Wednesday, May 28, 2014

What Should Modi's Foreign Policy Be?

I wrote two essays on the new Narendra Modi government's foreign policy.  This one appeared on Monday, May 26, the day Modi took the oath of office, in the Economic Times.  The second one appeared on Tuesday, and I'll shortly post that too.

Modi Must Drive Foreign Policy back to the Path of Realism

Narendra Modi has hit the ground running in terms of foreign policy by inviting the leaders of the SAARC countries to his swearing-in ceremony. Leaders of many SAARC countries will be attending, but much of the focus is likely to be on the India-Pakistan dynamic. This is a move reminiscent of AB Vajpayee's Lahore bus trip, which sought to remake Indo-Pak ties.

But Modi will be well-advised to remember what followed that particular meeting between Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif and an Indian leader. There are limits to what a weak civilian leadership in Pakistan can deliver in talks with India. This is not to suggest that Modi should not reach out to Pakistan. But engagement should not be the kind of one-sided affair that it has been over the last 15 years.

The difficulty that Sharif faced in even accepting the invitation illustrates the Pakistani puzzle. It is unfortunate that Pakistan has multiple power centres, but that is Pakistan's problem, not India's. It demonstrates great arrogance to suggest that India can resolve Pakistan's domestic problems or that it can help create a peace constituency in Pakistan.

While always remaining open to making peace, India should not be hamstrung in responding with force if it is attacked either directly or through proxies, as has happened in Herat. Realism requires acknowledging that while force is not always the answer, neither is diplomacy.

The fear of nuclear escalation, the usual excuse trotted out to justify passivity in the face of aggression, is overblown because it assumes that Pakistan is foolish enough to start a nuclear war and because it assumes that a full-scale war is the only kind of military option that India has at its disposal. Modi should make it clear to Sharif that India will no longer tolerate Pakistani aggression.

National, not local, interest

Even if the India-Pakistan drama takes centre-stage, Modi's move to invite SAARC leaders is a bold one, demonstrating greater awareness of the concerns of the region. With the clear majority that Modi has, he should ensure that New Delhi is not held hostage to domestic regional demands on foreign policy.

The concerns of Tamils, as of other groups, are important but they cannot be the sole driver of India's foreign policy towards Sri Lanka. The huge disparity in power between India and its smaller neighbours is a problem that should not be made worse by a foreign policy guided by local rather than the national interest.

Beyond the region, Modi has an opportunity to reshape India's foreign policy in a more realistic direction.

The Nehruvian consensus that had been the bedrock of India's foreign policy had never been particularly beneficial, its drawbacks hidden only by the country's size and fortunate geopolitical circumstances, a giant surrounded by pygmies in a relatively insular region. After the Cold War, India moved tentatively towards a pragmatic foreign policy, but it withered under UPA 2.

Modi must now drive Indian foreign policy back to the interrupted path of realism. First, the Modi government needs to become more adept at playing balance-of-power politics.

Since Nehru's dismissal of balance of power as some sort of 19th century relic, Indian governments have been reluctant to either think or act in terms of balance of power, mainly to India's detriment. New Delhi has only rarely played the game and that too only when pushed to the wall.

What New Delhi often forgets is that these power games happen irrespective of whether India plays it or not. The China-Pakistan axis is a perfect example. Maoist China and feudal Pakistan came together not because of ideology or history but because they both wanted to counter India.

Instead of complaining about it, New Delhi needs to learn how to generate countervailing pressure with partnerships with like-minded states.

This has become all the more important now because of China's rise and its unsurprising consequence, Beijing's greater aggressiveness. New Delhi needs to reach out to others in the region and beyond, who feel put-upon by China's behaviour. As a start, New Delhi can consider multinational naval exercises, which the hyper-cautious UPA 2 and its do-nothing defence minister had banned because of China's objections.

A dose of realism

Second, India needs a new foreign policy strategy that looks beyond the tired slogans of non-alignment. Strategic autonomy is more likely to be the fruit of useful partnerships, such as with US, than of non-alignment. Revitalising the critical partnership with the US, which UPA 2 ran into the ground with some help from Obama, has to be a top priority.

Third, while economic linkages are important, in international relations, politics always trumps economics. The promise of greater prosperity through trade should not blind New Delhi to the realities of China's power. It is understandable that foreign policy requires a rhetoric of idealism. Modi has made a bold beginning, but in the end Indian foreign policy will need more pragmatism and less drama.

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