As Narendra Modi completes two years as Prime Minister and just ahead of his state visit to Washington in the first week of June where he will address a joint session of US Congress, I think this is the right time where we look back at the hits and misses of his global outreach & his foreign policy at large. In such a context, it would be prudent to discuss some of the issues in the foreign affairs sphere that could potentially have far-reaching implications on the destiny of India and I shall attempt to do the same in this blog.
The Prime Minister’s foreign policy essentially stands on four pillars: his ‘Neighborhood First’ policy, his East Asia & West Asia pivots, his increasingly cozy relationship with the great powers and of course, the all important China – Pakistan axis of evil. If we were to analyse the government’s policies vis-a-vis these four pillars, the best that can be said about them is that they remain a work-in-progress with some significant successes but equally significant failures which might have negative long term consequences on India’s position in the region or that in the world. Thus, it is imperative to look into some of the policies with respect to these pillars in greater detail and illustrate why they remain a work in progress.
Let us first start with India’s policy towards its immediate neighbors i.e. the countries which are part of the transnational group South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC). To extend a hand of friendship towards SAARC members, PM Modi invited all SAARC heads of state to his oath taking ceremony right after winning the Lok Sabha elections in May 2014, thereby triggering a hope for a truly integrated South Asia, but his mismanagement of the constitutional crisis in Nepal and an ambiguous approach towards Pakistan has made sure that an integrated subcontinent remains nothing more than a pipe dream. Notwithstanding that, there has been some progress made with respect to India’s relationship with some of its neighbors, in particular Bangladesh and Afghanistan. The Land Boundary Agreement (LPA) signed between India and Bangladesh ushered in a new era of cooperation between the countries. India & Bangladesh have since concluded a nuclear agreement, a power sharing agreement and there have been talks of improving road connectivity between the two countries with Bangladesh being used as a conduit between India’s north eastern states and the mainland. As far as Afghanistan is concerned, the trilateral transit agreement it signed with India and Iran, would not just help in shoring its economy but would allow India to counter China which is exerting its influence in the region with massive investments in Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal. Thus, it is advised that India continues to maintain its relations with these two countries while at the same time try to mend relations with Nepal, Bhutan & Sri Lanka, now that it is clear Pakistan is not a country it would like to place its bets on, at least in the long run.
In contrast, Modi’s relationship with both East Asia & West Asia has been incredibly productive, not least because countries therein realize that they have a lot to gain by having a good relationship with India. Many strides have been made by India in improving ties with countries in the Asian continent. A nuclear deal with Australia has been clinched, work is underway to create a 1400 k.m. highway linking India, Thailand and Myanmar which would go a long way in enhancing connectivity in the region & the all important Chabahar deal has been signed which would see India developing the strategically located port in South East Iran, thereby becoming India’s gateway to Central Asia and beyond. Both Japan on the East and Saudi Arabia in the west have increased their investments in India, with the former helping India to build its first bullet train and the latter investing heavily in the up and coming renewable energy sector. India must keep working on boosting ties with Western Asian economies that will help in energy security and keep advancing relations with East Asian economies to counter the common adversary of China in the region.
India’s engagement with the great powers has been successful on two fronts: one, in the last two years, Modi has been able to cultivate India’s image as a country open for investment which has led to India becoming the highest recipient of FDI in 2015-16 and two, Pakistan has been sidelined by the global power structure and is on the verge of complete isolation, if not for its ‘all weather friendship’ with China. However, on both fronts, enormous challenges remain. Firstly, many executives in the private sector, both domestic and foreign, have complained about the slow pace of reforms or the lack of farsightedness in the ones initiated. If Modi wants to indeed resurrect India’s manufacturing sector and create enough jobs for the millions of Indians entering the work force every year, he must not resort to protectionist tendencies characteristic of Indian policy makers and before time runs out, initiate all the ‘big-bang’ reforms that the world wants from him. Secondly, he must be very cautious while dealing with the China-Pakistan axis of evil. He must position India as a state which is open for Chinese investment but not at the expense of Chinese obstructionism with respect to its global ambitions. China has vowed block its bid for entry into the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) and has stonewalled its attempt to designate Masood Azhar, mastermind of 26/11 attacks, as a terrorist at the United Nations, both allegedly at the behest of its crucial ally Pakistan. Although, US has countered China on India’s eligibility as an entrant to the NSG and has also given India the status equal to that of its NATO allies, India must asserting itself boldly at the international level, thereby leaving no alternative for China but to accept India’s emerging power status.
In conclusion, India may not have become the superpower that the Prime Minister usually claims in his speeches, but, its engagement with the world has increased exponentially and perhaps, for the first time in history, the world looks at India with great hope for its future. However, this hope will be short-lived if Modi fails to deliver on his promises. So, from here on, the focus must be on scrupulous implementation of the various MOU’s and agreements signed by India which would help in closing the credibility gap that has haunted India’s foreign policy for decades. Modi has successfully laid the foundation for improving India’s stature in the world but whether that foundation would indeed transform into a concrete presence remains to be seen. India is Waiting.