• Wednesday, July 30, 2014

India's Foreign Policy

How far Modi may go?

Star Desk

Indians want their version of the American Dream. And so they have voted for a man who promises more for less: more development and growth, with less harassment and red tape.
Modi has never addressed foreign policy at length and Indian campaigns rarely involve debates on world affairs. Few in New Delhi seem to have a clear sense of his plans. And the ones who know won't talk.
Modi has certainly begun with a flourish, scoring a coup in getting his Pakistani counterpart to attend his swearing-in. The ceremony also saw almost all the regional leaders on the same platform.
It is indeed a refreshing marker of proactive engagement -- the opposite of India's foreign policy in years gone by.
In an excellent essay in Foreign Affairs last month, Manjari Chatterjee Miller described how Indian foreign policy in the last 50 years has been characterised "more by continuity than by change" -- irrespective of the party in power.
India's relations with major powers have stayed stable. Broadly, there are two reasons behind this trend. One is India's historic pledge of "non-alignment": the country's first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru founded the global Non-Aligned Movement, a group of states agreeing to not align with major powers.
The other reason is India's neglect of foreign policy planning from the very top: civil servants get little-to-no instruction from the prime minister's office, and so have great levels of autonomy and wield significant power. It has often been pointed out that India has fewer diplomats than Singapore, a country with a population 1/250th the size of India's. India has consistently punched below its weight despite aspiring to be a global player


Many writers and commentators have expressed fears about Modi's foreign policy on two main fronts. First, that he will channel his brand of pro-Hindu nationalism into friction with Pakistan. Second, that he will use his prior history with Washington -- Modi's US visa was revoked in 2005 over a never-before-used religious freedoms act -- as a reason to snub the world's biggest economy. But with each passing day, we are witnessing an evolving Modi, a realist whose goal is to grow India Inc. and do business with anyone -- at home or abroad -- who can help achieve that goal.
However, with clear and strong mandate, Modi may bring a longer-term vision to India's foreign policy planning. And for the first time in India's history, prime minister's office, for better or worse, may take charge of foreign policy issues.
But expecting a drastic course correction is possibly not on the cards.
Modi will maintain India's strong ties with Russia. There's a long history of cooperation between New Delhi and Moscow that dates back to the early years of the Cold War. While trade and investment with Russia are now far less important for India, Moscow remains India's chief arms supplier by far. Modi has no reason to rock that boat.
Both the Congress and the BJP have long believed that China is India's principal geo-strategic adversary. That outlook won't change. Yet things have become more complicated over the last two decades: China is now India's main trade partner, so the relationship is not all about security and conflict.
Though Modi has attacked previous Indian leaders for not standing up to China over territorial and water-sharing issues, he won't be looking to pick fights with Beijing.
Pakistan will be Modi's other foreign policy preoccupation, but he's likely to prove wrong those who think he'll take a dramatically tougher line toward Islamabad. He might use the anti-Pakistan trump card only if he fails to deliver the promised development.
One country with which Modi is eager to step up its security ties is Japan. The Congress laid the foundation for this, and the BJP will build on it. India is the one Asian power that's not unnerved by Abe's commitment to change Japan's minimalist defense policy.
New Delhi wants a strong partner on China's eastern flank and sees Japan, with its economic and technological prowess, as well-suited to that role. Like New Delhi, Tokyo also sees China as it's biggest security problem.
In all, those expecting big changes from Modi on the foreign policy front are apt to be disappointed. While he believes that India is destined to be a global power, he also understands that that goal will never be met unless India gets its economic act together. If Modi makes big changes, they'll be on the home front.

Published: 12:01 am Saturday, May 31, 2014

Last modified: 2:43 am Saturday, May 31, 2014

TAGS: Pakistan Prime Minister's Office foreign policy Hindu nationalism American Dream. New Delhi Manjari Chatterjee Miller

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