New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government’s foreign policy, particularly on Pakistan, is being berated not by political opponents alone but even its social media supporters. For instance, the flip-flop by Gen. V.K. Singh, invoking “duty” and “disgust” in rapid tweets in response to irate tweets after he was seen in the company of sundry pro-Pakistan characters from the Kashmir Valley at the Pakistan National Day. This confirmed a growing sense that while the Modi government, in nearly one year of foreign policy conducting, favours bold and even dramatic moves, they are mostly tactical albeit pegged to a sense of a rising India. Often they relate to immediate needs of domestic politics or reflect Prime Minister Modi’s nascent understanding of the role of economics in diplomacy.
Take the issue of Pakistan and “Hurriyat”. Prime Minister Modi opened his neighbourhood policy at his swearing-in as Prime Minister by inviting all Saarc leaders. Mr Modi’s meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and announcement of foreign secretary-level engagement was heralded as bold diplomacy by a parvenu statesman. But talks were suddenly called off in August 2014, to protest against the Pakistani high commissioner’s meeting with the Hurriyat leadership. The disengagement could have been due to the siege of Islamabad by protesters led by Messrs Imran Khan and Tahir-ul Qadri or the incessant ceasefire violations by the Pakistani Army. The most intractable pretext chosen could only be explained due to the impending Maharashtra polls or those in Jammu and Kashmir later. The negative reaction now to the mollycoddling of the same Hurriyat is because the volte face has not been explained, nor the series of controversial steps by Bharatiya Janata Party’s coalition partner People’s Democratic Party in Jammu and Kashmir.
The geostrategic challenges, meanwhile, are more complex and need a diplomatic response based on a realistic vision of the Indian role in a mutating global security and financial order. Consider, for instance, India’s immediate South Asian environment. Sri Lanka has a new government, ostensibly re-balancing its earlier tilt towards China, but with a Prime Minister undercutting the positive vibes emanating from their President. Maldives has regressed to vendetta-based domestic politics, forcing Mr Modi to skip visiting this miniscule nation when undertaking an Indian Ocean outreach dubbed “Operation Mausam”. Afghanistan’s new President, Ashraf Ghani, has pushed India down his priority list, playing a US-crafted engagement with Pakistan to facilitate reconciliation with the Taliban. His address to the US Congress and meetings in Washington on March 25-26 carefully balanced his cosy relationship with the US elite as an old Washington World Bank hand with his attempt in Afghanistan to paint himself as an independent actor. He may have succeeded in ensuring that the US delays cutting its troops in Afghanistan by half this year from the current 9,800, but all the jostling leaves India isolated.
The South Asian drama falls between two churning geo-political plates, one along the Chinese periphery to India’s east and the other involving the world of Islam to India’s west. China is undergoing tremendous power consolidation by President Xi Jinping, a purge wrapped in an anti-corruption crusade and an economic re-transformation to counter a slowdown. The pace and direction of China’s rise will be determined by the success or failure of these processes. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which faced US wrath, gained credibility with US allies France, Germany, Italy and the UK joining it. The Chinese dropped a Chinese veto and promised greater transparency in its functioning to win over sceptics. The new bank diminishes the significance of Japanese dominance of the Asian Development Bank.
The demise of Lee Kuan Yew, the creator of modern Singapore, symbolises the ascendance of a new Asia led by China. Lee’s model of economic development and social harmony, doggedly precluding political and social rights, is now seen as a hallmark of China rather than a Lee invention. That the success of a city-state with Sinic underpinnings can hardly be universalised is obvious. What is surprising is Prime Minister Modi attending Lee’s funeral as that is hardly a role model for a democratic India.
The game to India’s west is being modulated by the US as it seeks to find a new balance between the Shia and Sunni worlds, led by Iran and Saudi Arabia, respectively.
Talks with Iran over its nuclear programme, the sordid saga of a Republican-dominated US Congress embarrassing the US President by their dalliance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the calibrated US intervention in Iraq to bolster Iraqi resistance to the rabidly radical Islamist group Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, and the withdrawal of US Special Forces from Yemen are part of the Obama doctrine of strategic patience. For instance, the US let Shia militias actively supported by Iran get bogged down in the battle for Tikrit before providing air support. The critical factor will be how the US structures the P5+1 nuclear deal with Iran and then markets it to the Sunni countries to allay their fears that an Iran liberated from sanctions and ushered into the global marketplace may become even more assertive regionally.
In 1952, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote The Irony of American History, suggesting that human intervention may not always obtain expected historical outcomes. President Barack Obama, some feel, subscribes to this view that humility and moderation may be better handmaidens of policy than preventive wars and interventionism. Indian policy, too, has to relate Indian interests to India’s historical and cultural experience. Running from one nation to the next in frenzied diplomacy or lurching between domestic and international priorities is like a plot-deficient play. Prime Minister Modi as a school drama aficionado surely knows that. He needs first a cohesive policy and then to have South Block implement it with vigour.
The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh...