International approbation for Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s independent foreign policy is coming thick and fast. Despite the presumed Indian love for external validation, the new compliments from abroad are unlikely to swell the chests in South Block.
India’s mandarins know that foreign leaders are not in the business of giving free praise. Most of the time, compliments say more about the state offering them rather than the one receiving it. Last week, Imran Khan was at it again, commending India’s foreign policy as he launched the promised “long march” from Lahore to Islamabad.
Khan pointed to Delhi’s continuing purchase of oil from global markets while Islamabad is unable to do so. Recall that Imran Khan had pushed for oil and grain purchases from Russia before he was ousted from power in April just weeks after Moscow’s aggression against Ukraine. Beyond oil purchases, praising India is less about foreign policy than attacking what he calls the “imported government” of Pakistan. Khan had accused the Joe Biden Administration of a “conspiracy” to dethrone him because of his effort to pursue an independent foreign policy. Imran’s attack on the US conspiracy is directed at the army chief, General Qamar Javed Bajwa, who withdrew his patronage to Khan and facilitated the election of Shehbaz Sharif of the Pakistan Muslim League as the new prime minister.
Notwithstanding his seemingly revolutionary rhetoric, Imran Khan is not an ideological opponent of the US. After returning from a meeting with President Donald Trump in 2019, Khan was rather chuffed with himself. On his return to Islamabad, Khan had declared that he felt like he had “won the (cricket) world cup again”.
Last week also saw the UAE’s minister for artificial intelligence, Omar Sultan Al Olama, praise External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar’s stewardship of Indian diplomacy for deftly navigating the recent geopolitical headwinds. That the UAE is now talking about “not choosing sides” is certainly interesting. The Gulf kingdoms like the UAE and Saudi Arabia have long relied on the United States for their security. But the recent US moves to revive the nuclear deal with Iran have generated much unease among the Gulf Arabs.
The Biden Administration’s rough handling of the Saudi Crown prince on human rights issues has made it harder for Riyadh to oblige Washington on the question of isolating Russia in the oil market amidst the war in Ukraine. The determination of the Gulf countries to put their own interests first is a reminder to the major powers that foreign policy in the end is about give and take and not a one-sided relationship even between the powerful and not-so-powerful.
Addressing an international gathering last week, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, offered handsome personal praise to PM Modi and his independent foreign policy. Russia, of course, has not been too happy with India’s deepening ties with the US, but Putin recognises that there is a new paradigm in India’s foreign policy — Delhi now has the confidence to do its own thing.
That is not always obvious from what the Russian foreign minister, Sergey Lavrov, says. Just a few months after the Chinese aggression in Ladakh in 2020, Lavrov had a condescending take on India’s China policy. Lavrov accused Western powers of pursuing an “aggressive and devious” policy to draw India into “anti-China games” by promoting the Indo-Pacific strategy. A spokesperson of the Ministry of External Affairs in Delhi was quick to dismiss Lavrov’s mischievous line by underlining India’s independent foreign policy and expanding on India’s own approach to the Indo-Pacific.
The idea of an “innocent India” being hijacked by the “evil West” has been a popular trope not only in the discourse on India-Russia relations but also in Sino-Indian relations. Many in Delhi were long willing to suspend their disbelief in accepting the argument that India and China would get along happily forever but for “Western manipulation”. Delhi and Beijing don’t need third parties to create trouble between them — there is enough natural friction between the two large Asian giants that are also neighbours. Their unresolved boundary dispute has always been the biggest source of the conflict between the two. Over the decades additional problems have cropped up, including the Chinese strategic expansion into the Subcontinent and the Indian Ocean as well as massive trade deficits.
Today’s India might be accused of many things, but not “strategic innocence”. It is pursuing great power relations, with each on its own merit. It is not willing to cede a veto to any power over its relations with its rivals. Delhi does not let Moscow define India’s relations with the US: Similarly, Delhi can’t let Washington limit the character of India’s engagement with Russia. This was not always the case.
Under previous governments, Delhi was often tempted to limit its relationship with the US and Europe for fear of offending the sensitivities of Moscow and Beijing. This was done either in the name of ideology or the fear that there will be unpleasant consequences in relations with Russia and China. The Modi government has broken out of that defensive and deferential mindset. Putting national interests above political correctness has given much strategic dividend for Delhi.
It has been evident for quite a while that a rising India has greater room for global manoeuvre. As the fifth-largest economy with the third largest defence budget, India’s material capabilities make it an increasingly attractive partner to others and give it an opportunity to shape the international system. But they did not automatically translate into strategic gains.
PM Modi’s real contribution has been in aligning the national political will with new international possibilities. India’s new diplomacy is not about doing whatever you like or saying what you please. It is about a careful judgement of the shifting global correlation of forces and the skill to adapt to the dynamic international environment.
Translating the objective possibilities generated by India’s rise into tangible strategic outcomes is what Indian diplomacy is beginning to get good at amidst extremely challenging external circumstances — including the Covid pandemic, the Chinese aggression and the war in Ukraine. Notwithstanding external encomiums, South Block knows that coping with this unstable world remains a relentless challenge.
The writer is senior fellow, Asia Society Policy Institute, Delhi and contributing editor on international affairs for The Indian Express