Excerpts from the Book ‘Modiplomacy: Through a Shakespearean Prism’ authored by former Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan
The deafening applause for a Shakespearean hero is normally when the curtain falls on the Fifth Act, but in the case of Modi, the mood was sombre at that time because of the uncertainty of the results of the election which followed. Many commentaries in India and abroad projected the situation as tough and predicted a possible hung Parliament. Many Prime Ministerial candidates emerged and Modi’s campaign itself appeared to be a fight for survival. There were many issues, but the only real issue was whether Modi would have another five years to rule India. A western magazine characterised him as a ‘Divider-in-Chief’ in an issue, which also carried a catalogue of his achievements. A question was asked whether India could endure another five years of a Narendra Modi government.
The dramatic victory of BJP and its allies was clearly Modi’s triumph, but his entire record was re-examined to find the secret of his success. Finally, there was a near consensus that the major factors were his foreign and security policies and mundane matters like drinking water, cooking gas and toilets. The patriotic fervour aroused by the Balakot attack in reply for terrorism in Pulwama and the wide international support Modi received in getting Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman released and getting Masood Azhar declared an international terrorist after years of Chinese resistance were clearly factors in Modi’s victory. Modi quickly identified his ‘tragic flaw’ when he added ‘trust of all’ to ‘being with all’ and ‘development of all’ as his mottos.
The five years of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy began and ended with India’s neighbourhood. The assemblage of South Asian heads on the day of his swearing-in ceremony was as dramatic as the attack on Balakot towards the end of his first term in office. The period covered the whole spectrum from peacemaking and the promise of economic growth of the whole region through cooperation to a military conflict with Pakistan. The ‘Neighbours First’ policy, which sought to overcome the hesitations of history was haunted by the compulsions of history and geography and remained elusive. He confronted more or less the same problems faced by his predecessors and he had to tackle them with firmness and flexibility with mixed results. The greatest irony was that the very organization, which was founded to increase economic cooperation, the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation(SAARC) became moribund because of the worsening of relations with Pakistan, and bilateral relations with other countries also fluctuated during the period. Instead of regional cooperation leading to better relations with the outside world, Modi claimed that the success of his foreign policy elsewhere helped him to win the battles with Pakistan both on the border and the UN Security Council.
Modi’s biggest challenge was China, which was at the root of every issue he faced in external relations, including the neighbourhood, which was deeply influenced by China emerging as an alternative to India as a regional power, capable of providing economic and political support to the countries in South Asia. China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) offered an attraction for them to build their infrastructure and their development plans became an instrument of China’s expansionism. Modi maintained a continuous dialogue with China and did his best not to provoke it, but China did not help to resolve any of the old problems and added new ones involving serious threat to India’s security and sovereignty like Doklam and the BRI through the Pakistan Occupied Kashmir. The border discussions made no breakthrough and China created obstacles to India’s minor aspirations like the membership of the NSG and the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist, not to speak of India’s candidature for permanent membership of the UN Security Council.
The greatest success of Modi was the ‘new symphony’ he choreographed with the United States from 2014 to 2016, taking India closest to the United States as a ‘close defence partner’ of the US as part of the Make in India programme, including co-designing and co-manufacturing of defence equipment. He signed defence agreements with the United States, which his predecessors had hesitated to do. The second visit of any US President to India in 2015 resulted in a historic agreement on cooperation between the two countries in the Asia-Pacific. The ‘Quadrilateral’ for cooperation among the US, India, Japan and Australia began to take shape. Investments grew and it appeared that India-US relations would reach unprecedented levels. Both China and Russia watched these developments with concern and began showing signs of diversifying their relations in South Asia.
But like the ‘deus ex machina’, a totally unexpected person or event that descends on the path of Shakespearean heroes, the advent of President Donald Trump altered the course of India-US relations. It appeared initially that Trump would be a valuable partner in our fight against terrorism, in balancing China and in building trade and economic growth, but his isolationist ‘America First’ approach and dislike of globalism made the trajectory of bilateral relations unpredictable and rough. Trump did not go against India’s interests in any significant way, but his immigration and trade policies caused concern in India. In other words, the major investment that Modi made in cultivating President Obama and laying the foundations of a significant partnership with the US as a pivot to India’s foreign policy did not create the intended benefits. Trump’s policy of withdrawing assistance to Pakistan for failing to fight terrorism was a blessing, but his dependence on Pakistan to find a compromise arrangement in Afghanistan, together with Taliban and to withdraw his troops from Afghanistan was a setback for India. At the time of Doklam and other instances of China’s adversarial approach to India, Trump’s silence was eloquent. Modi came to the inevitable conclusion, therefore, that he could not rely on the US as a strong partner in the circumstances, but remained engaged with the US on the basis of the existing arrangements for cooperation.
