In the past month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has sketched out the broad contours of his foreign and security policy vision, culminating in his official visit to the United States.
For most Americans, this would have been yet another visit by an important global leader. But for most Indians, both in the US and back home, there has been a palpable sense of excitement about it.
This is because of the understanding that Modi is the first prime minister since 1989, to have a majority of his own in the Lok Sabha. Most of us have lived with the frustration of coalition governments which were not able to take the decisive decisions that this country needs to get its act together to act as the economic and regional power that it already is.
In foreign policy, as in domestic, Modi has raised expectations sky high. As of now, however, what we are seeing in both domestic and foreign policy are broad brush-strokes, not the finished picture.
In Modi’s case, this has worked at two levels. First is the inspirational and global, delivered through public speeches such as those at the UN or Madison Square Garden.
The UN speech spelt out his world view: the importance of being a good neighbour, peace with Pakistan, the dangers of terrorism, the need for accommodative trading systems and a multipolar world order.
The second level is the behind-the-scenes realism which has been manifested by the stance India has taken with its interlocutors, whether they be Pakistan, China, US or Japan on issues ranging from the peace talks, border, climate change, and nuclear agreements. But what we are seeing are only the opening gambits of a longer game.
Foreign policy is a bit different from domestic. Within a country, you can influence, dictate or direct an outcome with relative ease. But in foreign affairs, it is not easy to shape things in the way you want. So far Modi has been careful in articulating his foreign and security policy. His primary political aim is consolidation.
As an outlier, he needs to ensure that he is now the BJP’s mainstream. He may be the “hriday samrat” (emperor of minds) of the public, but within the party he still faces opposition and resistance.
In these circumstances, he will make haste slowly and not undertake policy measures – foreign or domestic – which could give his enemies a handle. His initial strategy, much like that of Narasimha Rao, will be change through stealth. A lot of that is already visible in economic policy and administration.
In foreign and security policy, from the outset he has hewn close to the Vapayee mold. He may have been tough with Pakistan, but he has ignored fire-eaters who want him to do more. He has refused calls to change the nuclear doctrine, invoking Vajpayee. And, if Atalji termed the US as its “natural ally”, Modi modified it only slightly to term it as a “natural global partner.”
But at some point, he needs to prepare for the day when his interlocutors will ask: What do you bring to the table ?
In another context, in August, President Obama put it bluntly when he commented that China has been a free rider on the international system for the last thirty years or so. The question also needs to be posed to India which often talks of “non-alignment” and “strategic autonomy.”
Is India also free-riding on the world system where the US provides security to or oil sea lanes, or takes on the Islamist challenge in the Middle-East?
While India was poor and weak, we could always look away at some of these issues, but if India’s economy grows in the next decade, we may have to provide some answers to the questions, in our own self interest. So, beyond the broad geopolitical formulations, what many of these countries and China, are wondering, is: What is the role India intends to play in the coming decade – which politically is likely to be the Modi decade?
Actually they wonder what role is India capable of playing. Capability here, is a combination of capacity – military and economic – as well as intentions articulated through policy.
As of now, all that India brings to the table is its potential. In the present circumstances, this is a big plus. The global balance of power is inexorably shifting in favour of China. Under pressure in the East and South China Sea, the US and its allies want India to rise so as to counter some of China’s pull.
Given the asymmetry between Indian and Chinese military and economic power, India cannot do this by itself, but in combination with others it can. So Modi needs to unpack India’s new foreign and security policies in a world where the US is becoming more selective about its global role, while China is feeling its way around to see how it can shape regional and global policy using its still growing economic and military clout.
Modi is right to emphasise the fact that our destiny will be our neighbourhood, but it also lies in the reshaping and reform of our economic and national security structures to keep pace with what we hope will be a burgeoning economy. Given the ground realities – where China’s power exceeds ours by orders of magnitude – we need allies. That is where relationships with the US, Japan, ASEAN and Australia come in.
Mail Today September 30, 2014
Mail Today September 30, 2014