One more year ended when India secured a mixed bag of success and disappointments, and quite a few monkeys on its back. The New Year 2020 seems to be more challenging than the year gone by in terms of New Delhi consolidating ties with existing allies, gaining new ones, and fending off challenges from adversaries.
Towards the very end of the year, one of the new allies, Saudi Arabia has raised the hackles of South Block by announcing a special conference of OIC on Kashmir. Apparently, Saudi’s move is aimed at appeasing Pakistan, who boycotted at the behest of Saudi Arabia the OIC conference held in Malaysia. This is not good news for New Delhi especially as South Block was deepening the economic and security ties with Riyadh.
To be sure, New Delhi’s footprint in international politics was lessened as much by the uncertainties obtaining in its allies as by developments at home. India’s closest ally Israel is caught in leadership crisis as no clear winner for the post-Prime Minister has emerged so far. Benjamin Netanyahu, the outgoing Prime Minister was saddled with scandals of fund misappropriation and ‘breach of trust’ etc. The other supposed ally Donald Trump was facing impeachment by the Congress. Prime Minister Modi was unable to meet up with Shinzo Abe, which was billed to be an important trade and investment meeting. Bangladesh, another friendly neighbour was put off by unpleasant and inappropriate remarks made by BJP ministers and spokespersons defending the Citizenship Amendment Act. I have commented in this column how dragging Dhaka into a domestic political issue was imprudent on the part of our government.
The year 2019 began ominously with terror attacks on our security forces at Pulwama, the retaliatory surgical strike at Balakot, and the terror listing of Masood Azhar, the last one eventually going in favour of India.
Quite evidently, the Balakot strike and Azhar brought huge electoral dividends for Modi’s incumbent government that secured a comfortable majority in the General elections. Modi, bolstered by the new majority, abrogated Article 370, nullifying J&K’s special status and turning it into a Union Territory, under direct control of the Centre. This was certainly a bold move which did not provoke much domestic reaction, but a few countries — Turkey, Malaysia and of course Pakistan reacted negatively. Saudi Arabia being a fellow-Sunni Muslim country of Pakistan vacillated in its reaction.
Apparently, the reaction at home to the radical changes in status of Kashmir is subdued, but simmering. Undoubtedly, Kashmir will remain an international challenge for New Delhi as Pakistan will keep it aflame. The best way for New Delhi to blunt the reaction to Kashmir from overseas is to initiate the political process and restore normalcy sooner than later.
The other notable act last year in India’s internationalism is the appointment of career diplomat as the Minister for External Affairs. Some of us expressed our unhappiness in appointing bureaucrats as ministers. I wrote in this column that diplomatic deftness cannot be the substitute for political acumen. Only those elected by people in a democracy should become ministers, and others, diplomats, experts, and academics can be advisors. Anyway, that is history. S. Jaishankar is in charge. He articulated his strategic priority in our foreign policy as “combination of greater diplomatic activity, more intensive development partnerships, stronger security engagements, and a growing global profile’.
Jaishankar, the Foreign Minister, like many an expert agrees that the determinants of Foreign Policy have changed. Earlier, they could be political values which are called soft power, or military strength, the hard power, but now it is the economy, and strategic alliances. Economy drives diplomacy. This is where the last year was not promising. Modi government faltered in setting the economy right, the growth rate, the main indicator of a robust economy, fell below expectation, and the figure is contested by experts. What is uncontested is the fact that it has slipped from fifth to seventh largest economy by nominal GDP. The slowdown in economy weakened India’s clout in global politics.
A related shortcoming observed in 2019 was New Delhi’s inability to take advantage of the trade war between the two big economies, USA and China. It is quite apparent that the US wanted to build India as a counterweight to China. But New Delhi dithered on that strategy and wavered between engaging and countering China. The patience of the US on India seemed to have thinned as it is going ahead to sign a trade deal with China. New Delhi also has added to USA’s discomfiture by allowing Huawei, the big Chinese ICT company to install 5G network. New Delhi’s ambiguity on Beijing has been quite dismal last year. And worse, were the informal summits which sent confusing signals to the world.
New Delhi is yet to grasp the new maxim “economy is the key determinant” to our foreign policy. Experts argued that ‘withdrawing from RCEP’ was an example of New Delhi not anchoring its foreign policy on trade. New Delhi negotiated in bad faith and withdrew from it after six years, at the last moment. As New Delhi cited China angle, some of us supported India not joining RCEP. But what defies our comprehension is New Delhi’s inability to sign any trade deal with any country.
It has not signed a trade pact even with a closest friend like Israel. New Delhi has been negotiating endlessly a Free Trade Agreement with European Union since 2007; it has failed to initiate any trade deal with the US. Now that Brexit is a done deal, has New Delhi broached a Trade Pact with Britain? Japan looks favourably at India; their leadership has sounded that Japan will not sign RCEP if India is not in it. With such strong support, New Delhi failed to tap Japanese goodwill.
What was more important? A summit meeting with Japanese premier which would have resulted in greater investment and trade opportunity or creating chaos by shoddily formulating and presenting the CAA, NRC and NPR etc.? Obviously, Modi government misplaced its priorities. A robust foreign policy based on trade and investment would bring jobs and incomes to our country, which was neglected, and a needless controversy was created by CAA, NRC etc.
To be fair, there have been three inflexion points in our recent foreign policy. One was the nuclear test of 1998, the second, India-US nuclear pact of 2008 and the Abrogation of Article 370 on August 5 last year. The first two went well in India’s favour adding extra-profile to the nation, but the last one, on Kashmir is yet to see its logical end. The Kashmir issue vis-a-vis Pakistan has been backed by Modi government with infusion of huge dose of nationalism into India’s body politics. It has worked well so far. But nationalism alone by itself with its emotional contents will not help any country forever.
To conclude, on the record of last year, New Delhi did well on putting its stamp as a decisive power to reckon with, especially on India-Pacific area. It presided over the upgraded Quad last year and openly engaged with other Indian Ocean powers – France and Indonesia. The lapses consisted of dealing decisively with China and not drawing closer to US on trade, and making trade its key tool in foreign policy. Hopefully, it does so this year.
The author is Prof. International Politics, JMI