A year ago, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi stormed back to power with a bigger mandate, the BJP-led NDA government was basking in the glory of the diplomatic handling of the situation after Pulwama terror attack.
Leading up to the Lok Sabha polls, the government had successfully managed to convince the domestic audience about Modi’s diplomatic moves and how they had enhanced India’s image and prestige.
The fact that the global community had come out in India’s support after the terror attack, and some, including the US, had even backed the Balakot airstrikes, besides listing of Jaish-e-Mohammed chief Masood Azhar at UNSC as a global terrorist, was widely perceived as no mean achievement.
Modi’s second term was built on the moral high ground, which it had leveraged effectively. A massive majority made sure the diplomatic world gave a royal welcome to his second term.
Insiders felt that Modi had to devote a fair share of his time — some said about 60 per cent of it — on foreign affairs issues in his first term, and he needed someone who shared his vision, had the required bandwidth, skill, capacity and network to be his Foreign Minister. The field was narrow, and S Jaishankar, who had retired as Foreign Secretary some 16 months ago, was handpicked.
Early in his second stint, Modi started his whirlwind travel schedule — within the first 10 days of being sworn in, he travelled to Maldives and Sri Lanka. By mid-June, he was off to Bishkek (Kyrgyzstan) for the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, where he met Chinese and Russian leaders, but cold-shouldered Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan.
By end of June, he had attended the G-20 summit in Osaka, where he met US President Donald Trump and other world leaders. The big takeaway from Modi’s diplomacy in the first month of his second term was that he was now offering stability and predictability in policy, and that India is open for business and investments.
But an unpredictable Trump stunned New Delhi in the latter half of July, claiming that Modi had reached out to him for mediating on Kashmir. The government denied it within hours on Twitter, and new External Affairs Minister Jaishankar doubled down on the rejection next day in Parliament, indicating that there was no departure from India’s age-old policy of not allowing any third party in India-Pakistan bilateral issues.
When the government decided to revoke the special status granted to Jammu and Kashmir under Article 370 on August 5, 2019, the international community took note. Pakistan was the first to raise the alarm, and its close ally China — also impacted given its own territorial claims vis-a-vis Ladakh — voiced concern. New Delhi reached out to Beijing, and briefed the international community on its decision and reiterated that it was “internal affair”.
The international community raised its concerns on the human rights situation in J&K — the detention of political leaders, communication and internet shutdown – but Indian diplomats and officials contended: do you want loss of life or inconvenience? The binary question shut majority of global partners, except a handful.
Modi’s diplomatic outreach to West Asian and Gulf countries appeared to have paid off, as even they did not criticise India’s move publicly and unequivocally — except the perfunctory statements by the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.
The matter went up to the UN Security Council, but India’s diplomatic capital made the day. But, as the weeks and months passed by with the detentions, communication shutdown and reports of protests, the international diplomatic patience started wearing thin.
In August, Modi’s presence at the G-7 summit in France as a special invitee, and then his high-power diplomacy at the US where Trump joined him at the diaspora event, Howdy Modi, were seen as his way of asserting his position that his government was firm in its decisions on Kashmir. But slowly, India’s diplomatic goodwill was being questioned.
It was evident in the US Congress and US administration, where calls for respecting human rights in J&K became louder with each passing week.
Mindful of its sensitive nature of ties with Beijing, New Delhi laid out the red carpet to Chinese President Xi Jinping for an informal summit in the picturesque Mahabalipuram early October. The summit didn’t yield any significant breakthrough — on Kashmir or border, and except for a trade minister-level mechanism, there were no major trade-related decisions as well.
By early November, New Delhi took the call to not join the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) as it felt that the treaty did not favour domestic players and will open the floodgates to Chinese products. Six months into its second term, the government’s bold economic vision was perceived as protectionist by the international community. The goodwill chipped away a little, once again.
Although the verdict in the Ram temple issue in November was portrayed as a legal conclusion to a long-pending dispute, the fact that it emboldened the incumbent government was not lost on any foreign diplomat in Delhi.
It was in December, when the government passed the citizenship amendment Act (CAA), which was perceived as targeting minorities, that the world noticed; there was considerable disquiet in the diplomatic community.
There was widespread concern shared among many foreign diplomats who were supportive of the Modi government’s policies but who now viewed the new law as “discriminatory” in a multi-religious society and a liberal democracy. Members of the US Congress and the European Union’s Parliament members — from all sides of the aisle — roundly condemned the move.
These concerns became clearer when riots broke out in north-east Delhi, and several of these countries expressed grave concern.
By January, as protests against CAA gained momentum, and New Delhi was positioning itself on the US-Iran tension, the first warning on the coronavirus came. Over the next few weeks, India focussed on its fight against the pandemic, and had to repatriate Indians stranded in China.
In February, however, the government managed a diplomatic coup of sorts by getting President Trump to Ahmedabad and Delhi for a standalone India visit. Although the riots in Delhi broke out towards the end of this visit, the visit — in its symbolic value — achieved its diplomatic goal.
By March, as the pandemic spread, India reached out to countries to source protective gear, and testing kits, especially from China. In turn, it opened up its kitty of essential medicines — after some pressure from the US — and has earned some goodwill by supplying medicines to combat the pandemic.
Covid-19’s association with the Tablighi Jamaat, as the virus spread in India, also led to some diplomatically uncomfortable moments in the Gulf. As some Indians in the region were found to be spreading Islamophobic messages and the ruling dispensation in countries such as the UAE and Oman, among others, noticed, Indian diplomats had to publicly denounce such comments.
As the pandemic has claimed over 3 lakh lives globally, India has also coordinated with the US, Australia, Japan and European countries to hold China accountable at the WHO. It recently co-sponsored a resolution which asked for an independent evaluation to WHO’s response.
As the first year of the Modi government’s second term comes to a close, New Delhi is faced with tension along India-China border, where troops are in a standoff for the last three weeks. As diplomatic channels are being worked, New Delhi finds itself on a much more diplomatically challenging environment than it was a year ago.
One of the major takeaways has been that Indian diplomacy has been much more about explaining India’s internal affairs to the international community, rather than pursuing its foreign policy agenda. In a nutshell, the government’s domestic agenda has shaped the foreign policy agenda over the last 365 days.
As India and the world face the COVID-19 pandemic, much will depend on how South Block uses its diplomatic capital in the coming months to regain some of the lost ground. One of the first tests will be election to the UN Security Council’s non-permanent member’s seat; how India prioritises its agenda for the next two years at the UNSC, and how it navigates the geopolitical turf.
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