Modi version 2.0 needed: He has been energetic on foreign policy, but global environment has turned adverse
A general election, even one in which an incumbent has won, marks a turning point. Personnel may not change, yet policies do. Sometimes because elections are a good time for stock taking. Sometimes because, especially in the case of foreign and security policy, external circumstances may have changed. Often, there is a push, too. When a PM like Narendra Modi is comfortably re-elected, he begins thinking about leaving his imprint on history by pursuing issues he feels strongly about. In the coming period all these factors will be prevalent, including the fact that the campaign moved away decisively from an emphasis on economic growth and acche din, to the importance of a decisive prime minister for preserving the country’s security. So, what can we expect of Modi version 2.0, as against that of v 1.0?
Modi put uncommon energy into foreign policy in his first term. But it was a scattershot approach with as many hits as misses. His focus on security was fitful, driven more by electoral considerations than anything else. But then, in his term, Indian security did not confront any challenge of the dimension of Kargil, or even Mumbai in November 2008. But both came together, aided – though not abetted – by Pakistan into the winning electoral strategy that built on the need for a strong and decisive PM. The response to the Pulwama attack by a strike on Balakot is portentous and has put Pakistan on the backfoot, uncertain as to how it should respond next. But the generals in Rawalpindi are unlikely to abandon their game easily. So now we need the electoral strategy to become effective policy. This requires far more resources and effort than what was visible in Modi v 1.0. The armed forces are in desperate need of money for modernisation, but more important, they require deep restructuring and reform which crucially depends on effective political guidance and leadership.
Over-the-top praise for the military, waving the tricolour declaring “my nation, right or wrong” can only take you so far. To press home the Balakot advantage, Modi and his team need to shape a well-resourced and modern military, one that can fight and win wars, not merely conduct highly publicised one-off strikes. Despite the great energy Modi has put into foreign policy, the payoff has been limited in the neighbourhood. In Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and the Maldives, minus exportable resources or military power, India’s clout depends on which government is in power, not on our intrinsic capacities. Modi’s efforts have made the situation in the near abroad better. The outreach to Saudi Arabia and the UAE has yielded significant returns in political and economic terms and India has managed to maintain strong ties to Israel and Iran as well.
But a new government confronts an American challenge in Iran. The loss of cheap oil is not the only issue here, the other is the American veto on India’s ability to shape a policy related to its own interests. It’s Iran today, it could be Russia, or some other region tomorrow. Modi successfully managed the transition from the Obama to the Trump administration. But the personal touch that characterised the Modi style is missing with Trump. The Indo-US-Japan trilateral, based on a mutuality of interests in the Indo-Pacific, is working well, but there’s always danger that at some time it will crash into Trump’s America First approach. After Doklam, the Sino-Indian relationship has been reset by the Wuhan summit. Its next iteration is expected in September this year and we could see some interesting developments, including a forward movement on the border and, agreement to push third country infrastructure projects.
Foreign and security policy are only a means to an end. To be truly transformative they must rest on the foundations of a vibrant economy which alone can provide the military and economic sinews to win friends and influence people. Modi v 1.0 is now outdated. Perhaps, learning from the past, v 2.0 will anchor itself on renewed economic growth and give us a foreign and security policy that is robust, sustainable and even historic.