External Affairs

Post-Surgical Strikes, National Interests Define Regional Politics

Narendra Modi’s personal relationships with world leaders and the primacy of national interests in international relations show why India and not Pakistan garnered more support in the aftermath of the Uri attack.

(L-R) Brazil's President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma pose for a group picture during BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Benaulim, in the western state of Goa, India, October 16, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

(L-R) Brazil’s President Michel Temer, Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Chinese President Xi Jinping and South African President Jacob Zuma pose for a group picture during BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Summit in Benaulim, in the western state of Goa, India, October 16, 2016. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

The Goa BRICS summit had several items on its agenda, such as the promotion of business among its members and cooperation in the agriculture sector. But the entire conference was projected as if it was concerned with only one issue – terrorism. One also got the impression that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had only one mission in Goa – figuring out how to isolate Pakistan. Surely this was not the case!

Modi does not hesitate to put his own weight behind issues of national importance, even if he is not sure of his success. For example, he lobbied for support for India’s membership in the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) since he was convinced – either on his own or through the efforts of his advisors – that joining was in our nation’s interest. Modi even took up the issue twice with Chinese President Xi Jinping, despite knowing that Xi would not relent because of China’s commitment to Pakistan.

Similarly, Modi brought up the case of Masood Azhar in his meetings with Xi, but his efforts in persuading China to loosen its hold over the 1267 Committee have so far proved unsuccessful. China is even reported to have directly and publicly contradicted some of the assertions Modi made about Pakistan in Goa.

It would, however, be a mistake for Pakistan to believe that China will always remain its friend. Pakistan is nothing but a client state of China’s, which is being used for its expansionist agenda in South Asia and elsewhere.

Modi dropped in on Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in Lahore in December 2015, fully realising that he would be criticised for his gesture in India. He took the risk. Modi did the right thing since he has now satisfied himself on multiple counts: that Sharif is not in charge of Pakistan’s India policy and that the Pakistani military is implacably hostile to India. By inviting Sharif to his inauguration in May 2014 and then visiting Lahore, Modi established his credentials both in Pakistan and internationally. These steps are important to note because they partially explain the global support that India has received after it conducted surgical strikes on September 29.

National interest behind global support

It is essential to closely examine the international community’s response to Uri and the reasons for various countries expressing their support for India. The guiding principle for all countries is national interest, not so much friendship.

One of the people my batch of foreign service officers called on even before we joined the service was Y.D. Gundevia, who at that time was the Commonwealth secretary. His advice to us: no country is your friend, do not trust diplomats from any country. Our experiences in the recent past testify to the soundness of Gundevia’s advice. Supporting India suited the national interest of most countries. The support we received from our neighbours was satisfying. Though some neighbours were more prompt than others in taking a position, they all had their reasons. The most honest explanation was given by the prime minister of Bangladesh. In an interview to the Hindu, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina said that India had its own reasons for boycotting the SAARC meeting scheduled to be held in Pakistan and that Bangladesh had its own reasons. She said that she has been under considerable pressure for a long time to break off diplomatic relations with Pakistan because of its interference in Bangladesh’s internal legal and political processes, especially in relation to holding trials for those who collaborated with the Pakistani government during the genocide in 1971. Pakistan’s parliament even passed a resolution criticising Bangladesh for these trials and for cracking down on extremist elements. This was unacceptable to Bangladesh.  India’s decision to boycott the summit came at the right time for Hasina, allowing her to take strong action against Pakistan.

Similarly, President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan had his own reasons. He, like Modi, had gone out of his way to cultivate a bilateral relationship with Pakistan, in the process upsetting India, but he did what he thought he must, to try and at least reduce instability in his country. Ghani was criticised domestically for his unprecedented outreach to the Pakistani establishment. However, his bold initiative did not have any impact on Pakistan, with the result that Ghani is now convinced, more than ever before, that he shouldn’t trust Pakistan’s offers of friendship. Ghani lost no time in denouncing Uri and in announcing Afghanistan’s withdrawal from attending the SAARC summit in Pakistan.

Sri Lanka, however, took some time in joining others in this boycott; it was weighing the costs and benefits of putting its weight behind India.

Transactional vs transformational 

Meanwhile, Pakistan failed to mobilise any support in the UN. Sharif personally approached high-level representatives from the US and other countries, since he happened to be in New York at the time, but he did not get any traction. No doubt, this was partly due to the personal equations that Modi had already established with the leaders of those countries.

