At the turn of the 21st century, policy planners in India made a conscious decision to deepen her engagement with the United States.
Historians of the future will quibble over the precise moment this “decision” was made: one could peg it to the years of the United Progressive Alliance-I, although it was probably midwifed by official India’s interaction with the Bretton Woods institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank in the early 1990s, and its subsequent run-ins with the Clinton administration over the Pokhran tests in 1998.
This decision did not bear the unanimous imprimatur of the establishment in New Delhi. As a matter of fact, it did not enjoy consensus even within the Indian National Congress (INC). It was orchestrated by a small group of politicians led by Manmohan Singh and aided by a group of able diplomats and negotiators in the Prime Minister’s Office and the Ministry of External Affairs.
The jury is out on that “decision” and it is by no means an uncontroversial one. India’s substantive embrace of the US chipped away at the central tenets of its foreign policy, such as non-alignment, and was manifested most egregiously in unprincipled decisions like India’s 2005 vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) against Iran. As the teething troubles of the nuclear deal – the pièce de résistance of India-US engagement – and the failure to secure a comprehensive agreement on key issues like food security and climate change show, the relationship has still some distance to go before it can be called a success.
Still, that “decision” is eminently defensible. On the right side of the ledger, it has ended the embargo on imports for the civil nuclear industry and guided India’s membership to the Missile Technology Control Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group. While membership of the Nuclear Suppliers Group remains elusive, it is no small achievement that India has been able to break into three clubs that, in 2005, had not admitted a single member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) to their ranks. For this measurable progress in India’s international standing – besides victories in wars and the rise in GDP, countries rarely get to show their upward mobility – the Congress deserves credit. Whether the INC likes it or not, it will also bear responsibility for the failure to achieve tangible outcomes from bilateral cooperation with the US.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi assumed power in 2014, therefore, he faced three choices: the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) could reject the new turn in Indian foreign policy; it could stay the course the Congress had charted; or take it to altogether new levels through an alliance-like relationship with the US.
Reversing the course of previous decades was never a real option, since the Manmohan Singh government’s foreign policy itself had linkages to those of the Narasimha Rao and Vajpayee regimes. Modi’s personal ambition instead required grander optics and a scheme that could not wait for the fruits of patient diplomacy. (It is worth noting that India’s membership to the aforementioned clubs were all realised a few years after the Congress was voted out of power. This fact would certainly have not been lost on the BJP.) Yet, the prime minister has been frustrated in the pursuit of such a scheme.
Admittedly, there have been a few rash attempts by the Sangh Parivar cognoscenti to craft a new narrative around India’s external relations. For a few years, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) has been selling the idea of an Indic foreign policy, one that resuscitates its pet idea of Akhand Bharat or in this case, a South Asian and Indian Ocean region with contiguous borders and politics. To this end, the Sangh has flirted dangerously with the monarchists in Nepal, presumably to whet the appetite for Kathmandu’s return to a “Hindu republic”. When in 2016, Modi referenced the troubles in Balochistan during his independence day address, Hindutva ideologue Swapan Dasgupta wrote that it “signalled the recovery of India’s natural frontiers”. Last year, at the second Indian Ocean Conference, foreign minister Sushma Swaraj declared that the Ocean was not just a geographic region, but “a global stage for continued social, economic and cultural dialogue” – she skipped the term “political”.
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The problem with the RSS and the Sangh Parivar’s narrative is that the Indic past it alludes to is a product of civilisational and cultural cross-pollination that goes well beyond India’s Hindu heritage. It is untenable for the ruling party to doff the hat to Ramayana’s pan-Asian appeal, while ignoring the considerable successes of Mughal king Akbar’s foreign policy.
