The handling of foreign policy always faces the challenge that the external environment can mutate rapidly, leaving policy makers at a loose end. That is why its practitioners like fighter pilots must maintain situational awareness in a three hundred and sixty degree mental swing. The issues preoccupying NDA government for the last few weeks have been the elections to the posts President and Vice President, the ensuing Rajya Sabha elections in Gujarat, raids on Hurriyet leaders to trace their funding and Sino-India relations.
The stand-off at Doklam with the Chinese is both a distraction as well as a scene setter for the nationalistic script that is being carefully crafted for the 2019 parliament election. Lost in the process are developments on the periphery that can impinge on Indian foreign policy choices. Take for instance the passage through US Congress of new legislation on sanctioning Russia. It passed with such one-sided support in both the Congress and the Senate that President Donald Trump had no option but to sign on the dotted line, the majority being veto proof.
The implications of this bill for India have hardly been noticed by the media. While it locks and extends previous sanctions hitting Russian energy and banking sectors, the new provisions target any entity doing business with defence and intelligence sectors. The defence portion needs to be studied by India. Will this be a fresh irritant in Indo-US relations or can a waiver be found around it as India will continue to have robust defence relations with Russia?
In any case it shows the superiority of the US presidential system to the Westminster cabinet system adopted by India. A powerful prime minister with brute majority in the lower house and emerging control of the bigger states can become autocratic without parliamentary check. The investigating agencies of the government with fresh teeth provided by new money-laundering and benami properties legislation are enforcers to selectively targeting opposition parties, choking off their funding and poaching on their allies and members of state legislature. Ironically, Congress which is the principal victim now has in the past used similar methods against their antagonists. What is new is the mixture of jingoism, populism and social media driven dissimulation. A television channel, acting as a mouth-piece for the government, ran footage of cabinets full of cash to demonstrate money seized during raid on a Karnataka minister which was actually older footage made during the demonetisation raids in Delhi. The line between fact and fiction is blurred as propaganda overtakes reportage.
The problem is that in foreign policy India is pitted against equally or more powerful nations that have electronic, satellite and human intelligence. Domestically dissimulation, even in the field of foreign policy, can work but internationally the truth eventually emerges. For instance, has India thinned its presence at Doklam as the Chinese claimed in a paper or not as the Indian government rebutting China asserted? Did PM N. Modi tell Israeli counterpart B. Netanyahu, as the latter told a visiting European delegation and was picked up by media over an inadvertently open mike, that India could hardly get water management technology in Ramallah, the Palestinian capital? If this indeed transpired, it was regrettable as leaders of great nations do not please their interlocutors by running down other friendly countries.
The NDA government will now find that the post-Trump, post Nawaz Sharif and post Xi Jinping world is more complex and less amenable to sequential treatment where PM Modi could live in the moment and ignore the larger reality. What you tell one world leader will get found out by the others. That is why it is important to root foreign policy in strategic clarity and not tactical pandering. The world is being re-made in a new re-distribution of power. NDA government must resist the temptation to use international relations as an instrument for domestic political consolidation and electoral benefit as that breaks the domestic consensus. Trump is meanwhile determined to find an excuse to renege on the nuclear agreement with Iran. India will find going forward that balancing good Indo-US relations with India’s relations with Russia and Iran will become more and more difficult. Furthermore, balancing relations with Iran with those with GCC would be equally complex. Pakistan hovers between PML-N rule and military dictatorship and open alliance with China.
While external environment is mutating and becoming more complex India is in the middle of forced economic change brought about by GST. The last thing India wants is a border confrontation. There lies the conundrum. Sabre-rattling at the border distracts from a slowing economy producing fewer jobs and tepid growth. But it also can spin out of control as China too cannot afford to back-down with its leader Xi Jinping also at a crucial stage of consolidating power at the 19th Party Congress later this year.
The country is thus at an inflexion point. Modi is the most powerful prime minister in decades. However, those like Nitish Kumar who are already crowning Modi as re-elected in 2019 little understand history or economics or foreign policy. When China decided to cut Nehru down to size in 1962, he was at his peak and unchallenged leader of Congress having seen off Patel, Rajendra Prasad etc. Successful Roman emperors had a slave whisper in their ears: “momento mori” or you are mortal. Hopefully PM Modi has someone near him doing that duty.