Narendra Modi’s foreign policy gains: There’s less to it than meets the eye

As the Pathankot probe by a team from Pakistan threatens to turn into a fiasco, it is time we took a hard look at Narendra Modi’s foreign policy record, which has received praise from most quarters. I’m puzzled by glowing accounts like this piece by Ashok Sajjanhar, former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan, Sweden and Latvia, which awards Modi an A plus for his handling of international affairs in 2015.

Sajjanhar mentioned three substantive advances in his article: the Bangladesh accord, a civilian nuclear deal with Australia, and a similar agreement with Japan. All three involve legacies of the United Progressive Alliance, and policies the Bharatiya Janata Party castigated while in opposition but quietly adopted once in power. Apart from these legacy gains, Modi’s successes are entirely intangible, described mainly as improved perceptions among counterparts. Intangibles are important, no doubt, but at some point need to translate into concrete benefits. It’s nice for farmers to see clouds, but what they really need is rain.

Manmohan Singh was not a hard act to follow. For all his positive qualities, the former Indian prime minister has the charisma of a doorknob. Foreign leaders doubted if he could make good on promises because he lacked a political mandate of his own. Modi, a dynamic, pro-business leader who almost single-handedly gained a parliamentary majority for his party, is exactly the kind of person world leaders like sitting down with at the negotiating table. It’s a mystery, then, why he has so little to show after two years of globe trotting.

Plane truths

The Rafale deal is an example of what I mean. It was held up because AK Anthony wasn’t the most motivated defence minister in history. Manohar Parrikar tried speeding things up, but his plans were swept aside when, during a visit to France, Modi announced an altered agreement for the advanced fighter planes. It seemed a bit impromptu, but at least we had a pact. Except that we didn’t. We told ourselves it took time to dot the i’s and cross the t’s,and that everything would be settled when the French President attended the 2016 Republic Day celebrations as chief guest. I mean, how many state visits can it take to buy and sell a few jets? President Hollande came and went, but the Rafale bargaining continues with no end in sight.

Pakistan, meanwhile, is getting a bunch of shiny new F-16s. India expressed its dismay when the news broke. The United States took note of our objections, and added AH 1Z Viper helicopters to its list of Pakistan-bound supplies. Was this the same Barack Obama who wrote a flattering piece about Modi in Time magazine? Yes, but the same Barack Obama said nothing against a provision in a US Congress bill targeting Indian software companies by doubling H1-B and L1 visa fees. Somehow, the positive perception of Modi is yet to translate into positive action from the American side.

Despite our conviction that we are on the road to superpowerdom, we don’t figure prominently on Obama’s agenda. The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg, who recently published a comprehensive analysis of the US President’s foreign policy doctrine, didn’t mention India even once in his 20,000-word article. Obama is clearly concerned about China, though, and has tried to outflank it through the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade treaty negotiated between 12 Pacific Rim nations. The TPP is among a number of multilateral agreements born from a sense that the World Trade Organisation had run its course. India, which has preferred grandstanding to hammering out deals at the WTO, bears some responsibility for the shift to agreements like TPP, and we’ve been left out in the cold in the process. It doesn’t help that we cancelled trade negotiations with the European Union in a gross over-reaction to an Indian company being punished for fudging clinical data.

China may not like TPP, but it has big plans of its own, such as a transcontinental highways and seaways project called One Belt, One Road. OBOR is a contemporary recreation of the Silk Route that connected China with Central Asia and Europe, combined with a maritime link between China, Sri Lanka, East Africa and the Mediterranean. India’s response has been to stay on the sidelinegrumbling that we prefer creating trust between nations before embarking on grand infrastructural initiatives. We complain also, when China agrees to build a massive dam on the Jhelum in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. We lament China’s blocking of our effort to have Masood Azhar classified as a terrorist at the United Nations. How galling it is for all this to happen despite Modi hosting a dinner by the Sabarmati riverfront for Xi Jinping.

Ambitious plan

In the UPA years, we signed on to a massive infrastructure plan called the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (or BCIM) economic corridor. The Modi government has yet to conceive anything comparable in ambition in its two years. It makes one question the vision of the administration, and wonder if it has a long game plan at all.

Its short game or tactical acumen is also questionable, nowhere more so than in our immediate neighbourhood. Even Ashok Sajjanhar, who gives the administration such a glowing report card, admits that over the past year, “Relations with Nepal and Maldives witnessed a deterioration partly because India got sucked into the vortex of their domestic politics”.

Modi’s Pakistan diplomacy has been the weirdest link in the chain of his foreign policy. Invite the head of government over, arrange negotiations, back out at the last minute, let relations slide, change course by stopping for tea on the way back from Afghanistan only to be confronted by a cross-border terrorist attack on an airbase, but continue talks anyway, contradicting your previous stance on never negotiating in the shadow of terror. This is as distant from a coherent narrative as Sarah Palin and Donald Trump are from Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson.

I suspect the independent aspect of our foreign policy experts will eventually fight off the side with a vested interest in backing the government. They will begin asking difficult questions, though not directly to the prime minister, for he doesn’t believe in facing tough questioning. They will seek concrete results rather than intangibles. They will no longer praise the clouds, but demand at least a drizzle if not a downpour.