Opinion Columnists 13 Feb 2019 Foreign policy musin ...
The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh

Foreign policy musings as India heads for polls

Published Feb 13, 2019, 1:46 am IST
Updated Feb 13, 2019, 1:46 am IST
As the sun sets on the Modi government, its conduct of foreign policy stands out more for theatrical boldness than strategic balance.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: File)
 Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: File)

With weeks remaining for the next Lok Sabha election dates to be announced and the code of conduct implemented, Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are on a frenetic ribbon-cutting and handouts-distribution mode. The Opposition rhetoric is getting sharper as new elements emerge around the Rafale fighter aircraft deal. Government agencies, on the other hand, are scurrying to nail high-value targets like Robert Vadra or associates of West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee, and so on. The government and the national media have let their attention wander from key events that shape geopolitics.

Two important inbound visitors, from Saudi Arabia and Israel, require closer attention. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin (or Binyamin) Netanyahu was due to arrive in New Delhi early this week, despite the Israeli Parliament elections due on April 9. But he has rescheduled it, heading instead to the American-convened Middle East security conference in Warsaw on February 13-14. Of the 70 nations invited, nearly 50 are attending. US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, if any, for West Asia may not be revealed yet, as Mr Netanyahu fears it might impact the Israeli election. President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, who is senior adviser to the President and handles matters relating to the Mid-East, would be attending.


Among the issues on the agenda will be what the US side calls the “destabilising influence” of Iran. This is happening against the backdrop of the US announcement of its withdrawal from Afghanistan and Syria. Talks between the US and the Taliban have already advanced to a possible deal to cover te exit, the Taliban’s acceptance of a ceasefire and future parleys with the Afghan government on power-sharing arrangements.

US secretary of state Mike Pompeo has toured the region ahead of the Warsaw Conference. Whether India will be attending is not known as the meet is going to be focused towards isolating Iran and thus indirectly Russia’s role in the region. When the Madrid Conference was held in 1991 to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, India was invited to join the follow-up meetings once it had established diplomatic relations with Israel. Modi became the first Indian head of government to officially visit Israel in 2017. The government, however, has not balanced it by equally persistent attempts to keep India relevant as a peacemaker in the region.


That would have required some plainspeaking in Jerusalem on the need for Mr Netanyahu to be more accommodating and less pugilistic towards the beleaguered Palestinians, besides India continuing an empathetic outreach to its traditional friends in the Islamic world. In any case Mr Netanyahu, despite having remained electorally unbeaten over the past decade, is enmeshed in corruption allegations that the police have forwarded to the attorney-general seeking prosecution who, in turn, has refused to postpone a decision beyond the April 9 election. Thus, India may find itself embarrassed if upon return the high-profile visitor finds himself isolated owing to a criminal trial. It seems that both Prime Ministers need the visit for domestic political reasons.


On February 19-20, India will host Saudi Arabia’s controversial Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (better known now as MBS), who has been unable so far to wash the taint of his role in the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. The late Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former US national security adviser, titled his memoir, Power and Principle. Any democracy wedded to liberal ideas and the rule of law has to strike a balance between expediency and principle or morality.

The Crown Prince continues on the US Congress’ radar for possible abetment of the murder. The US Senate adopted a unanimous resolution in December holding MBS responsible for the murder. On February 8, a formal inquiry went out from the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee asking the White House to determine his guilt. Under the Magnitsky Act, the US administration is bound to respond to any congressional enquiry about human rights abuses. The pressure on the US President is greater now that the new House of Representatives has a huge Democratic majority. There is a move for a bipartisan resolution to sanction the Saudi royals implicated in the Khashoggi murder, ban US refuelling of Saudi coalition planes operating over Yemen and suspend the sale of offensive weapons.


The Narendra Modi government is ignoring this larger reality lingering over Crown Prince Mohammed. India appears to be focused only on the diaspora’s needs, and economic and possibly even electoral benefits. The Saudis had earlier committed to establishing a refinery in a joint venture with Indian public sector companies in Maharashtra. It is being speculated that because the state government has not so far acquired land, the proposal may now go to a private sector refining major, exactly the way the Rafale deal went out of the hands of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. Undoubtedly, MBS will announce more investments in India. What impact the visit may have on Muslim voters in critical states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal is debatable.


Perhaps the effect may be transitory as the minority communities are more likely to remember traumatic vigilante actions against them or at least the daily psychological pressure over the past five years rather than the visit of a controversial prince, albeit belonging to a family who are the custodians of Islam’s two holiest mosques.

As the sun sets on the Modi government, its conduct of foreign policy stands out more for theatrical boldness than strategic balance. Henry Kissinger had in his 1954 Harvard doctoral thesis analysed two great statesmen — Austria’s foreign minister Klemens von Metternich and Britain’s foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh, during the post-Napoleonic wars and the 1815 Congress of Vienna. He calls Metternich tactically brilliant for managing to extend the life of the decrepit Austro-Hungarian empire. But strategically, he faults him for ignoring larger factors like Germany’s inevitable rise and Austria’s imperial exhaustion. The Modi government’s similar tactical wooing, of foreign leaders of paradoxical hues, makes for good short-term diplomacy, but sows the seeds of dissonance in future. The critical question is if a secular foreign policy can subsist alongside a majoritarian domestic agenda. Like for Metternich, the fundamental paradoxes can be ignored, even temporarily overcome, but not wished away.


The writer is a former secretary in the external affairs ministry. He tweets at @ambkcsingh.