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Narendra Modi’s foreign policy — too early to judge?

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In Brief

The Narendra Modi government turned 100 days old on 3 September, and while it is too early to judge its performance on both the domestic and foreign policy front, its first few months have revealed some important features of the government’s foreign policy — both positive and negative.


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The Modi government has given clear signals that it is keen to improve relations not just with South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) countries but also ASEAN countries, especially Vietnam and Myanmar, and of course Japan.

Modi’s visits to Bhutan and Nepal were ample evidence of his government’s enthusiasm for SAARC. In Nepal, Modi spoke sincerely about improving economic linkages and also about granting whatever assistance the country needed. In Bhutan, too, Modi spoke about the similarities between the two countries while effectively highlighting the point that Bhutan had made a peaceful transition to democracy.

During her visits to both Myanmar and then Vietnam, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj made it amply clear that engagement with ASEAN is an important Indian objective, and not simply an avenue to check Chinese influence. Swaraj spoke about the need for greater people-to-people contact, a relaxed visa regime, and also the need for improving connectivity within the region. In Myanmar for the ASEAN Regional Forum, ASEAN and East Asia Summit meetings, Swaraj also successfully raised bilateral issues with Burmese leaders.

A number of chief ministers, including Mamata Banerjee from West Bengal, Chandrababu Naidu from Andhra Pradesh and Vasundhara Raje from Rajasthan, have Singapore on their itinerary. This is important because Anil Wadhwa, a secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs, spoke in favour of increasing linkages between tier-two cities in India and ASEAN.

Modi has also spoken repeatedly about granting a greater role to states in the realm of external affairs, especially with regard to attracting foreign direct investment. Modi’s interest in expanding ties beyond capital cities was also evident in his BRICS speech, where he spoke in favour of greater interactions at the provincial and city level.

While Modi referred to this during a speech he made on 16 August in Mumbai, it was also interesting to note that during his visit to Bangladesh the Minister of External Affairs, VK Singh, was accompanied by officials of states sharing borders with Bangladesh. This included Meghalaya state chief minister Mukul Sangma and Tripura state industry minister Tapan Chakraborty. Sangma pitched for greater connectivity between Meghalaya and Bangladesh at an Investors Conclave in Dhaka on 24 August. Before leaving for Bangladesh, VK Singh (who is also the Minister for the North Eastern Region) had met chief ministers from other north-eastern states.

Finally, while Modi’s Japan visit is being spoken of in terms of the investments Japan has promised as well as some important strategic agreements Modi and Abe signed, with an eye on China, other aspects of Modi’s foreign policy were also revealed. First, Modi showed his intent to create greater linkages between cities — an area which had been neglected in the past. Clear evidence of this is the memorandum of understanding signed between Kyoto and Varanasi. Modi is keen to replicate Kyoto’s balance of modernity with tradition and wants Japanese assistance in converting Varanasi into a smart city.

Second, Modi displayed his emphasis on building upon historical linkages between India and other parts of the world. Modi presented Prime Minister Abe with a book about a famous Indian Philosopher, Swami Vivekananda titled ‘Vivekananda and Japan’ and also met Saichiro Misumi, a Japanese aide of Indian freedom fighter Subhas Chandra Bose. The prime minister has also proposed a video recording project of conversations between Misumi and other associates of Bose who are still alive.

Third, though Modi did allude to China in the context of expansionism (Modi’s speech was in Hindi and he used the term ‘vistaarwaad’), his speech was not particularly harsh. He thus sent a clear message to China that India will not support its belligerence, but it will ‘seek new vistas of cooperation’ in the economic realm (he referred to ‘vikaswaad’ or development).

Still, there are areas where the prime minister has slipped up. On his return from the BRICS summit, his failed attempt to meet Angela Merkel was a blunder. Modi was not advised properly and did not benefit from it. If anything, it put him in an awkward position vis-à-vis Japan, which was to be his first high profile bilateral visit. To cover up, Modi extended his Japan sojourn by a day.

If the states are to participate more fully in the conduct of India’s foreign policy it is important to clearly flesh out what is acceptable and what is not. On certain issues, like Tamils in Sri Lanka or the Teesta river treaty with Bangladesh, it is impossible to make a decision solely on the interests of one Indian state. On economic issues, on the other hand, the participation of states in foreign policy should be encouraged. Greater cultural and sports links between states and other countries should also be encouraged, as this would help in promoting India’s soft power.

It remains to be seen how the prime minister will keep the influence of domestic politics out of his engagement with the outside world. This is going to be a challenge not just in the context of Pakistan but in relations with countries like China as well. In the case of Pakistan, Modi has taken a tough stand, cancelling foreign secretary-level talks due to the Pakistan High Commissioner’s meeting with Kashmiri separatists at a time when ceasefire violations by Pakistan are also on the rise. Another question is how Modi would react to incursions by China, since India has close economic relations with its neighbour and, in spite of some roadblocks, these ties have seen significant improvement.

Modi’s performance so far has been mixed in the realm of foreign policy and the next few weeks and months, during which he will contend with some important bilateral and multilateral engagements, will give a better insight into his foreign policy vision. It remains to be seen how he will balance domestic politics with foreign policy issues and deal with international diplomacy, an area which did not concern him as chief minister of Gujarat.

Tridivesh Singh Maini is associated with The Jindal School of International Affairs, Sonepat.

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