence, therefore, to conclude that there is enormous scope for change within continuity. And that is Modi’s big opportunity, particularly as he has succeeded in giving this brilliantly virtuous foreign policy flavour even to his swearing-in on Monday.
Just when he takes up his first job on the national stage, he has given himself an opportunity to feature on an international one. He can relaunch himself as a big-hearted moderate rather than a shrill demagogue or, in other words, switch from electoral campaign to governance mode and change his supporters’ rhetoric and the broader discourse at home. Particularly on some TV channels with bloodthirsty anchors who see the scent of a real war as the next TRP opportunity, now that the elections are done. Modi is a clever politician, one who foresees a long tenure in power with multiple innings and is smart enough to make that quick transition from campaigning to diplomacy. To put it more simply, even simplistically, he knows better than anybody else that you might need to flaunt a chhappan inch ki chhaati (56-inch chest) to win an election, but for successful diplomacy, particularly in a neighbourhood peopled by six much smaller, insecure and often unstable nations, an 156-inch heart is needed instead.
The four essential postulates that define India’s supreme national interest are cast in stone. First, that India’s pre-eminence in its region should not merely continue unchallenged but should grow, and that region must expand. Two, that India’s existing territorial boundaries must not diminish. I say this carefully and am conscious of attracting abuse when testosterone is our preponderant national hormone, but there is no nostalgia anywhere for taking any territories back from Pakistan or China, whatever the irredentist maps in one understated ideological campus in Nagpur or the two solemn, unanimous resolutions of Parliament may assert. Three, that India’s strategic sovereignty, the right to deterrence and a firm but non-destabilising strategic doctrine must remain unchallenged. And, four, that India should find its rightful place among the seven biggest powers of the world, a mere permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council being just so much ornamental blah.
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There is no contradiction between any of these and a better relationship with our neighbours. On the contrary, a more stable neighbourhood is our greatest force-multiplier. It de-localises our stature and greatly enhances our posture from regional to global, tactical to strategic. A nation’s strategic power is defined by its likely adversaries. To be at odds with the Maldives, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh or even Pakistan does not enhance ours. To be adversarial with China is unwise, whether in the short run or in the distant future. The need, as Manmohan Singh underlined often enough, and quite wisely too, is to somehow break out of the triangulation in which India is trapped with Pakistan and China.
Between Vajpayee and Singh, India successfully got rid of its hyphenated relationship with Pakistan. It was too early for Vajpayee yet to break out of that triangulation, though he initiated the ambitious process to get there, even if he never quite articulated the challenge as sharply and presciently as his successor did. But Singh failed because he simply did not have the political authority and even moral spine to back his formidable intellect and patriotic integrity. That’s why I believe his and the UPA’s decline began with his going back on the Sharm el-Sheikh declaration under a humiliating public veto by his own party.
Modi does not have that challenge. Nor does he have to submit to allies whose blackmail has lately blighted our foreign policy. His invitation to Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa is an admirable break from a dishonest diplomacy of self-inflicted blackmail. In a more reasonable and honest environment, Rajapaksa would have deserved a high Indian honour for ridding the subcontinent of a scourge and the assassins of one of our most loved national leaders. It is creditable that Modi has defied cynical Tamil parties, which have been allowed to get away for too long with the criminal mythology that an Indian Tamil’s loyalties are more pan-ethnic than patriotic. It will be a fine gesture now if Modi also visits the memorial to the sacrifices of the IPKF built by Rajapaksa in Colombo.
Similarly, while he employed Bangladeshi migration as an election plank, he needs to reach out to Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. She is building a secular polity and has thrown her fundamentalist extremists in jail, clamped down on the ULFA and banished the ISI. He should give Bangladesh and India the gift of the land boundary agreement. Nepal needs even greater understanding. It irritates India often. But think about this. In 11 years, Nepal has had 12 prime ministers. Yet, it has stayed the course with democracy, junking monarchy and Maoism. The downturn in relations with the Maldives can’t be seen in terms of national ego: a tiny archipelago state provoking the big regional daddy. It’s awful that it threw out India’s GMR from its airport contract, but it is also a failure of Indian diplomacy and intelligence. You have to repair that relationship. You can’t sort out the Maldives by launching a naval blockade of its capital and an occupation of its sexiest resort islands, much as our admirals and sailors may relish that prospect. When George Fernandes threw out IBM and Coke, Washington did not set the Seventh Fleet on us. It was during the same Morarji Desai government that Jimmy Carter visited India, the first US president to do so since Richard Nixon in 1969. And our external affairs minister, in 2013, was threatening not to come to his own Parliament until a case against one of his diplomats was withdrawn in New York.
The lesson is, big powers look at the bigger picture, and so must the aspiring big powers. Even when you are Modi-led India dealing with Sharif’s Pakistan, the ISI, al-Qaeda and all. Changing the nature of Pakistani society and polity towards moderation is a global project that India must back, because no other nation has greater vested interest in this. This project cannot be defined in terms of the score in the mutually played mischief on the LoC. Horrible though it is, you can trust your army to more than get even at the tactical level. National policymaking is about high strategy and diplomacy. And the game has just begun.