PM Narendra Modi is not likely to go abroad before the next elections and the only top level official visit will be by President Ramnath Kovind to Bolivia and Chile in April 2019. This means that no new major initiatives in foreign policy are likely and the time has come to make an assessment of Mr.Modi’s foreign policy successes and failures. This will happen before and after the elections, but his performance in the elections will depend on bread and butter issues like employment, state of the economy and the consequences of demonetization. But considering that Mr.Modi spent much of his time on foreign policy, he would expect some credit for what he has accomplished in the sphere of foreign policy.
The most recent opinion survey, Times Mega Poll, the biggest achievements of the Modi Government are access to facilities for the poor, GST, clean India and surgical strikes against Pakistan in that order. No progress in Ram temple, job creation, demonetization and rise in intolerance are its biggest failures. A Modi led NDA Government is the most likely outcome of the elections, according to 83% of those who participated in the poll. The impact he made on the global scene as a powerful Prime Minister and the various strategic relationships, particularly with the United States through an assertive foreign policy are not considered a factor in the elections.
Surgical strikes, which include the action after the February 14 terror attack are the only factor which is likely to be important in the elections. This is a pity because he had made it his mission to improve India’s relations with its neighbours, but what is being remembered at the time of the elections is how he retaliated to the terrorist attacks on two occasions. In fact, there is speculation that Mr.Modi handled the whole situation to increase the chances of winning the elections. Some believe that Pakistan created the situation in order to ensure that Mr.Modi does not return to power, but on the whole, it has brightened the chances of his victory. For a Prime Minister, who engaged the world powers with a transactional foreign policy involving development, security, neighbours and overseas Indians to be remembered only for his hostile actions against Pakistan at the time of the elections must come as a disappointment.
The fact is that though Mr.Modi professed a hard stand on Pakistan and China during the last elections, his preferred path was peace and cooperation in the neighbourhood. His meeting with South Asian leaders, his welcome to the Chinese President and his visits in the first year were all peace initiatives. He followed Dr. Manmohan Singh’s policy of going the extra mile with both Pakistan and China. It was only after Pakistan’s repeated terrorist assaults that he retaliated. With China, he was very patient, despite provocations. Perhaps, the feeling in India that force was his last option that captured the imagination of the people. Peace is silent, while war is spectacular.
No one will deny that Mr.Modi’s biggest foreign policy achievement was the “new symphony” he brought into India-US relations. His equation with Barack Obama and the dividends it brought to India in terms of development and security, particularly for his ‘Make in India’ and ‘Digital India’ were remarkable. The visit of president Obama in January 2015 and the understanding reached on the Indo-Pacific were historic. The advent of President Donald Trump was the ‘deus ex machina’ that changed the clearly choreographed Indo-US tango and necessitated a new approach. But Mr.Modi managed to keep the relations steady, in spite of the unpredictability of the Trump Administration. But none of these seems to have captured the attention of the voters.
The last chapter of his foreign policy marked by selective alignments, moving away from the tight embrace of the US has been significant and challenging. He tried to reset India’s relations with China and Russia by visiting Wuhan and Sochi, but change is yet to be seen. He has also modified his approach to strategic autonomy by giving greater importance to smaller countries. But these are at the initial stages and Mr.Modi does not have the time to complete the process unless he has a second term. Any other Government may pursue the same path, but the sense of direction and commitment that he has to a new foreign policy is important at this juncture. But all indicators are that the electorate does not seem to have such considerations in mind.
PM Modi himself outlined his platform at the elections when he said, “When I was elected as the PM in 2014, media used to discuss whether I would be able to deliver on the foreign policy front. The turn of recent events (support for India’s counter terrorism actions, the return of Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman from Pakistani custody and the cornering Pakistan in the global arena) must have revealed to you the impact of Indian foreign policy today.” He also noted that India was following new strategies and that India was “fearless, bold and decisive”. “Wing Commander Varthaman could only be released from Pakistan due to the influence of India’s changing foreign policy”, he said. Clearly, he himself is banking on the popularity of his Pakistan policy rather than his delicate balancing act among the US, China and Russia. He realizes that the general public will be attracted more by the pyro techniques over Pakistan and the return of Abhinandan than by the global issues which need patient and deft handling. It is for the same reason that the opposition is trying to pick holes in the Pakistan operation.
Foreign policy and security issues have never been decisive in Indian elections. Mrs. Indira Gandhi lost the elections in 1977 on account of domestic issues even after her victory in the Bangladesh war and her bold nuclear tests of 1974. The tough policy on Pakistan and the Rafale controversy may only play a marginal role in the forthcoming elections.