Posting this really late . . . this was published by Economic Times, May 15, 2016.
Modi Sarkar @2: The Modi Government is Following an Old Template of Foreign Policy
When the Narendra Modi government took over two years ago, there was some hope that his experience in running a state government and his distance from New Delhi might give Indian foreign policy some freshness. There was even some talk of a new Modi doctrine to guide India's policy towards the outside world. Almost halfway into his term, we are still waiting. If there is a Modi doctrine, it appears to be the Manmohan Singh doctrine, but with a pulse. India's external policy is clearly a lot more energetic and self-confident. But in both good ways and bad, it is mostly following the path that the previous governments had laid.
There is nothing inherently wrong with following an existing template and, indeed, the main criticism of the UPA government's external policy was not about its logic but that it was too timid in following through. Modi changed that, moving with greater assurance on both the regional and global scene. At the regional level, his dramatic gesture in inviting all South Asian leaders to his inauguration and his equally dramatic stopover in Lahore to visit prime minister Nawaz Sharif are illustrations of this.
On global policy, again, Modi moved with greater vigour to establish closer strategic ties with those who share India's worry about China's increasing power and assertiveness, even as he sought to deepen economic ties with Beijing. The Indian foreign minister, Sushma Swaraj, joined her counterparts from the US and Japan to hold the first trilateral meeting at the foreign ministers' level last year, which was soon followed up with Japan joining the Malabar naval exercise off the Indian coast. Japan had joined it only once previously, in 2007, but was not invited subsequently because of fear of Chinese criticism. In addition, New Delhi has moved firmly towards signing some of the so-called foundational agreements to smoothen US-India military cooperation, something that the previous government refused to do, not because of the merits of the issue but more out of fear of adverse reaction, especially from within the ruling coalition.
But the existing template had it problems too and the Modi government's failure to recognise this has been one of its major drawbacks. One was with a Pakistan policy that switched ineffectively between sulking and dialogue and back again. Modi, even in these two years, has already gone through two cycles of the same routine. There is little to suggest that this government has any new ideas about how to deal with Pakistan's divided government or the absolute unwillingness of Pakistan's military leadership to consider abandoning terror as a strategic tool against India.
Similarly, Modi has done little to develop any leverage in Afghanistan, despite selling a couple of attack helicopters to the Afghan government. The future Afghanistan has immense importance to Indian security, but India appears content to let others dictate Afghanistan future. On global policy, Modi has continued to ignore the increasing closeness between Russia and China and its possible consequences for India's security. Though this is because of Moscow's troubles with the West, New Delhi is being negligent in not paying attention to the collateral damage that it could do to India.
Diplomacy Minus Strategy
One of the main problems with the traditional template is that it views foreign policy in isolation from the other tools of strategic policy, such as military force and intelligence capacities. All of these tools need to be used in conjunction to advance national interest. This is something that Indian governments have generally ignored, to the detriment of Indian national interest.
Whether it is in dealing with Pakistan or Afghanistan, or with the larger Asian balance, Modi's strategic policy shows little indication that it has developed any synergy between these different tools or even any institutional mechanisms to advance it. For example, India has not used the many leverages it has against Pakistan.
Pakistan's deep ethnic and myriad other internal differences go unexploited and terrorist leaders roam about Pakistan's cities without fear of Indian retribution because India's policy towards Pakistan appears almost exclusively the preserve of diplomacy. But history and common sense should demonstrate that diplomacy by itself has little chance of success, not just with Pakistan but in other contexts as well.
This lack of synergy, unresolved, presages future dangers too: To give only one example, India has taken an unusually tough stand on the South China Sea issue (another legacy of the previous government) but there appears to be little concern about whether India has the military muscle to back it up when China pushes back, as it surely will. India's military capabilities are deteriorating in many areas but there appears to be little understanding of the impact it will have on India's foreign policy.
Correcting this requires enhancing India's institutional capacity for both deliberating and operationalising a much more consolidated strategic policy that can exploit all the different tools that India has. Modi still has time to at least make a start in this direction. If he does not, for all the energy that he demonstrates, he is unlikely to end up with any greater success than his predecessors did.