Transformed foreign policy

India's biggest success with foreign policy has been its unpredictability with interlocutors, generating a new sense of expectation.

As the year 2015 comes to an end, the Narendra Modi government sprung another surprise with its outreach to Pakistan.

The larger trajectory of Indian foreign policy remains robust with an effective team at the helm led by the prime minister himself. India today is projecting a much more robust profile on the global stage than it was managing to do over the previous decade despite all that was going for it.

It is the new leadership which has made all the difference.
India’s biggest success in the realm of foreign policy and national security has been its ability to keep its interlocutors on tenterhooks.

The unpredictability of a nation whose responses had become all too easy to predict over the last few decades is generating a new sense of expectation among its interlocutors. From Pakistan to the US, from Africa to the Asean, there is now an expectation that the new dispensation in New Delhi means business.

The bedrock of a nation’s strength in contemporary global politics remains its economic strength. By putting the Indian story back into reckoning after callous mismanagement by its predecessor, the Narendra Modi government has shored up India’s rapidly dwindling credibility.

The fact that it has been able to do it despite an obstructionist opposition is even more remarkable. For all the disruption of Parliament by the Congress, the image of a business-minded Modi government remains intact for the outside world.

Another success of the Modi government has been a careful nurturing of major power relations and a deft management of an ever shifting global and regional balance of power in Asia and beyond. The US today is looking for its new leader. There is a political vacuum in Washington which is being exploited by the challengers such as China and Russia with their supposedly strong leaders.

In this milieu, the Modi government has managed to carve out a robust relationship with the US even as it has stabilised ties with Beijing and Moscow. It is not going to be easy as Russia’s growing closeness to China will have serious implications for India, but India has so far been successful in conveying its concerns to all three major powers with a degree of confidence which was absent in the past.

India’s engagement with Europe, too, is now more forward looking and devoid of the unnecessary rhetoric of perpetual inferiority. There is a clear message going out that India will act on its own terms and conditions and can skillfully play the role of a balancer.

The Modi government’s regional outreach has also made a difference in this regard. In its own vicinity in the Indo-Pacific, India is now perceived as a credible balancer at a time when China’s maritime assertiveness has created space for Indian diplomacy. This was made possible by New Delhi’s outreach to like-minded states in the region such as Japan, Australia, Vietnam, Singapore, Philippines and Malaysia. Gone is the diffidence of the past when India used to walk on eggshells for fear of offending China.

The Modi government wants to enhance its footprint in Africa, Latin America and West Asia to underscore the distinct advantages that India possesses in comparison to China’s more mercantilistic approach. The focus is now on delivery of the commitments that India has made to other regions, an aspect where India lags considerably behind China and other major powers.

It is in South Asia that the Modi government has been facing some criticism over the last few months with turmoil in Indo-Nepal and Indo-Pakistan ties. But even in a region as mired in historical grievances as South Asia, India has managed to traverse considerable ground over the last year and a half.

Boost in relations
India’s ties with Bangladesh today are the best they have been in the last two decades. India has done well by showing magnanimity in resolving its long-pending disputes with Dhaka. Relations with Sri Lanka are also on an upward trajectory under the Sirisena government.

Afghanistan has also recognised the folly of ignoring Indian concerns and the two nations are now joining hands in exposing Pakistani military’s machinations. India is now enhancing its security role in Kabul at the invitation of the Ghani government.

Nepal remains a problem, largely because the political elites in the country have not managed to reconcile internal differences. India remains an easy target to channel domestic grievances, but a perception has gained ground about Indian interference. There are signs that some sort of reconciliation is beginning to shape up and India can play a role in making that happen. But New Delhi should be wary of playing an overt role in Nepal and let the domestic constituencies resolve their constitutional agenda.

The Modi government is ending the year on a high note with its dramatic outreach to Pakistan. After carefully working throughout the year to isolate Pakistani military globally as the epicentre of terror, New Delhi is now reaching out to the civilian government in Pakistan to ensure that those constituencies which want a long-term regional solution get strengthened.

India today stands on the cusp of a major transformation and Indian leadership will have to remain relevant to these changing times. Eventually, the Modi government’s success will be assessed at the end of its five-year term in 2019, but at the end of a year and a half, it is clear that this government is ready to discard old shibboleths and chart a new foreign policy trajectory.

(The writer is Professor of International Relations, King’s College London)

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