Results and rhetoric

Can we discern more in terms of substance and style based on evidence available so far? Here is an attempt.

It is early days as yet, but like in every other area, there is a great deal of expectation about the changes in foreign policy and diplomacy under the Narendra Modi government. In this area, the PM started with a bang through the innovative gesture of inviting all Saarc neighbours and thus meeting them on his first day, signalling one of his priorities in foreign policy. Can we discern more in terms of substance and style based on evidence available so far? Here is an attempt.But first a word about the distinction between foreign policy and diplomacy.

 The conventional wisdom is that ‘policy’ is about great strategy, defining and pursuing national interests, positioning India on the global chess board and so on. Diplomacy is regarded as the activity in pursuance of the policy; the instrument to implement the strategy. The differences between long term strategy, shorter-term policy and the real-time practice of diplomacy are important, and yet in practice there is a continuum. Who the PM meets, how, and when are signals in an incremental way and are as significant as declarations or agreements. Hence it may be relevant to ask as to what changes are expected not only in terms of policy but also the way diplomacy is conducted.

In answering this question, let us look at three strands: priority areas in foreign policy, stress on functional aspects, and finally the style of diplomacy. As noted at the outset, Modi has started with all our neighbours. Predictably, the media focussed excessively on Pakistan and Nawaz Sharif, but this is a mistake. Nawaz could not have been invited without the larger Saarc umbrella providing the appropriate template. Inviting him alone or singling him out was not the intention, and it would indeed be good for India if the single minded fixation of our TV anchors on Pakistan gets diluted. The decision that the first visit will be to Bhutan, a small and friendly neighbour, but with whom our strategic and economic interaction is substantive is also a logical next step in the focus on the region.

 Bangladesh should come next, but then there are difficult questions of give and take where some modicum of understanding with West Bengal chief minister Mamata Bannerjee is a requisite before the visit. 

It is by now well known that Modi had visited Japan and China as the chief minister of Gujarat and is conscious of the rich potential in involving them further in our growth story. Even otherwise the two are natural priorities at this stage of our development. It is understood that the visit to Japan will come soon, again a case of strategic and economic factors making it a natural priority.

On July 15, two days after the FIFA world cup finals in Rio, Brazil is hosting the BRICS summit and this is a long trip that Modi will be making. The date of the summit is curious: in that football crazy nation, all of Brazil will either be euphoric or despondent depending on whether their team will have won or lost in the world cup. With the best of intentions, BRICS will be a sideshow. It is believed that the Chinese president Xi Jiping, a self professed soccer fan, was keen to see the finals. Brazil invited him for a state visit. No dates could be envisaged earlier in the year as India was expecting a new PM. In October, the Brazilian president herself faces elections. So these factors account for the timing and the venue of the summit in a provincial capital.

Great opportunity

For Modi, more than any other BRICS leader, the summit provides a great opportunity to meet four leaders of interest and consequence to India, the presidents of China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil. Unlike global meetings like the UN or even the G-20, the BRICS summits, apart from whatever agenda the organisation itself may have, provides a venue for one-to-one interactions among these five major countries of the ‘South’. PM Modi will be meeting Putin and Xi Jinping for the first time, and can get to know and have substantive conversations with all four leaders, with whom India has a bilateral agenda that includes economy, defence and energy issues. Next comes the UNGA and the meeting with Obama in September, but much water will flow in a hopefully cleaner Ganga before then. At this stage it is wiser to watch the preparatory process instead of speculating too much. 

So much about the directional aspect of the engagement. Next, we can turn to the emphasis on functional areas. It is evident that the primacy in Modi’s agenda is the search for solutions for accelerated economic development. In foreign policy and diplomacy, this relates to some functional aspects coming  to the fore: attracting foreign investments, technology transfer agreements,  energy supplies, export promotion – these may become the yardsticks by which the success of a high level engagement may come to be assessed, more than high sounding declarations of goodwill and brotherhood. 

A few thoughts about the style. All prime ministers have to take an interest in foreign policy, but some are more hands on than others and some have preferred to have weak foreign ministers. Despite having a confident and articulate foreign minister in Sushma Swaraj, we are likely to see an assertive PM in a activist mode. His own sartorial style, the cuisine at banquets, gifts for leaders and even the venues for meetings may all be used with an eye towards symbolism. Just as the grand background of Rastrapati Bhavan boosted the spectacle of the swearing-in event, we may see innovation in event management when India welcomes foreign leaders or hosts international gatherings. 

To invoke the cliche, continuity and change will mark the foreign policy. But overall, it is likely that diplomacy will be about outcomes rather than platitudes. 

(The writer is a former ambassador and currently a visiting professor at Jamia Milia University) 

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