New Delhi: The formal release on Friday of Modi’s World: Expanding India’s Sphere of Influence, the new book by strategic affairs analyst C. Raja Mohan ignited a sharp debate over whether the foreign policy pursued by Prime Minister Narendra Modi really marks a dramatic break with the past or has merely been hyped up by official and quasi-official spin doctors. That Modi has been a polarising figure in debates on domestic politics is well known but his ability to divide the clubby world of foreign policy analysts was quite evident during the discussion.
The debate was triggered by Raja Mohan, a columnist for the Indian Express and a well-regarded foreign policy commentator, describing Narendra Modi’s approach to foreign policy as something so seminal as to mark the beginning of the “Third Republic” in India.
Borrowing from the formal nomenclature of republican France, which has been through five ‘republics’ between 1789 and the present, Raja Mohan’s view is that the ‘first republic’ was marked out by the Nehruvian era in Indian foreign policy.
The ‘second republic’ broadly coincides with the shift in strategic thinking in the wake of the the 1991 economic reforms launched by Prime Minister Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh, as his Finance Minister, when India’s foreign policy was increasingly guided by the imperatives of greater integration with the global economy.
This second republic – which Raja Mohan says lasted until the end of the tenure of Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister – ushered in a big shift in India’s foreign policy.
However, the contentious part of his book’s argument is whether there is enough evidence yet in the first year of the new government to assert that Modi’s foreign policy has ushered in the “third republic”. Has Modi departed from the past framework or is his policy a ‘reactive’ mix of continuity and new initiatives that have not been clearly thought through, as some commentators, notably former National Security Adviser Shivshankar Menon have argued?
Moderating Friday’s panel discussion – jointly organised by the Observer Research Foundation and Indian Express – the former Foreign Secretary, Shyam Saran gently disagreed with the book’s main thrust, noting that foreign policy always operates within a framework of continuity and that the core interests of a nation do not change for long periods.
There was a subtle hint here that it may well be too early to say anything definitive about the first year of Modi’s foreign policy initiatives.
The red rag of change to the bull of continuity was waved in opening remarks made by the owner of the Indian Express Group, Anant Goenka. In an over-exuberant flourish, he declared that there had possibly been no Indian foreign policy before Modi arrived in office.
Goenka’s claim provoked Shashi Tharoor, former Minister of State for External Affairs under the UPA and currently an MP for the Congress. “The death of foreign policy before Modi,” he responded, paraphrasing Mark Twain, “is highly exaggerated!”
As a panelist, Tharoor then proceeded to tear into the BJP’s approach to foreign policy. “Modi’s greatest achievement is that he has reversed the BJP’s formal opposition in Parliament to the nuclear deal, the seminal land boundary agreement with Bangladesh and other such big initiatives taken by the UPA”. He recalled how Arun Jaitley had described the India-Bangladesh boundary agreement proposed by the Manmohan Singh government as unconstitutional.
Tharoor argued that most of Modi’s foreign policy initiatives were threads picked up from the past. So what really qualifies to be described as “the third republic” in just one year, seemed to be his implied poser. Tharoor also tore into the NDA government’s flip-flops on Pakistan – from calling off talks between the two foreign secretaries to calling Pakistan back to the table in Ufa, followed again by threats that India will give as good as it gets on the border. Tharoor, who is chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Foreign Policy, said all this even as the Foreign Secretary, S. Jaishankar sat in the audience waiting for his turn to speak at the end.
When Shyam Saran called upon the author of the book to defend himself, Raja Mohan – whom Jaishankar later described as “indisputably the most recognised face on India’s foreign policy” – was at pains to point out that he did not agree at all with Anant Goenka’s remark that there had been no foreign policy before Modi. He said that he fully recognised the continuities in foreign policy. Not to take away credit from Manmohan Singh and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the author argued that both Prime Ministers took major foreign policy initiatives in their first year. So has Modi. Raja Mohan, however, added that Manmohan had to struggle against the backlash his big decisions such as the nuclear deal with the US and the Kashmir/Pakistan initiatives had caused. So he said it remains to be seen how Modi’s initiatives pan out over the next few years, the very point his critics had made in suggesting talk of a ‘third republic’ might well be premature.
Speaking at the end, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar stoutly defended the claim that Modi had indeed done something transformational in his first year. Without using the terminology of the ‘third republic’, he broadly endorsed Raja Mohan’s thesis of the new regime having made fundamental changes and gently chided his critics: “How much of it (foreign policy) is continuity, how much change? What do these changes signify? How much is substance; how much is optics? Some opinions have been offered already, not all of them without bias.”
Jaishankar then proceeded to present the highlights of the Modi government’s foreign policy so far: “If we subject the diplomacy of the last year to a smell test, we can arrive at a reasonably clear conclusion. Think of the Madison Square Garden event and the presence of 30 plus US Congressmen. Recall the meeting with President Xi Jinping in Xian. Remember Barack Obama’s visit on 26th January. Or the bonding with Shinzo Abe in Kyoto. Assess the recent responses on Nepal and Bangladesh on longstanding issues. Look at Op Rahat in Yemen and Op Maitry in Nepal. Consider the integrated tours of Central Asia, East Asia or the Indian Ocean. So let me ask you, does this look like diplomacy as usual?”
While many of the initiatives Modi had taken were new, Jaishankar said others marked “a decisive conclusion of an unfinished national agenda. Either way, they signal different times. They speak of greater confidence, more initiative, certainly stronger determination and obviously, express the growth of our capabilities.”
No doubt, the next four years of the ‘third republic’ will provide plenty of opportunity to test the Foreign Secretary’s confident assertions.
Note: All photos other than the one on the top are file photographs and are not from the actual event