At first sight, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy appears awe-inspiring. The sheer energy he has invested in his 46 foreign visits has taken him to destinations that were ignored or played down by his predecessor —Central Asia, Indian Ocean Region, the Persian Gulf, besides the usual staples of the US, western Europe, China and Japan. Their outcome, however, is a matter of opinion.
There has been a sharp rise in FDI into India, but whether it was due
to his visits is a question. Foreign visits do have the virtue of
concentrating the attention of the various arms of government to Indian
interests in a specific country or region. But thereafter what matters
Actually, the big problem is in deciding what exactly is the
government’s goal — attracting investment and technology, or political
support for a seat in the UN Security Council and the Nuclear Suppliers
Group, or countering terrorism, or building a coalition to check China
and Pakistan. Since the government of India does not put down its goals
in writing, you can assume that it is all of the above, with no specific
In one, arguably the most important, area of foreign policy, however,
the Modi government has failed. This is with China and Pakistan
individually, as well as as a combine. It is no secret that neither of
these can be considered friendly and India has serious disputes with
them. But since 42 per cent of our land borders are with them, our
inabililty to break the Sino-Pak nexus is a significant failing which,
in all fairness, cannot be blamed entirely on the Modi government alone.
In the case of Pakistan, the reasons for the estrangement are clear.
Indian relations with Islamabad have never been very good and the slow
poisoning of the Nawaz Sharif government by the Pakistani military has
put paid to any effort by New Delhi to improve relations in the last two
As for China, the reasons are more complicated. In some measure, they
are a result of a gauche handling of China by Modi and his team. They
worked under the impression that quick deals with Beijing were possible
and Modi’s personality would be enough to score a breakthrough. However,
things haven’t quite worked out and the border talks are frozen. India
remains suspicious of China’s One Belt One Road initiative and keeps
Chinese investments at an arm’s length, so Beijing sees no payoff in
backing India’s membership to the NSG or abandoning Pakistan on the
issue of terrorism. In short, in the give and take of international
intercourse, Beijing does not see what India has on offer in exchange
for the things it wants from China.
In all this, New Delhi is the loser. If it thinks that the US will
succumb to its campaign and sanction Islamabad on the issue of
terrorism, it is mistaken. The US has been there and done it and found
that it does not help. Indeed, as it pulls out from Afghanistan,
Washington finds that it needs Islamabad more, not less. Afghanistan is a
benighted land which, if left to itself, will descend to chaos. But the
US cannot afford to allow that to happen to nuclear-armed Pakistan. In
any case, US interests go beyond this negative consideration —
Washington has dealt with the generals and understands them well and it
realises that even to deal with chaotic Afghanistan, it needs to retain
its ties with Islamabad. More germane is the fact that having invested
what it has in “human resources” in Pakistan’s army and civil society,
the US has important assets which it would not like to abandon,
especially when China is stepping up its ties through the China-Pakistan
Economic Corridor (CPEC).
It is difficult for Modi government’s supporters to swallow this, but
the best option for India is to go back to the beaten track of
engagement. This time, engage with both China and Pakistan. Indian
policy needs to understand that Pakistan remains a failing state with
multiple centres of authority, and engagement with each of them can only
be at varying levels of satisfaction. Nothing here should imply that we
let our guard down from the point of view of our security.
New Delhi has dithered between Islamabad and Beijing, hoping that
some breakthrough in our bilateral ties will help to break that nexus.
Instead, what India needs to do is to sally forth to meet that nexus and
transform it through its economic power and diplomacy. Notwithstanding
what China has on offer in the CPEC, Pakistan’s economic future lies in
its ties with India and South Asia.
There are elements in Pakistan — its civilian government, civil
society, businessmen and ordinary folk — who realise that good ties with
India are a necessary condition for the transformation of their
country. What is needed is an imaginative leadership in New Delhi that
can link its economic ambitions with a transformational agenda in South
Asia, instead of getting trapped in the minefields of the past.
Mid Day September 13, 2016