The role played by our diplomats also needs to be recognised in this context. The two Akbars – minister (M.J. Akbar) and permanent representative to the UN (Syed Akbaruddin) – combined to effectively neutralise Sharif’s overtures. Equally important, however, was the cold calculation over national interests that took place in the respective foreign offices of these countries. They had much more to lose by not supporting India’s case. Firstly, what Pakistan had done was grossly unacceptable. Thus, refusing Pakistan’s demarches was the right thing to do. Secondly, and more importantly, they had much more at stake in India than in Pakistan; it was not worth their while to upset India.

One often hears that a relationship between two countries is merely transactional and not transformational. But this is what international relations have always been about – one should not look beyond a transactional approach. However, shared values do have a role to play. If two countries have similar values, it makes for an easier relationship. In today’s world, condemning terrorism in all its forms and manifestations is de rigueur and no doubt states mean what they subscribe to when it comes to the common fight against terrorism and so on, but this relationship is not indispensable. At the end of the day, national interests are what drive relations between countries. The old 19th-century dictum of no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent interests, holds good in the 21st century too

Some analysts claim that India underestimates its clout in the world. The argument goes that India has the fastest growth rate among sizable economies in the world and that India is a major player in the world economy. Additionally, it has a large army, stable democracy, rule of law and a huge middle class. The primary, if not the sole, reason for our clout lies in our limitless capacity to buy highly expensive military hardware and the huge market that our growing middle-class offers for consumer goods. We are the largest buyer of military equipment in the world. No other country has the need as well as the financial capacity to acquire these weapons.

China, Russia and the economic factor

China is infinitely richer than us but it is now in the enviable position of selling military platforms. But China too is eyeing India’s vast market and appetite for infrastructure projects as well as cheap Chinese consumer goods. Xi, without giving up on any of the issues that matter to India – stapled visas, Masood Azhar, NSG-facilely – offers China’s cooperation in developing India’s economy. And so it is in India’s interest to not take a hardline towards China.

It was diplomat and politician Brajesh Mishra who said that it was in India’s interest to manage relations with China for a couple of decades and not allow anything to get in the way of India’s primary objective – economic development.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has gone back with billions of dollars of contracts; the joint military exercises that were scheduled with Pakistan were dismissed as inconsequential and certainly no obstacle to India’s time-tested friendship with Russia. The Russian gesture could be due to several factors: to send a message to India who, in its perception, is getting too close to the US; the desire to demonstrate its global role; or some pressure from China to be friendly towards Pakistan. The beauty of it all is that these countries behave as if they are doing a great favour to India by agreeing to sell all that expensive military equipment. They make all the money and India has to be grateful. Modi needs to intensify the ‘Make in India’ campaign and make it a priority in the defence sector.

As for India’s economic clout, the plain fact is that our country is not a player in the world economy. When the Chinese currency is devalued or appreciates even by half a percentage point, stock markets around the world get shaken up. The Chinese yuan is now a part of the currency basket for the IMF’s Special Drawing Rights, an enormously prestigious and meaningful achievement. Any change in the value of the rupee hardly has an impact beyond India’s borders. This is because India’s huge domestic market does not need foreign markets as much as some other countries do. The resources for India’s development are for the most part derived from within India, with very little coming from outside.

What lies ahead

Going by the media, our foreign policy seems to be as Pakistan-centric as Pakistan’s is India-centric. This, of course, is not true. India’s policymakers are actively involved in all the major issues facing humanity today, such as climate change. But post-Uri, India’s preoccupation with Pakistan is understandable. Isolating Pakistan may be the emotionally satisfying option, however, most thinking Indians wish well for the people of Pakistan. While some in the film industry and many ‘aam aadmi’ are in favour of boycotting Pakistan’s artists, the government itself has advocated no such thing.

There is a lot of talk of revisiting the Indus Water Treaty, even terminating it. Firstly, India must not take any action that will harm only ordinary Pakistanis; our conflict is with the establishment. Ending the treaty will not affect the lifestyles of those in power and would directly contradict Modi’s appeal to the people of Pakistan made in a speech in Kerala. Secondly, India can make life difficult for Pakistan by fully utilising all the water from the western rivers as the treaty authorises India to do; there is no need to denounce the treaty.

Similarly, India can withdraw Pakistan’s most favoured nation status, but that will probably be the first time that the country imposing the sanction will suffer more than the sanctioned country! The government is obviously conscious of all these factors. Significantly, not only has India not broken off diplomatic relations, it has even maintained them at the ambassadorial level. This presumably suggests that as and when an opportunity presents itself to resume dialogue – as it surely will at some point – the government will be ready and willing to respond positively. That would be a wise policy.

Chinmaya R. Gharekhan is a former under secretary general and senior advisor to the UN secretary-general, a former Indian ambassador to the UN and author of The Horseshoe Table: An Inside View of the UN Security Council.