If India’s foreign policy is confronted with a volatile moment in its neighbourhood and beyond, Narendra Modi’s inaugural speech at the 2017 Raisina Dialogue hardly reflected it. A few hours before him, China’s president Xi Jinping had held forth on the virtues of globalisation from the World Economic Forum’s perch at Davos. In contrast, Modi chose to highlight India’s “transformative” potential, selling as he has done since taking office, New Delhi’s arrival on the world stage. Xi’s lecture seemed incredulous, but pundits have already begun to sing paeans anointing China as the new steward of the Washington Consensus. The Indian prime minister mercifully delivered a more sober assessment of geopolitics – “globalisation gains are at risk”, said Modi, and rightly left it at that – but his rosy vision for India’s external relations seemed boilerplate. The Raisina Dialogue was an opportunity for him to acknowledge that the initial years of his personality-driven diplomacy were over, and that it was now time for New Delhi to roll up its sleeves and consolidate its relations with major powers. Rather than gird Indian foreign policy for the unpredictable times that lie ahead, however, Narendra Modi relied once again on his “can do” narrative – whose utility and indeed, necessity, has dimmed since 2014.
For one, the world no longer takes for granted India remaining as the bright spot in a bleak global economic environment. Demonetisation may not affect the prime minister’s political image at home, but abroad it has certainly cast a shadow on his government’s capacity to effect sound policies. A central plank of the government’s economic diplomacy has been to co-opt the private sector (foreign and domestic) into India’s growth story, but this is yet to produce significant results. Projecting Modi appetite for bold and risky decisions is therefore, not viable any longer as a diplomatic strategy. It had its moment in 2014 and soon thereafter, but India’s foreign policy cannot be centred around personalities when the demonetisation episode has exposed a deliberative deficit among India’s policy planners.
There are also other, external factors that call for a shift away from the government’s individual-driven diplomacy. Since coming to power, Narendra Modi has staked a great deal on his personal equations with the leaders of major powers, be it Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. At the Raisina Dialogue, the prime minister highlighted his “long conversations” with these figures, and the promises they offered in return. For reasons that have little to do with New Delhi, few of those personal ties today have any major bearing on India’s foreign policy. Obama is out of office, replaced by a man whose hallmark strategy is to be as unpredictable as possible. Should this government continue to pursue India-US relations through leadership-level engagements alone, New Delhi will be in for a shock if Donald J. Trump reverses course on his Asia policies.
The old narrative of India-Russia solidarity, which Modi has repeatedly referenced in his speeches, is outdated. Moscow is redefining its relations with China, Iran and Pakistan, which will condition its longstanding strategic ties with India. The prime minister and the Chinese president may share a good rapport, but ties with Beijing have sunk perilously, requiring diplomatic engagement – both on bread-and-butter and hot-button issues – from the ground upwards.
None of this is to say Modi should not cultivate the strongmen in power today, but it is time for the National Democratic Alliance to acknowledge that invisible diplomacy often produces the best results, away from microphones, cameras or summits. This is true not just of bilateral engagements but also multilateral initiatives. A cloud now hangs over the Paris climate accords, despite the personal capital that Francois Hollande, Modi and Obama invested in its negotiation. Were the Trump administration to abandon the new climate regime – he will not be the first US president to do so, as the history of the Kyoto Protocol suggests – India should have an exit strategy from Paris, without drawing down on the commitments it would in any case pursue nationally. Despite the prime minister’s whirlwind tour of the hold-out Nuclear Suppliers Group states last year, progress on India’s membership remains elusive. New Delhi must now take stock of the changed circumstances since 2008, and assess how India can silently ratchet up the costs for China’s opposing its candidature.
The same lessons should hold for India’s engagement with South Asia. At Raisina, the prime minister spoke of his “dream” for an integrated neighbourhood, which now seems more distant than it ever was. Save Bangladesh, with whom relations have been decidedly upbeat, India has struggled to find common ground with its smaller neighbours. In Nepal, Prachanda has returned a more seasoned politician, but the country’s governing institutions offer no semblance of stability or comfort for New Delhi. Under Abdulla Yameen, the Maldives has witnessed the state sponsorship of radical Islamist tendencies, in addition to a crackdown on civil society. The gains India made in Sri Lanka soon after the 2015 presidential election have been diluted by the lack of measurable progress in living standards of the country’s Tamils. To complicate matters, former president Mahinda Rajapaksa is eyeing a comeback to national politics, and New Delhi appears to have no strategy to engage him. Prime Minister Modi enjoys a great camaraderie with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, but the ground beneath Kabul is shifting thanks to the prospects of a US withdrawal and an Iran-Russia alliance. Simply put, the South Asian neighbourhood is in turmoil, and New Delhi would be ill-advised to presume the Prime Minister’s political stock alone can resolve these problems.
It is too early to determine if the government’s diplomatic efforts to isolate Pakistan can be sustained. The incoming US president’s initial moves will offer some clues. But India’s Pakistan strategy under Modi has vacillated precisely because of the personality-centric approach to the relationship. Triumphs and setbacks in the relationship have been attributed to the prime minister – a charge that can also be made against many of his predecessors – without clearly managing the expectations from it.
All told, the Raisina Dialogue presented a missed chance for the NDA government to switch gears from individual to institutional diplomacy. It is still not late. In fairness, Modi’s decision to address the forum itself was a clever move, tempted as the prime minister may have been to join Xi Jinping at the World Economic Forum. His attendance at the conference signalled the Indian government’s commitment to creating global platforms at home, offering a continuity of norms at a time when Western institutions are entering a period of uncertainty. Modi wisely limited criticism of Pakistan in his inaugural address, and used the forum to make limited but important policy pronouncements, such as the one on the Belt and Road Project. But his advisers should realise that every speech is not an opportunity to talk up Modi’s achievements or persona. The government requires a coherent approach to tackling the crises manifest in South Asia and beyond, the first step to which is admitting that the Prime Minister’s Office alone cannot move mountains.
Arun Mohan Sukumar is at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi