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What critics of PM Modi’s foreign policy are ignoring

Kanwal Sibal, Shyamala B Cowsik, Veena Sikri, Bhaswati Mukherjee write: They are disregarding clear continuities in key areas of foreign policy under the UPA and the NDA governments, and minimising external threats to India.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi leaves after a function at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi. (AP Photo)

We, a Forum of Former Ambassadors of India, are concerned at the manner in which Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policies are being relentlessly criticised, including by those who were at the helm of our foreign and security policies in the past.

Those faulting the Modi government’s foreign policy as if there are serious departures from the past miss the clear continuities in key areas under the UPA and the NDA governments. The BJP government under former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee made India nuclear, engaged the US government in strategic discussions to resolve the nuclear issue, which eventually led to the India-US nuclear deal under PM Manmohan Singh’s government.

The dialogue with Pakistan broke down under the previous government and the impasse endures. The policy to engage Russia as a tried and trusted friend even as we develop new partnerships has not undergone any change. Important openings towards the conservative Gulf States created by the UPA have been greatly broadened by the NDA. With his background PM Modi’s excellent personal equations with the Saudi rulers and the Gulf potentates is a remarkable achievement.

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The Malabar exercises with the US began in the 1990s, resumed under the UPA Government and have now been expanded to include Japan and Australia. The Look East policy of the UPA became the Act East policy under the NDA. Priority has been given by both governments to relations with Japan. The Indo-Pacific concept was first formulated by former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in his speech to India’s parliament in 2007, has been in the air in the years that followed and has evolved under the NDA.

The Modi Government has paid far more attention to its neighbours than the previous government, with PM Modi making frequent visits to their capitals. It has focused far more than its predecessor on maritime security in the Indian Ocean and on acquiring the required capabilities to better ensure this. A major maritime partnership has been established with France in the western Indian Ocean. Access to naval bases in the Gulf is now available to the Indian navy.

Ties with ASEAN have continued to be cultivated, with all its leaders present in India on Republic Day 2018 as chief guests. The more restricted format of the India-Africa summit in 2008 and 2011 was enlarged in scope in 2015 with 41 African leaders participating.

With the European Union, at the 16th India-EU Leaders Virtual Summit in May, when all the 27 leaders were present, it has been agreed to resume negotiations, blocked since 2013, on a Free Trade Agreement, an Investment Agreement and one on Geographic Indicators. Separately an Enhanced Trade Partnership Agreement has been signed with post-Brexit UK.

Where PM Modi has imposed his thinking and personality more markedly at the international level is in the active wooing of the Indian diaspora. He has been able to galvanise them with his oratory and his message of confidence in India’s future. PM Modi has also promoted India’s soft power and its cultural and religious heritage as a tool of foreign policy which his predecessor did not. In 2014, the UN declared June 21 as Yoga Day annually. The new areas he has explored, such as leveraging our cultural soft power, are add-ons to a basic continuity, not diversions from it.

Of concern are the efforts by “experts” to gloss over China’s policies, motives and hostility towards India. To argue that China occupied part of the Doklam plateau in Bhutan because we cried “victory” after checkmating them is to not only to deny the government credit for standing up to China, but actually project it as a mistake in giving China an excuse to implant itself more firmly on the plateau. By this logic China’s reported occupation of a strip of land in northern Bhutan, intrusion into large swathes of Ladakh, territorial claims on Arunachal Pradesh, stirring incidents in Sikkim, reclaiming islands, occupying and militarising them in South China Sea are all a result of India and others goading China by crying victory or following ill-thought out policies. What we saw at Doklam was simply a part of a new-found Chinese aggressiveness on territorial sovereignty issues that we see in many other geographies.

If the UPA government down played the Depsang incident, calling it an “acne” on the beautiful face of India-China ties and engaged in behind the scene discussions in order to avoid hardening of positions on both sides to give diplomacy a chance, why is the Modi government being accused of dishonesty by avoiding jingoism and pursuing quiet but intensive diplomacy coupled with strong military measures on the far more sensitive and dangerous eastern Ladakh confrontation? To claim that after massing 50,000 troops, including during winter, and occupying the Kailash Range heights, the Modi government is defending a “narrative” and not our actual position on the ground is groundless criticism.

These “experts” argue that cheap Chinese goods are good for the Indian consumer, that instead of accelerating decoupling we should build a relationship where the dependencies are minimised and the benefits maximised- as if China will play ball with such plans- and in recommending that we remain open to Chinese investments in a controlled manner. In other words, keep the security part separate from the economic part, precisely what China advocates.

