The Forum of Former Ambassadors of India, wrote a piece on 5th June in a leading daily titled ‘Playing down the external threat, why criticism of PM Modi’s Foreign policy is unfair’. As an independent observer and a student of India’s foreign policy, I would like to engage with the issues raised by the Excellencies and contend that there has to be criticism wherever appropriate and constructive in the interest of the country.
Although foreign policy is usually based on a consensus across political parties, an internal debate on its strategy and function will not be out of place. Their letter is premised on three issues which are debatable; so instead of criticism of Modi’s foreign policy this piece calls for a serious rebuttal of these premises.
First, they rationalise Modi’s foreign policy by invoking what was done by his predecessors from his own party, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Congress Prime Ministers like Manmohan Singh and Narshimha Rao. They say Vajpayee made India nuclear, which was endorsed and legitimatised by the historic nuclear agreement signed between George W Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The nuclear project is understandable as it broke the monopoly imposed through the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) by the nuclear ‘haves’ for denying access to nuclear energy, peaceful or otherwise to the ‘have-nots’.
They say the dialogue with Pakistan broke down under the UPA. Yes, but it was expected that Modi should take fresh initiatives in foreign policy and make radical departure from past traditions set by leaders, including the first Prime Minister Pandit Nehru, who was considered the architect of India’s foreign policy. The strategic shift could have included perhaps normalising relationship with Pakistan, as steady and healthy relation with Islamabad based on peaceful coexistence good neighbourliness could be better for both the countries as well as the South Asian region; while it excluded the interference by external powers including their arms sale. So that was a miss.
They appreciate Modi’s personal equations with world leaders as a sign of success. But as career diplomats, they should know that while personal chemistry and charm contribute to enhancing bilateral relations, that is not enough. In fact, overdoing it by overriding diplomatic norms and protocols could be counter-productive. Take for instance, the endorsement of Donald Trump’s candidature by Modi was a diplomatic naivety. The Group of Ambassadors said it was a great success, when, in Texas (‘Howdy Modi’ conclave), both the leaders addressed over 50,000 people of Indian Diaspora. However, in a foreign country backing one of the candidates was not in line with diplomatic protocols. And look at the results. President Trump lost and we are dealing with a President whom we opposed during the elections.
Likewise, Modi’s, ‘swing and stroll diplomacy’ with Xi Jinping, walking around a lake in China and the beach in India, did not go well for our country. When the red carpet was being rolled out for Jinping on his last visit, we did not get any diplomatic dividend, whereas a country like Nepal took the pretext of India warming up to China, signed a slew of agreements and walked deeper into Beijing’s bear hug. We know the consequences of Jinping’s leadership, expansionist, aggressive, and autocratic as it is, on India.
Third example is the talk of personal friendship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Again, both Netanyahu and Modi presented their personal chemistry as a beacon for good diplomacy and bilateral relations. Netanyahu has been ever so controversial, who survives by waging wars on helpless Palestinians.
Fourthly, the friendship with Shinzo Abe of Japan. New Delhi has a growing relationship with Tokyo bilaterally and within Quad, not because of individuals, it is because of confluence of interest of two countries. Anyway, Abe withdrew from the premiership for nobody knows why. New Delhi now deals with a new Prime Minister.
Finally, recall Modi made a dash to Pakistan in a stopover enroute from Russia via Afghanistan without perhaps a schedule. He popped by to wish happy birthday to then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was going to be 66 in 2015. But did that help in the light of whatever happened to Sharif. Our relationship even during his tenure deteriorated. All in all, bilateralism grows when there is comprehensive links between two countries not just two leaders who come and go. Like the English poet Tennyson said in Brook, ‘men may come and men may go, but I go on forever’. The countries and its people outlast individuals.
Now the third premise is the relationship with China and USA. The contention here is that India is continuing with the policy of selective engagement with China, growing attachment with the US and maintaining good relationship with Russia. They say India is attending regularly meetings of G20, BRICS and SCO. Let us see how practical and beneficial this position is.
Under the chairmanship of India, BRICS foreign ministers meeting took place on 31st May. A Resolution that emanated from that meeting sought to criticise the so-called exceptionalism of USA and selective multilateralism of QUAD. How ironic it is that when India is the lynchpin of QUAD and is perhaps the key stakeholder, is a party to a resolution which is critical of India’s role and perspectives in the region.
I have said more than once before in this column that BRICS and SCO are serving no purpose for India. China is in a serious face-off in multiple points of the Indian border. Russia is increasingly engaging with China and Pakistan and India is kind of an odd man out in the group.
Also, Beijing maintains that its relationship with New Delhi is contingent upon India’s external alignment, choice of allies. It is in fact openly saying that if India decides to go with USA, it may have to pay certain costs. The US says, “India is at the front and the center of American engagement of India-Pacific region”. India is their partner as a geopolitical counterbalance, economic alternative and democratic contrast to China. But does India buy that perspective and seek to benefit from it for the sake of external balancing and capacity building; begin to decouple with Beijing and explore an alternative resilient supply chain to reduce the dependence on China.
The final point of their defense of the current foreign policy is that Modi is accused wrongly of leveraging foreign policy for domestic political purpose. The group argues that all governments in most countries do it in order to enhance security, public expectations and popularity and so on. They are perhaps referring to the electoral dividends derived out of anti-Pakistani rhetoric during elections etc. There is no problem with that strategy, which is practical politics, but the Ambassadors who served mostly outside the country, should know that the domestic situation– political, economic, social, cultural and civilisational — is a major determinant of our foreign policy.
While we leverage foreign policy for domestic gains, we will have to use our domestic resources for enhancing its objectives. This is a major drawback of the current regime as there is depletion of democracy, cuts into the social fabric and is a let-down over the management of health issues, let alone the ongoing pandemic that’s wreaking havoc on lives and livelihoods of the people. So, the mismatch created by this regime more than any before between domestic policy and foreign policy is affecting our standing in the world as well as harming our interest. This needs to be repaired urgently.