The Pitfalls of a Reactive Foreign Policy

India’s former National Security Adviser gives Prime Minister Modi 8/10 for effort, 5/10 for execution but only 2/10 for conception on the diplomatic front.

Watch Me Fiddle: Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries his hand with a musical instrument in Mongolia in May 2015. Photo: PTI

Watch Me Fiddle: Prime Minister Narendra Modi tries his hand with a musical instrument in Mongolia in May 2015. Photo: PTI

One year after coming to power, the first thing that strikes one about the foreign policy of the Narendra Modi government is its remarkable consistency with that of its predecessor.

Even on issues like the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh and the Nuclear Cooperation (or ‘123’) Agreement with the United States – where the Bharatiya Janata Party in opposition had prevented or opposed their implementation – Prime Minister Modi has carried through the policies of Manmohan Singh. In this, the current government is not very different from previous Indian governments, all of whom carried on the policies of their predecessors while putting their own gloss on them. I find this reassuring, for it reflects the fact that what is being executed is the foreign policy of India – and not the policy of one party or individual (which would suggest a certain flightiness) – and that this policy is mature.

At the same time, there are clear differences in emphasis and some departures in substance from previous Indian governments.

The most obvious difference is in style, in the manner in which foreign policy is presented, the effort that is put into its projection, and its strong identification with the persona of the Prime Minister.

There are also differences in substance. While the enhanced strategic partnership with the US is a legacy of both the National Democratic Alliance of Atal Bihari Vajpaye and the United Progressive Alliance of Manmohan Singh, the Modi government has adopted a distinct pro-Western tilt, a doubling-down on the US relationship. Of a piece with this are: the announcement that Prime Minister Modi will visit Israel (the first Indian PM to do so), upgrading the trilateral dialogue with Japan and Australia, and the Joint Strategic Vision for the Asia-Pacific and Indian Ocean region announced with US President Barack Obama in January. There is also a new emphasis on the 30-million strong Indian diaspora.

Apart from the US, Modi has engaged with the great powers in a round of “speed dating”, as one scholar puts it, and been more visible in South Asia, but it is less easy to take stock of the results of all this activity.

By way of comparison, in 2004-5 the first UPA government launched the Civil Nuclear Initiative with the US, signed the Guiding Principles and Political Parameters for a boundary settlement with China, carried forward the most successful peace process with Pakistan so far, and started the cross-LoC bus from Srinagar to Muzzafarabad in Kashmir.

It is in the relationships with China and Pakistan that the balance sheet for the Modi government is less positive. If anything, these critical relationships are more uncertain now than when the government took over last May. There are warning signs suggesting that they could worsen.

Besides, it is hard to assess the performance of the Modi government on the diplomatic plane because it has not articulated or made public a vision or framework for its foreign and national security policy. This lack invites two dangers. The first is that policy will be reactive, not strategic, and at the mercy of events. The second is that adversaries will set the agenda and be able to choose the times, places and manner in which they deal with India.

There may also be discernible in faint outline another possible shift in Indian foreign policy under this government: The Prime Minister seems to be moving away from a single-minded focus on the transformation of India as the goal of all policy – something that all previous Indian governments pursued – to a stress on obtaining recognition of India’s great power status, and to using foreign policy for domestic legitimacy.

This could be the Indian equivalent of China’s shift since 2008 from “hiding its light” in the Deng years to “showing its capabilities, playing its role” and realising the China dream. But China did so after 30 years of double-digit GDP growth; Modi is doing so after India has had 30 years of 6%-plus growth, that too in an international environment that is today much less supportive. Every patriotic Indian will want the government, whatever its hue, to succeed in transforming India and is convinced that India is a great power. Whether we need to be prickly and constantly proclaim it is another matter.

Fortunately, at India’s present stage of development there should be no immediate contradiction between the goals of transforming India and seeking great power status. The latter would be impossible without first transforming India. But there are situations when the demands of improving the lives of Indians are different from those of pursuing enhanced status. When this is combined with a heightened appeal to a more strident nationalism, the risks are greater.

That is why I think it important that the Modi government lay out its strategic vision for India’s external and national security policies. The world will not wait, and is getting more, not less, complex and demanding. The real foreign policy challenges lie ahead, in the second year of the government, when we will see whether it can continue the momentum of successful past policies while adjusting to changes in the situation, and better manage relations with China and Pakistan.

Ultimately, whether the Modi government’s foreign policy activism and energetic projection lead to tangible benefits in terms of the transformation of India will be determined not by the vigour or skill of Indian foreign policy practice – which Indians have long taken for granted – but by the government’s success inside India. By this I mean success in creating jobs, sustaining high long-term growth rates and maintaining social harmony. Until Indian business invests in the Indian economy, foreigners are unlikely to. Nor can India look to the world to solve its infrastructure deficit, fiscal constraints, or successfully realise the ‘Make in India’ project. The test for the Modi government is to manage these short-term economic challenges so that the Indian economy’s essentially sound and positive economic fundamentals can prevail in the longer term, creating a basis for a successful foreign policy.

Since giving marks is all the rage in the media, this is how I would score Modi’s foreign policy performance in his first year as Prime Minister: 8/10 for effort, 5/10 for execution but only 2/10 for conception.

Shivshankar Menon was India’s National Security Adviser from January 2010 to May 2014