China is not just another neighbour. It is a powerful adversary that has, over decades, sought to undermine Indian interests at every turn. Any peace with China would be tenuous, lasting only as long as China wishes it to last. That China has wrecked the existing border agreements and the basis on which the relationship is being managed since 1988 presents us with a continuing challenge, more acute as China becomes stronger and its ambitions become grander.

The gloss that is being put on China’s global ambitions is puzzling. It is argued that China is ready to take centre stage, not to build a different world order but to redefine the existing order and improve it, that anything outside that is dangerous, and that China is open to negotiation. This is reducing the threat China poses to the international order to mere semantics, ignoring the hard geopolitics and hegemonic ambitions at play. China, it is being claimed, merely wants a division of the world between the great powers. Would this mean that China is willing to divide Asia between China and India, that is, accept two tigers on the same mountain? Or is it a tacit support for a G2 to which India should reconcile?

To criticise the Modi government’s foreign policy on the ground that India does best when it is most connected to the outside world, that in the last few years we are turning inwards, closing our mind and cutting ourselves from the outside world, absurdly suggests that India has marooned itself on an island since 2014.

India continues to participate actively in international fora, be it the G20, invitations to G7 meetings, those of BRICS and SCO. It has initiated the International Solar Alliance and the Disaster Resilient Infrastructure Coalition, taken a leadership role in Climate Change negotiations in lieu of a defensive position, reinvigorated ties with Europe, defined the Indo-Pacific concept in accordance with our vision, calibrated the strengthening of the Quad and launched new initiatives in the Indian Ocean area. To say we are convinced we are unique and exceptional and do not need the world is empty criticism. As of May 2021, PM Modi has made 109 visits abroad, visiting 60 countries.

India has aspirations to be a leading power, but there is no officially expressed ambition to be a “Vishwa Guru”, though the West has been a “Vishwa Guru” in seeking to mould the world in accordance with its “universal” values. That India seeks “to change the world, get revenge, gain status or to get other people to say how great we are” is mocking at our aspiration to rise as a power. Unlike China, when has India seen its rise as a way to get revenge for past humiliations?

The critique that the BJP’s foreign policy is being used for domestic political purposes is superficial. No country builds a firewall between its foreign and domestic policies. All governments leverage foreign policy for a variety of domestic ends, be it economic welfare, security, responding to public expectations, boosting popularity at home, and so on. Some examples are the US war on Iraq and on terror, its withdrawal from Afghanistan, the issue of Russian interference in US elections, our neighbours using the India bogey to do domestic politics, China using wolf warrior diplomatic defiance abroad to whip up nationalist sentiments at home and consolidate President Xi Jinping’s grip over the country. Every foreign policy move by China is suitably aired all over its domestic media in carefully tailored reports highlighting it as a signal success.

It is regrettable that at a time when the country is battling the ravages of the pandemic, especially the frighteningly deadly second wave which has put an enormous burden on our health sector, instead of solidarity with the government, the critics are heaping blame on governance failures of the Modi government and joining with foreign lobbies traditionally biased against India to diminish the PM’s image at home and abroad. This is obvious from the spate of such articles in the national and international media written by Indians. The driving force behind such relentless and unprecedented criticism of the Modi government is hostility towards the ruling party and towards PM Modi personally.

We take this opportunity to urge that in moments of such national calamity, let’s be united and not give our external enemies, who remain the same regardless of who is in power, the space to tarnish our image and damage our national interest.

Signatories from the Forum of Former Ambassadors of India.

Ambassador CM Bhandari, Ambassador Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, Ambassador Satish Chandra, Ambassador Shyamala B Cowsik, Ambassador Niranjan Desai, Ambassador Gauri Shankar Gupta, Ambassador OP Gupta, Ambassador Virendra Gupta, Ambassador Yogesh Gupta, Ambassador GS Iyer, Ambassador Dinesh Jain, Ambassador PK Kapur, Ambassador Ashok Kumar, Ambassador Mohan Kumar, Ambassador Mysore Lokesh, Ambassador Bhaswati Mukherjee, Ambassador Om Prakash, Ambassador Lakshmi Puri, Ambassador Manjeev Puri, Ambassador Ashok Sajjanhar, Ambassador Jagjit S Sapra, Ambassador Prakash Shah, Ambassador NP Sharma, Ambassador Balkrishna Shetty, Ambassador Kanwal Sibal, Ambassador Veena Sikri, Ambassador Ajay Swarup, Ambassador Anil Trigunayat, Ambassador JK Tripathi, Ambassador BB Tyagi, Ambassador Mitra Vasisht, Ambassador Vidya Sagar Verma, Ambassador Deepak Vohra

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