It may be useful to analyse the possible impact on Indian foreign policy of the looming May 23 Lok Sabha results. Three possible scenarios are -- a government led by the BJP, perhaps without a majority on its own; or a similar alliance led by the Congress; or an alliance led by a Third Front leader, albeit supported by either the BJP or the Congress. A less likely, but not improbable, scenario could be a BJP-led government under someone other than Narendra Modi.
A similar debate has begun in America as a battery of Democrats have lined up to challenge President Donald Trump. In particular, the entry of Joe Biden, vice-president under Barack Obama, has sharpened the debate due to his legacy and experience. But Democrats don’t simply want to return to the past or the Obama track. The Economist notes “rumbles of revisionism”. Broadly there is aconsensus on the need for restraint as an evangelical pursuit to change the world and endless wars have depleted America’s wealth and ill-served intended aims. They also agree foreign and domestic policies must not be in silos as the US, when peddling democratic values abroad, must not ignore corruption and kleptocracy. Finally, they debate whether foreign policymaking needs to be democratised rather than conducted under notional congressional oversight. The recent move to limit the President’s war-making powers points there.
A Democratic administration may return the US to the Paris Accord on climate change, rejoin the nuclear deal with Iran, albeit with suitable tweaking, return to the Nato alliance without ambiguities, and so on. Yet some elements may have been changed by President Trump irreversibly, like the bipartisan consensus on Sino-US relations is trade and investment with China needs new terms of engagement. This has implications for World Trade Organisation (WTO) reform.
In India, the Narendra Modi government’s changes in foreign policy are both cosmetic and substantive. The first relates more to hugging and protocol aspects that a new incumbent can immediately change, but can be expected to be persisted with by a re-elected Modi government. The second falls under following headings -- Indo-US relations; Sino-Indian relations; Pakistan and the “zero terror” policy; countering radical Islamic terror and Jammu and Kashmir; Gulf and Iran. It is noteworthy that the consensus on foreign policy, which last broke over the India-US nuclear deal in 2008, largely shattered in the past five years due to the highly personalised, and hyper-nationalistic diplomacy of Mr Modi. Berating the Opposition while abroad, albeit on the pretext of addressing the Indian diaspora, began its collapse.
India’s readjustment to the post-Cold War world began with the P.V. Narasimha Rao government in 1991. Between him, the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led BJP government of 1998 and the Manmohan Singh-led UPA-1 in 2004, there was continuity in style and content. The US was wooed while retaining strategic independence, China engaged to incrementally expand areas of convergence, putting disputes on hold, Pakistan unsuccessfully but repeatedly tested to wean it away from terror sponsorship and accept confidence-building measures as a precursor to dispute settlement, J&K handled with a combination of hard and soft approaches, and finally a balance maintained in India’s policy towards the Gulf, Iran, West Asia and Israel. India also had a more active “Look East” policy, renamed “Act East” by the Modi government. Essentially, you act only after you look, so it was the 1991 policy continued, to balance China, help craft a new Asian security architecture through building blocks like Asean Regional Forum, East Asia Summit and even the Quad, comprising four democracies straddling the Indo-Pacific -- Australia, India, Japan and the US.
A non-BJP government may begin by toning down the excessive bonhomie towards the Trump administration, which has openly backed Mr Modi, ensuring “wins” before and during the Lok Sabha polls. It is unimaginable that Pakistan would hand back IAF officer Abhinandan Varthaman, while Mr Modi is still threatening Pakistan, unless the US-Saudi-Emirati interlocutors assured the Imran Khan government that this was merely domestic posturing. Mr Modi claimed his threat, apparently nuclear, got Pakistan to comply. If threats worked, why did not India get consular access to Kulbhushan Jadhav, detained for espionage, and had to go to the International Court of Justice at The Hague? Similarly, the rushed listing of Masood Azhar, that some reports said China was reluctant to concede during the Indian election, had a US role, about which they reminded India when seeking Iran’s isolation. Earlier, the UAE had conveniently deported or extradited individuals during the Rajasthan and Lok Sabha polls as these were required to nail the Congress for corruption. Desirable as cooperation is for combating corruption and terrorism, it must be balanced against insulating India’s elections from foreign interference. After all, Russia is similarly accused in America, which President Trump denies but the Robert Mueller report implicitly confirms. A non-BJP government, particularly a Congress-led or supported one, may examine what, if any, were the trade-offs. First, Indian non-retaliation was conspicuous when the US imposed duties on Indian products. Second, the US pressuring India to distance itself from Iran and Russia. Strategic independence, a core value on which our foreign policy rests, appears under pressure, if not compromised. But worse is foreign powers backing their favourites.
Pakistan is another case in point. Treating J&K as a pure law and order issue and Pakistan as a lunatic asylum impervious to anything but shock treatment of “surgical strikes” is brazen use of neighbourhood policy for communal-baiting domestically. It may or may not win elections, but it leaves a poisoned chalice for a successor government, although it’s unlikely Pakistan policy will return to the romance of the Gujral-Vajpayee-Manmohan period. But no counter-terror policy can work which alienates a minority exposed to jihadi propaganda via the Internet, employment in the Gulf and travel. The Sri Lankan Easter massacre is a warning of what awaits India. ISIS and its “caliphate” uprooted from Syria-Iraq is mutating and re-planting wherever fertile ground is available. Africa, particularly Sahel, is harbouring fleeing and new adherents, which the April 29 video of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi will fuel. Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso have seen escalating attacks. British intelligence is tracking 10,500 jihadists in Sahel. How can India escape when BJP leaders are churning the communal pot for their electoral khichdi? The next government has a Herculean task to return the genie to the bottle, and counter politicisation of the military. Hopefully, India’s voters will reject this dangerous gambit and its creator, Mr Modi, whom The Economist has dubbed “Agent Orange”.