Nationalism is the backbone of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ideological approach to international relations. At the core of the new PM’s world-view is a deep belief that India must vigorously safeguard the country’s territorial integrity and security interests, and at the same time, seek a more assertive role in the global arena befitting India’s civilizational heritage. Let us see how he has gone about setting the tone for this approach of his government over the past 60 days that his team has now been in place …
Ever since Modi was elected to power in May this year, many erudite analysts have attempted to speculate on the likely contours of India’s foreign policy under the new dispensation. Some have pointed to his limited exposure to global issues; others have wondered whether he would turn out to be an adventurist hawk or an insular dove; while still others have noted the sparse and ambiguous mention of foreign policy in either the BJP’s election manifesto or his numerous election campaign speeches. Admittedly, even after two months of taking over the reins of power, there is as yet no real clarity on the content and direction of the new government’s global roadmap. The dramatic invitations to leaders of neighbouring nations to attend his inauguration and the public display of solidarity with four other powerful global leaders at the BRICS forum are perhaps the only clues so far of Modi’s thinking and intentions.
Based on such random straws in the wind, there is also a growing consensus that Modi will most likely follow a pragmatic, flexible policy of “enlightened national interest,” leveraging domestic strengths to carry forward foreign policy. The general impression that has gained ground is that India’s foreign policy will be driven by economic growth, with focus on the East and deep Southwards rather than fixating on the West and overtly remaining Pakistan centric. Going by whatever verbal evidence that has been forthcoming, another assumption is that foreign policy will be dictated by increasing emphasis on international trade and commerce based on regional stability and strategic global alliances.
Some diplomats and geo-strategic experts believe that Japan is emerging as a thrust area, though not at the cost of China, which would also be accorded due importance. A fine balance, it is being said, will be maintained while expanding relations with Japan and China; and the same will be done with Israel and the Gulf countries for the sake of energy security. Had the new government been given enough time and scope for experimentation and exploration, the size and shape of India’s new foreign policy may well have gradually evolved and matured over the months and years ahead. Preoccupied as it is with major domestic challenges facing the country, ranging from reviving the stagnant economy to restoring faith in democratic institutions, resolving political disputes and delivering on its electoral promise of good governance, the government could have well felt justified in following a policy of continuity on external issues, at least for the time being. However, India suddenly finds itself caught in the powerful cross-currents of heightened global instability. The dramatic and potentially dangerous developments in West Asia and Eastern Europe over the past few weeks have drastically altered the dynamics of international relations.
The situation in other global hotspots like Syria, Iraq and Libya is also rapidly deteriorating. As a consequence, India’s foreign policy finds itself at the crossroads much sooner than the new government of Narendra Modi could have anticipated or liked. Most, if not all, of such zones of strife and conflict are in fact proxy wars being waged between the big nuclear powers of the Cold War era. Pressure is mounting on New Delhi to urgently make known its stand on which side of the deepening divide its ideological inclinations and perceived long-term national interests lie. For the Modi government, the balmy summer of 2014 during which it could feel justified in basking in the sweet glory of electoral victory for at least a while, is rapidly turning out to be a rude awakening to the harsh realities of global power play. The supposed shooting down of a Malaysian passenger aircraft over the skies of strife-torn Ukraine has triggered a chain reaction of consequences. Casting aside all pretence of diplomatic doublespeak, President Barack Obama of the United States has all but accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of direct involvement and criminal culpability. He has perforce also persuaded his allies in the European Union to impose severe economic sanctions against Russia. Even though India has nothing whatsoever to do with either the deaths of the 298 innocent airline passengers, or the raging war on the ground in Ukraine, it can least afford to remain insulated or non-partisan. If the eyeballto-eyeball confrontation between Washington and Moscow escalates, Narendra Modi will have to decide whether India’s interests lie with his BRICS partner Putin or with Obama.
Simultaneously, India also finds itself caught on the horns of a painful dilemma with regard to the bloody, asymmetrical war in the Gaza Strip between Israel and the Hamas. It is no secret that the BJP, the RSS and Modi himself lean entirely towards Tel-Aviv. But the sheer ferocity of the Israeli attack that has killed more than a thousand innocent citizens has virtually armtwisted the Modi government into joining the international community in condemning the inhuman and merciless massacre. The lack of time to formulate a clear and nuanced foreign policy is proving a handicap, even outside global hotspots where military conflicts, wanton violations of human rights and international terrorism are causing barbaric and mindless death and destruction. The task of deciding on bilateral trade ties and striking long-term strategic alliances is also replete with complexities that India is finding burdensome, due to a lack of clarity on whether to adhere to continuity or to strike a bold new path. A pragmatic vision would inevitably challenge some of the key foundations of India’s traditional nationalist and left-ofcenter foreign policy. It would also dilute the prevailing consensus within the country. But it could open up new possibilities and opportunities, especially for India’s relations with the United States and global nuclear arms control. Ideally, new foreign policy perspectives need to be discussed and debated threadbare at various levels involving political parties, think tanks and ministries. The views of important public intellectuals, policy analysts, academics, journalists, diplomats, and government officials also ought to be factored in. For a new government to deviate from traditional policy without such prior consultations can only be at the cost of consensus. A counter argument is that any sincere search for consensus could well lead to increasingly acrimonious debates which might slow down critical foreign policy decisions, or indeed even lead to policy paralysis. Given the diversity of views and ideologies between political parties and intellectuals within India it is probably true to say that genuine consensus on foreign policy may not be achievable in today’s surcharged atmosphere. It is very likely that Indian foreign policy might remain contested and contentious for a considerable period in the foreseeable future.
In a way, this might indeed be a good thing, because the old consensus was possible as India international positioning was relatively stable for decades, just as the world was also relatively stable. Today the world is witnessing a tectonic shift in global relations, particularly with the rise of powerful non-State players. Globalisation has also brought about a paradigm shift in trade and commerce. India’s global positioning is today much more dynamic than ever before since the time of Independence. Nobody ever calls India a ‘Third World’ country any more. Economists describe India as an “Emerging Economy”. Foreign policy pundits view India as an “Aspiring Power”. These concepts are not just a play of words from different professional standpoints. They reflect the historic changes taking place within the world’s largest democracy at every level, economic and political. Hence foreign policy must be both flexible and pragmatic. Above all, it must be based on the solid bedrock of a coherent core philosophy.