Prime Minister Narendra Modi has imparted remarkable energy to India’s foreign policy. Leading from the front, he has visited 25 countries, taken part in seven multilateral conferences and addressed the UN General Assembly in a short span of 14 months. He has also been communicative on social media. Notably lacking though has been a comprehensive conceptual articulation at the political level of the government’s view of the world, India’s place in it and how its diplomacy would achieve that position. Addresses on bilateral and regional relationships or on specific issues are poor substitutes.
Foreign Secretary S. Jaishankar has sought to partially fill this gap. In two noteworthy speeches (July 17 and 20), he dwelt on the government’s thinking on important foreign policy issues and the new diplomacy. Many aspects of Jaishankar’s remarks are reassuring; some are troubling.
He asserts that Modi’s foreign policy represents change more than continuity; that India’s aspiration is to be a “leading” power rather than “just a balancing” power. And in this context he asks, “…whether India should raise its level of ambition. Are we content to react to events or should we be shaping them more, on occasion even driving them?”
Of course, countries should be ambitious. But should ambition not be rooted in realism? Nowhere was the word “realism” used in either of the foreign secretary’s speeches. Does the word now connote passivity, reactivity and perhaps even defeatism? India’s foreign policy has always been realistic, even as it used openings to change the course of history, as in 1971. Action and reaction are often a dubious binary in diplomacy.
Modi has taken laudable initiatives. The Indian Ocean strategy is imaginative, bold and timely. The emphasis on economic diplomacy and dovetailing it with the need for advanced technologies and capital serves the domestic development agenda. The Act East thrust imparts new vigour to relationships that will only assume a higher priority in the future. The invitation to the Pacific island countries is praiseworthy. However, traditional relationships in Africa and West Asia also have to be nurtured. It appears that Modi is now turning to them.
“Connectivity, contacts and cooperation” is the mantra of Modi’s neighbourhood policy. To what extent does this represent a departure from the past? Modi’s decision to invite Saarc leaders to his oath-taking was pathbreaking. His visits to Bhutan, Nepal,
Sri Lanka, Myanmar and Bangladesh redressed a lamentable neglect. The emphasis on connectivity and cooperation is in keeping with the traditional Indian approach towards South Asia. The key now lies in convincing neighbours that Indian policies do not represent a desire to curtail their space for autonomous action. Modi wishes to include Pakistan in his overall South Asian approach. As Jaishankar says, “…the relationship with Pakistan has its share of challenges but is part of the neighbourhood agenda”. The fact is that Modi has, as yet, failed to formulate a consistent policy towards Pakistan. Is it realistic to include it in the ambit of the South Asian policy when its most important institution considers India as a permanent enemy?
Modi has laid greater emphasis on culture and the Indian diaspora. While his attitude to both derives from his ideological background, they are potent factors that could push Indian national interest. Modi’s emphasis on yoga, gifts of Indian spiritual texts, visits to temples and profiling the Buddhist connection resonates in many countries. But India’s cultural diplomacy has to take care to reflect the totality of its rich and varied traditions. These diplomatic tools have also to be handled with subtlety and finesse.
Modi’s diplomatic style is markedly different from his predecessors’. Jaishankar notes, “Personal chemistry has emerged as a powerful tool in our diplomatic kit.”
Good relations between the top leaderships of countries can help in ironing out wrinkles in bilateral ties. They can never impact on core issues unless there are objective reasons for a leader to change direction. The recent negative response of the Chinese to Modi’s reported personal demarche with President Xi Jinping on Beijing’s approach to Zaki-ur-Rehman
Lakhvi illustrates the limits of personal chemistry. Professional diplomats can scarcely ignore the lesson this incident provides.
Many world leaders reached out to Modi because of his decisive mandate and the intrinsic importance of India. Overall, Modi has responded well and successfully, but now the diplomatic terrain will be more difficult.
The writer is a former diplomat