I thank Girish Shahane for the competent critique of my article on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Foreign Policy in 2015. Although he makes several useful points, a deeper examination would reveal that barring Pakistan and China, which will continue to be challenges for India at least in the short and medium term, and Nepal and Maldives, which have emerged as fresh challenges principally due to their domestic politics, the results of Modi’s foreign policy have been quite impressive.
Shahane argues that issues like the Land Boundary Agreement with Bangladesh, and the nuclear deal with Japan and Australia are legacy issues on which considerable progress had already been made when the Modi government assumed power in 2014. It may be recalled that the India-Bangladesh Land Boundary Agreement, otherwise known as the Indira-Mujib Accord, was signed in 1974. None of the previous governments including UPA I or II – in power for 10 years – or even the Rajiv Gandhi government, which had a 400-plus majority in the Lok Sabha, could manage to get Parliament to ratify the accord. It goes to Modi’s credit that he got the agreement ratified unanimously by both Houses of Parliament. He thanked all Opposition leaders and the chief ministers of the states affected by the accord for their support without which this would not have been possible. This move went a long way to enhance India’s prestige and credibility not only in Bangladesh, but in the entire neighbourhood – it sent out a clear message that the Modi government is seriously interested in improving relations with its neighbours. This has set the stage for rapid growth in bilateral political, security, commercial and economic ties with Bangladesh including connectivity through Bangladesh with India’s Northeast region.
Relations with Japan have witnessed a sharp upward trajectory because of the energy and focus that Modi has imparted to this partnership. Discussions on the bilateral civilian nuclear deal were meandering aimlessly for several years for well-known reasons. With Japan’s formal entry into the India-US Malabar maritime exercises – which turned into a trilateral initiative aimed at ensuring peace, security and freedom of navigation in the Indo-Pacific region – Modi lifted the relationship with Japan from being economic and transactional to one that was a strategic partnership. An agreement on trilateral ministerial dialogue between India, USA and Japan has given a further impetus to this partnership. Four meetings in four weeks between Modi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – at COP21 in Paris, over dinner at the G20 summit in Istanbul, over lunch in Kuala Lumpur on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit, and in New Delhi for Abe’s bilateral three-day visit – are evidence of deepening mutual trust and rapidly expanding bilateral ties.
There is essential continuity in formulation and conduct of India’s foreign policy that has enjoyed the support of most major political parties. Much of the spadework for the 2005 US-India civilian nuclear deal had already been accomplished by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA government in talks held under the Next Steps for Strategic Partnership, or NSSP, between external affairs minister Jaswant Singh and US deputy secretary of state Strobe Talbott. It was however Manmohan Singh, who took full credit for the deal – he claimed it was his biggest achievement during his 10-year long rule.
A few significant areas left out by Shahane are the rapid intensification of ties with the United States seen in President Barack Obama’s presence as chief guest at the 2015 Republic Day celebrations, path-breaking visits by Modi to five Central Asian states, his highly significant tour to the United Arab Emirates, and successful outreach to Africa through the third Africa Forum Summit, attended by heads of state and government from 41 countries.
Central Asia is part of India’s extended neighbourhood. Relations with these states are vital for India’s stability, energy security, connectivity as well as trade and economic linkages. Notwithstanding its strategic significance, the region was neglected by India’s leadership with Manmohan Singh having travelled to only two countries in the region – Uzbekistan in 2006 and Kazakhstan in 2011 – over his two terms as prime minister. Modi’s visit to all five countries in July 2015 sent out a clear message of India’s strong interest in significantly intensifying ties with the region.
Caution where required
Shahane writes: “In the UPA years, we signed on to a massive infrastructure plan called the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (or BCIM) economic corridor”. But reality is far from this assertion. Discussions on this initiative started in the early 1990s under the Kunming Initiative. A Joint Study Group was established for the first time in December 2013, just before the UPA lost power, to examine the proposal. China – which seeks to avoid the Malacca Straits for its trade – is pushing hard for this project as it wants unfettered access to the Bay of Bengal, exploit markets of India, Bangladesh and Myanmar, and economically develop Yunnan and other underdeveloped provinces in its southwest. India is wary of China’s economic and strategic presence so close to Arunachal Pradesh, which China claims as South Tibet. Hence, India has been going slow on this initiative and is using other projects to strengthen connectivity with Myanmar and the rest of Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
When Modi assumed power in May 2014, it was thought that foreign policy would be his weakest suite as he had no previous experience in this area. He confounded his worst critics by imparting unexpected vigour, dynamism and vision to conceptualising, articulating and pursuing India’s foreign policy. He expanded the political, security and economic outreach of Indian diplomacy. He travelled extensively, visited significant countries that had been neglected so far, conveyed a message of confidence in India’s future, provided innovative ideas on issues of strategic import, offered economic opportunities, promoted ease of doing business to potential investors, and wooed Indian diaspora in an unprecedented manner. For all the above reasons, it would not be an exaggeration to posit that Modi’s foreign policy in 2015 was exceptionally successful.