Modi’s Foreign Policy – An Early Appraisal

Ambassador Hardeep Singh Puri, India’s former ambassador to Brazil and the UN, provided a brief rendition of the new BJP government’s foreign policy priorities at the 7th India-Singapore Strategic Dialogue. Puri ran through some of the key themes and motifs of the government’s foreign policy agenda. First, the government sees a mandate to ‘reboot’ foreign and security policy. Second, there will a more pronounced focus on hard economic content in foreign policy or conferring more time and attention to commercial diplomacy by solidifying diplomatic relations with countries across the world, including South America and Africa. Third, regional relations within South Asia will be deepened. Lackadaisical neighbourhood policies weaken economic linkages between nations within South Asia and this lacuna will be addressed. And finally, an overarching maxim – that the nation’s foreign policy will be firmly tethered to its domestic policy agenda given historically infirm links between India’s domestic and foreign policy objectives. Going further, Puri also mentioned that key bilateral relationships with the United States, China and Japan will also be nurtured. And the ‘Look East’ policy will be given a shot in the arm.

In sum, the approach amounts to what Puri calls ‘Pragmatic Gradualism’ characterised by a focus on restoring economic growth, connecting the growth trajectory to the foreign policy agenda and ensuring that major power relations are balanced to prevent any abrupt shifts in the international security environment from hurting domestic priorities. Posturing will be eschewed. On security matters, however, the Modi administration will not display the reticence shown by the previous government when India comes under threat. It will act when necessary. Multilateralism will be kept within arms-length, restraining from committing or leading on international matters that do not directly affect India. With respect to the UNSC reform, India will continue its calls to make the forum more representative of extant international realities, especially they are expected to shoulder greater burdens vis-a-vis global public goods. 

Looking at the Modi’s foreign policy in practice over the last 80 days, one can safely say that it has stuck to what the government and the BJP had promised before assuming power. Regional relations has received top billing. From Modi’s generous invitation to all SAARC leaders to attend his inaugural and his first two foreign trips – to Bhutan and Nepal, the government clearly intends to make neighbourhood relations a chief priority. Moreover, from the deliberations in Thimphu and Kathmandu, it makes good economic sense to engage given the abundant opportunities that exist, especially with respect to joint energy projects, and also sound geopolitics given China’s overtures across the Himalayan plateau and the Indian Ocean rim that have more than matured over the past decade. Complementing these visits, Sushma Swaraj has visited another neighbour with whom relations have soured over the past decade – Bangladesh. From his remarks on Pakistan to date, Modi has remained firm, indicating and conveying his abiding intolerance for the violence stirred by proxy jihadi groups that continue to wage war across the valley, likely supported by elements within the Pakistani military establishment. With respect to Colombo, this government appears to prioritise economic and commercial ties, sidestepping and probably de-emphasising the ongoing tussles Colombo is having with UN Human Rights Council on the matter of national reconciliation. Though domestic politics will have some influence over diplomatic engagement with Sri Lanka, it is less likely to be as pronounced as during Manmohan Singh’s second term. This does not mean that the AIADMK will be any less vigilant or that the BJP government will be any more accommodating. Electoral compulsions within the Rajya Sabha will colour the government’s thinking on Sri Lanka as we tread ahead. But a more concerted economic and bilateral focus will trump multilateral exigencies. 

Speaking of the multilateral front, it is perhaps as advertised. Thus far, Modi government has exhibited a rather recalcitrant attitude on international policy concerns. Whether it is poor communication or poor policy that resulted in the scuttling of the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), it was done on the basis of short-term interests and not long-term. The TFA desires to simplify international trade by streamlining customs processes, creating a single standard for all WTO member states. Eliminating this red tape alone is estimated to create an additional $1 trillion in global GDP and create 21 million new jobs across the world, boosting global GDP by 1%. Concurrent negotiations on agricultural stockpiling and distribution was the reason New Delhi balked on signing the treaty. Delhi refused to budge given existing WTO rules that would have prevented India from continuing to stockpile and distribute food. Linking policies on critical matters alone is not without precedent. But the way this particular scuppering unfolded leaves little hope that India will act on international issues when it does not directly affect it. Multilateralism will run via bilateralism. It will be more tempered and tepid as Hardeep Puri suggested. 

Plurilateralism, however, will be prioritised. As evidenced through the signing of the BRICS Bank, India is eager to extend its engagement with like-minded emerging powers on major strategic issues. A sense of self-assuredness coupled with a proactive desire is palpable here. Unlike previous negotiations within the framework that were tied down by the nitty-gritty details of where the institution will be located and who will direct it, the most recent summit ironed out these details. India sacrificed its desire to be the host of the institution to China whilst retaining the leadership of it for the first five years. It remains to be seen whether the momentum evident here will spill over to emboldening blocs within other issue-areas like climate change that are gripped by divisions between countries, especially at a time when India finds itself not fitting it closely with either of the groupings, be it the west or the G-77, given shifting interests. This multilateral-plurilateral divide needs to be scrutinised further, especially how they impinge upon and influence each other.

Finally, one issue that the Modi government has been rather oblivious about is the Middle East – that is currently aflame. Israel-Palestine, Syria, Iraq-ISIS and Saudi Arabia-Iran are all locked in overt and proxy wars that is tearing apart the structures of power across the region. And this vacuum is being filled by nefarious insurgent groups that are finding succour from the void currently being left behind. India has moved quickly to bring its citizens from conflict-prone high risk areas but has been rather silent otherwise. India has clear national interests within the region – remittances and energy come right to the fore. Disruptions in global oil markets will ricochet back and further balloon the precarious fiscal account. Moreover, India is also imperilled by the prospect of home-grown jihadi offshoots playing a role within unfolding conflagrations. It needs to come to grip with these challenges.  

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