India has long dreamt of becoming a fourth pole in an emerging global order. The time has come for us to pursue this dream, now that the world is in a flux and the three existing poles are not able to cover the entire globe. India, having experimented with embracing the United States till 2017, feels it necessary to find an alternative and neither China nor Russia holds any attraction for us.
India too has no constituency of its own, either in our neighbourhood or elsewhere, as the glue of non-alignment has withered away. The emergence of Narendra Modi as the leader of the biggest democracy presents an opportunity for India to build a string of friendships with common aspirations for beneficial cooperation. Even in the absence of overwhelming economic and military power, India may be able to build an affinity with a variety of countries across continents and ideological affinities. Countries like Japan, Germany, Australia, Brazil, South Africa, Indonesia, Malaysia, UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel come to mind.
One positive development in this context is the overwhelming support India has received from the international community for Modi’s relentless fight against terrorism, exemplified in the intervention by Trump to de-escalate the situation on the South Asian subcontinent and the listing of Masood Azhar as a global terrorist.
We have done so without deploying our army abroad or launching a hunt for terrorists around the world. The United Nations, which has been unable to define terrorism so far because of it being confused with freedom struggles, has come out clearly against terrorism.
There was no international criticism of the attack on Balakot. If India’s efforts to save the world from the scourge of terrorism succeed, India will earn a special place in the global community. Modi’s initial forays into foreign policy had the flavour of ‘Aswamedha Yagas’ launched by ancient kings to conquer the world. He overcame the hesitations of history and explored unconventional ways to win friends and influence people.
But soon enough, he was faced with the realities of history and geography, which prompted him to proceed with caution. But his definition of national interests and pursuing them with vigour gave him the image of a man of action and the powerful leader of a potential great power.
A good relation with the United States was at the centre of his global vision and brought in a new symphony in India-US relations. But the advent of President Donald Trump altered the global situation and prompted him to reset relations with the major powers and to seek alternate ways to attain his goals.
The second term, which was, among other things, a reward for Modi’s world view and foreign policy has provided him and India with an opportunity to consolidate the gains of the past, apply the necessary correctives and move forward.
Our immediate concern is to build an alternative to SAARC as a regional organisation for economic cooperation. India has embraced the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation (BIMSTEC) as an alternative.
The Bay of Bengal could become the key economic connection between East and South Asia and a potential zone for Asian economic growth. An overarching priority for the BIMSTEC member states would, therefore, be to further strengthen the regional integration process.
Today, BIMSTEC is celebrating 20 years of its establishment. In these two decades, BIMSTEC has progressed in regional cooperation and integration front, whereas, at the same time, it has faced several new challenges.
Infusing BIMSTEC with a political cohesiveness and economic clout is an onerous responsibility for India. At the same time, we need to cast our net wider to larger concentric circles to South East Asia and beyond to build a constituency, which has faith in India’s policies. Our ability to help and hurt should be highlighted by a string of projects in which each of them has a stake. Economic cooperation and investments must grow and the Make in India initiative has to be vigorously pursued. For this, we need to project our requirements as part of the global agenda and not as transactional deals.
Our quest for a permanent seat on the horseshoe table of the Security Council has no chance of success as the vast majority of the members of the United Nations would rather abolish the veto than give veto to new members. The permanent members will naturally resist sharing their privileged position with others.
Reflecting the change in the power structure of the world is not the sole responsibility of India. When that realisation comes, as it must, India will not be excluded. We may do well to appear to be patient and realistic on this issue. We should, however, insist on membership of bodies like APEC. The exclusion of India from APEC is a relic of an era when the Indian economy was considered illiberal.
The strong second mandate has given Modi a stature similar to those of Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin in terms of stability and that too through the ballot box. The Western prejudices articulated close to the elections against Modi must evaporate with the massive mandate.
Trump has already indicated his willingness to work closely with Modi. These advantages, together with Modi’s penchant for international affairs, a congenial economic climate and a broad consensus inside the country in his favour, should give his foreign policy a new thrust and vigour.
Modi is faced with a number of tough foreign policy challenges in his second term. The US has indicated that it would be willing to work with Modi on the basis of the foundation laid by the previous residents of the United States and that it would continue its strong partnership with India. At the same time, on issues like trade, immigration and defence cooperation, Donald Trump’s views would prevail. The dangers of a tight embrace with the United States were all too evident in Modi’s first term. China has made no concessions on any of the problems that have plagued bilateral relations since the sixties. Russia’s steadfastness also cannot be taken for granted. Steering clear of these inherent hazards even while cooperating with them and finding a niche for India in the emerging multipolar world should be the objective of Modiplomacy 2.0.
(This excerpt from Modiplomacy: Through a Shakespearean Prism authored by former Ambassador T.P. Sreenivasan has been published with permission from Konark Publishers, New Delhi)