By: Hrishabh Sandilya
Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power in May, with little foreign-policy experience, aiming to resurrect India’s tottering international standing. With his pertinacious yet pragmatic agenda of refocusing India’s external affairs to drive trade and investment, and a bolder stance on security issues, he has done surprisingly well.
One of his first steps was to reset his personal relations with the United States. He could have taken umbrage at having been denied a visa for so long. Instead, he was quick to accept US President Barack Obama’s invitation to visit. Modi was sanguine enough to realise the importance of the US as a counterweight to China. With a deft touch, visible in his reciprocal invite to Obama to attend India’s Republic Day celebrations, he hopes to attract further American investment and support.
Closer home, he was quick to state that India would support its neighbours in their quest for progress. But when Pakistan showed opposition, both at the Saarc summit in Kathmandu and at the Line of Control, his response was decisive. If Pakistan was going to play spoilsport in a common South Asian development agenda, India would go the bilateral route, taking along the neighbours who were happy to play ball. If Pakistan was going to resort to its perfidious asymmetric warfare tactics in Kashmir, Modi demurred that India’s reply would be more than fitting.
Matching Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit to Delhi in its significance was Modi’s attempt to reach out to Japan and the Asean. In Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Modi sees a kindred soul. It helps that both share similar apprehensions about China, though they also realise the importance of working with China to revive their faltering economies. Modi also sees Japan as a major investor and capable of providing the technical knowhow India’s industries need.
Two other aspects of Modi’s foreign policy have stood out. The first is his outreach to the diaspora. Beginning in the US and later in Australia, Modi thanked the diaspora for their fealty and role in bringing him to power. He also realises their potential value as an influential lobby for India’s interests. The second is his urbane representation of India at the world’s multilateral forums. With personal trips to the G-20, BRICS and East Asia summits, Modi has showed how much India values multilateral frameworks — a significant discontinuity from the past. His ability to break the deadlock on the food stockpiling issue at the WTO is testament to his pragmatism and how he wishes the world to see India as constructive, not rebarbative.
Two regions, however, have been conspicuous in their absence from Modi’s outreach in his first year: Europe and the greater Middle East. Plagued by its own internal economic and political woes, Europe has been beleaguered by the crisis in Ukraine. It hasn’t helped that the United Kingdom, India’s power broker on the continent is going through its own phase of European self-doubt. India-EU relations are yet to recover from the failure to sign the FTA in 2013. However, the EU remains India’s second-largest trading partner and could play a key role in providing India with the necessary skills and knowledge it needs. Modi will have to address Europe sooner rather than later.
While the greater Middle East has been in a state of flux for the past few years, India chose not to be pellucid about its policies on Syria, Libya or Iraq under the guise of strategic autonomy. It is unlikely that under Modi, India will enunciate a strategy for the region. But given the greater geopolitical implications of the rise of the Islamic State, and the failure of democratic transformations after the Arab Spring, India will have to make more pronounced moves in the region. With over five million Indians living in the Middle East, the risk of conflict to Indian lives is tangible.
While pragmatism has been key in Modi’s foreign policy, it is moot to conclude that there exists a clear Modi doctrine. The contours of one, though, have begun to emerge: A clear tilt toward the US and its allies, complemented by an “Act East” policy, as India chooses a multi-vectored approach to address the growing closeness between Russia and China. The question that arises is, will Modi be able to keep the momentum as he shifts focus to key domestic issues in the years ahead?
The writer is visiting fellow at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, Delhi