More importantly, though, the push for a “transcendental” foreign policy comes at a time when nation-state politics has calcified in South Asia. Even as it tried to situate its foreign policy in some variant of ethno-chauvinism, the Modi government has had to firefight multiple crises in South Asia through traditional diplomacy. On account of competing nationalisms in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and even Bhutan, India cannot but adopt a statist and institutional approach to engage governments, opposition parties and civil society. Evoking familial ties – as Swaraj did powerfully through her “roti-beti ki sambandh” speech after the 2015 Nepal earthquake – can be a one-stop measure, not a policy. This reality has sat awkwardly with the BJP’s functionaries as well as diplomats in the foreign ministry, as they struggle to articulate the core of Modi’s celebrated “Neighbourhood First” approach.
With its South Asian diplomacy caught between the party’s political agenda and the need to serve the country’s national interests, Modi’s foreign policy has hollowed out. It has deprived the government of honest political interlocutors, the sine qua non of effective diplomacy. Put simply, a Ram Madhav or Adityanath speak to very different constituencies in Nepal than the foreign secretary does, and carry very different messages to their respective audiences. His counterparts in South Asia are probably wondering who Modi’s real messengers are – is it the robed priest or the professional diplomat?
Complicating this juggling act is China’s rise, a development for which the prime minister is not at fault, but whose sensational designs are yet to be countered effectively by New Delhi. There is some merit in evaluating the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) from a “whole-of” approach. But India has neither the economic clout nor military firepower to counter this from a systemic standpoint, and its diplomatic and verbal opposition has sharp limits. This is not to say the BRI is an inevitable success: its critics have correctly identified the sketchy economics of the programme. But the Modi government is still to acknowledge that many countries have been coopted on the back of China’s bilateral engagements, the sum of whose parts form the BRI.
India’s only serious response to Beijing’s threats has been to move closer to the US – and promote initiatives like the “Quad” – when the bilateral engagement was never intended in the first place to contain China.
When both sides came together last decade to coordinate several elements of their foreign policy, the Bush administration certainly viewed India as a hedge against the rise of China. But India had reasons of its own to come to the table, many of which were related to its own development and positioning within a US-led order. That engagement has arguably reached its saturation point, but the Modi government appears to still believe that it will be a bulwark against Chinese aggression. Trump’s election has upended this calculus: Indian diplomats are happy that Modi enjoys a good personal rapport with the US president, but they will think twice before making any prediction about where the overall relationship is headed. That it lacks a coherent Beijing-facing strategy is evident in the government’s reluctance to face a parliamentary panel on the Doklam issue: after its piecemeal (but successful) diplomacy around “Doklam – I”, it has no answers now that the People’s Liberation Army has ostensibly returned to the scene of crime.
And finally, the prime minister has not been able to translate his personal diplomacy into credible results. Despite his courting of the ASEAN heads of states in January, little progress has been made on the issue of extraditing Zakir Naik, whose poisonous sermons from Malaysia and Indonesia have made their way into textbooks in Uttar Pradesh. His vaunted outreach towards Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates has not converted into some breakthrough to resolve the crisis in Maldives. The careful feelers that New Delhi has sent out regarding military intervention in Male reflects its lack of original thinking. One could put it this way: the year India appeals to the International Court of Justice to save the life of a citizen held in Pakistan is not the year India breaches international law to intervene in Maldives.
The unprecedented churn in South Asia calls for imaginative solutions from India that will take years to mature as tangible policy options. For instance, can India create a playbook around military intervention in the region without the consent of the host-state or the authorisation of the UN Security Council? An international lawyer would argue that it can be done with approval from a regional organisation under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter — a grey area. US President John F. Kennedy used it successfully through the Organisation of American States to enforce the blockade of Cuba. A regional entity could also lend collective legitimacy to India’s unilateral considerations. But Modi has nurtured no such regional organisation or bond for a rainy day.
Similarly, should India rethink its approach to the International Criminal Court, which has the power to investigate grave crimes by leaders against their own people and enforce some measure of accountability? If the Sri Lankan local council elections are any indication, the Rajapakse clan is about to make a comeback. And India needs more than just the support of the US to check the influence of strongmen in the region. Unfortunately, Modi and his government have been found wanting of far-reaching decisions: with a year left in office, his foreign policy threatens to become a blip in India’s timeline.
Arun Mohan Sukumar is a PhD candidate at the Fletcher School, Tufts University.