Saturday 21 May 2022
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Turning Foreign Policy Around

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[dropcap]I[/dropcap]ndia has yet to assume “a role commensurate with its size on the international political stage,” wrote Henry Kissinger in his book Diplomacy in 1994. Even at the risk of antagonising Nehru loyalists and scores of retired Foreign Service officers, it may well be concluded that since then till 2014 not much effort was seen to overcome this inertia. Nothing happened during the 2 years of musical chair rule by a coalition to keep BJP out after Narasimha Rao lost in 1996. This was followed by 6 years of BJP-led NDA rule when some effort was made to get out of the somnambulant foreign policy. The 10-year term of Manmohan Singh had to follow up, which reached its peak while signing the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal. Unfortunately, Singh failed to build on the deal, due largely to his lack of political authority. Like it or not, Indian diplomacy till one Narendra Modi, an upstart of sorts in Lutyen’s Delhi, was more of how to hold your fork and handshakes with somebody from Pakistan.

Peter Martin wrote in the reputed journal Foreign Affairs in January 2015, “India has long seemed unable or unwilling to become a major player on the world stage. But the country’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is looking to change all that.”And to do so, Modi had to rewrite the diplomatic code book, causing heartburn among the established power brokers in Delhi. The ‘regional’ politician started by dramatically inviting the heads of neighbouring (SAARC) states to his swearing-in ceremony. In one masterstroke, he drew international attention to himself.

The circumstances demanded that the new Indian government acted with a sense of urgency. The Manmohan Singh Government was effectively a lame duck one for the major part of its second term, beginning 2009. Various scandals and lack of authority of Prime Minister Singh hurt the image of India at a time when major players of the global economy were in turmoil. India lost its position as a destination for investment. What is more important, economic policies first in the hands of Pranab Mukherjee and then P Chidambaram did not witness the deft handling that was necessary. Interest rates were jacked up, infrastructure projects remained half-finished, with investment drying up, and approvals were delayed resulting in cost escalation. Banks started reeling under piles of bad loans. To complicate matters, Mukherjee, before managing to assume the post of President of India, brought in a legislation to collect taxes from foreign investors and made its application retrospective — a scandalous decision from a veteran politician who was not new to the finance portfolio. In sum, anything that could be damaged was damaged successfully. To govern India in 2014 was a nightmare.

Narendra Modi won the mandate with his message of hope. The Indian economy badly needed investment to get out of the quagmire. Banks had little option of providing fresh loans. In any case, Indian corporations too had no means to seek finance, overstretched as they were due to overexposure in many stalled projects. Modi needed to bring the economy back on the tracks of the growth path in the shortest possible time. The only option was to quickly reposition India as a choice destination for global investors.

This needed not only recasting the domestic economic policy but also highlighting the changes to the target audience. As the CEO of the nation, Modi had to take up the role of the chief salesman. His detractors expected that Modi, ‘the village bumpkin’, would fail miserably in his effort. They thought that attracting suave foreign investors was a different proposition from enticing poor and rustic voters to support him enthusiastically. While they were right in theory that excellence in vote catching is not synonymous with excellence in attracting FDI — Manmohan Singh has shown that erudition in economics is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition to lead a nation and win over FDI — Modi proved himself successful so much that even the hitherto unquestioned supremacy of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in shaping India’s foreign policy roadmap seems threatened. The cacophony of a section over Modi’s ‘frequent’ foreign travels should be seen in this context.

Modi inherited, according to Peter Martin, a small and weak foreign service. His foreign secretary was thrust on his predecessor Singh by the Congress’s political masters.  Modi had to bring in Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, who was reportedly Singh’s choice as Foreign Secretary but was sent to the US as ambassador to clear the path for Sujatha Singh. When matters slowly came under control to destabilise Modi, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj came under attack over some issue that is essentially political in nature. Undaunted, the government kept pushing its new agenda. The trump card has been successful tapping into India’s considerable soft power — its emigrants, intellectuals, and even yoga — something the previous governments winked at. Modi used the extensive, wealthy and increasingly politically engaged Diaspora spread across the political and economic capitals of the world. He had before him successful models like the British Council, Germany’s Goethe Institutes, or China’s overseas network of Confucius Institutes and language scholarship programmes.

Actually, India suffered from the hangover of Non-Alignment adopted by Nehru. When US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles put together SEATO (South East Asian Treaty Organisation) in 1954, India preferred to seek safety in neutrality. The headline generating move did not change even after the War ended, and US assembled all global powers against Saddam Husasin’s invasion of Kuwait. Remember Rajiv Gandhi opposed refuelling of US planes in India! When Bill Clinton took over the reins in Washington in 1992, he realised that the global equation had changed. “In a new era of peril and opportunity, our overriding purpose must be to expand and strengthen the world’s community of -based democracies”, said Clinton.

It was then that India under Narasimha Rao launched its liberalisation drive, freeing its from the tethers of licence-control-bureaucratic raj.  Unfortunately, little effort was made to reform its foreign policy direction on a parallel track. One reason could be, as Kissinger suggested, “Since it (India) is more susceptible to religious and ideological currents within (the) neighbouring states than the European nations of the 19th century, the dividing line between its foreign and domestic policies is different and far more tenuous.”

Narendra Modi is making a determined effort to integrate India’s foreign and domestic policies. The commentariat and their political masters refuse to accept the need for this change. This ostrich-like temperament makes them cry hoarse over Modi’s highly productive foreign tours.  Evidently, the cosy club of Foreign Service officers is also perturbed as they find that India is moving fast along a road they never thought of.

Modi is strengthening Indian link with -based economies, which even non-democratic countries like China and Russia have turned into. Only in the long run, when tempers settle down to make an objective assessment of the approach to integrate Indian foreign policy with its economic interest, will one appreciate the change of course initiated by Prime Minister Modi.


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Sugato Hazra
Sugato Hazra
Public policy analyst based in Delhi

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