Indian Foreign Policy: The Modi Era

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In Part 5, of our book “The New Global Order” (2016) we wrote about the 180 degree transformation Prime Minister Narendra Modi has brought to Indian foreign policy from the Nehruvian status quoist/non-aligned till 2014. There were a lot questions about whether Narendra Modi would be able to handle foreign policy as he doesn’t belong to the intellectual circuit of New Delhi which has so far dominated India’s foreign policy discourse. Thus at the end of 1st term when PM Narendra Modi heads for re-election, it’s time to analyze and reflect upon what has been achieved in measuring upto expectations from May 2014.

The Modi era has been really transformative in shaking the inertia which had clogged India’s foreign policy establishment. The biggest and probably the most transformative aspect of Modi’s foreign policy has been Indo-US Strategic Partnership with military agreements of DTTI, LEMOA, COMCASA; US Congressional exemptions equal to a NATO ally amid waivers on Iranian Oil or S-400 Missile system with Russia. India’s has rightfully leveraged its position as a strategic partner of United States which was clearly visible during the latest Indo-Pak crisis, where United States unabashedly came out in open support for India’s Right to Self Defence and sanctioning global terrorists like Masood Azhar. The US was also instrumental in getting India MTCR membership while affirming the Nuclear and Defence partnership with arms deals such as Apache, Chinooks, P8 Orions, M-777 Howitzers Guns etc running in billions. The strategic partnership with US has gone under a sea change which looked improbable given the Cold War hangover that mired the Indian foreign policy establishment till date.

However, India still has substantial differences with United States in Trade and Intellectual Property Rights which are yet to be ironed out. Despite immense pressure, India  has stood firm on Data Localization & E-Commerce rules which have irked American corporations like Google, Amazon, Wal-Mart and even US Pharma & healthcare sector which is quite peeved over India’s subsiding of local stent makers. India has however; shown flexibility in negotiations to delay any retaliatory tariffs to the proposed GSP removal given the strategic nature of partnership between two countries. Despite these inherent contradictions, USA and India have strategically converged in context of Indo-Pacific and getting the Asian Quadrilateral moving. However it is disappointing that India did not walk the extra mile by joining the US-Japan-Australia grouping to counter China’s Belt & Road initiative which India has steadfastly objected to as it does not respect its sovereignty and territory while highlighting the underlying debt trap it induces on member states.

The Dolam crisis was probably the finest hour of PM Modi’s Foreign Policy where India stood firm on Bhutanese-China border not allowing China to encroach upon the India-Bhutan-China tri-junction. Remaining steadfast amid massive psychological warfare, war mongering and propaganda that Beijing unleashed via its global media daily was a massive Indian victory that forced China to ultimately back down. The Nehruvian ghost of China as a civilizational brother appeared to be finally exorcised. However, India stumbled again wasting the massive gains made at Doklam by going to the informal Wuhan summit that yielded no difference towards Beijing’s attitude towards India as PLA’s border transgressions from Ladakh to Arunachal to Uttarakhand continued. China further continued its duplicitous approach of aiding and abetting Pakistan’s terror factory by blocking the sanctioning of Masood Azhar at UNSC post the barbaric Pulwama attack which gave the Indian establishment a reality check that blow hot blow cold never works with China.

China only understands the language of strength which America is displaying on Trade and IPR related issues like sanctioning Huawei etc. India must take a cue out of the American playbook and use the trade war between US and China to set its trade deficit right and reduce import dependence on China’s electronic sector, API’s in pharmaceuticals. India’s China policy needs retooling and hopefully PM Narendra Modi in his next term would take rise of Sino-Pak Axis and their two-front war as the biggest strategic threat to India. To counter balance the growing Sino-Pak Axis India needs to first manage its its neighbourhood.  Blunders like allowing Nepal to fall into the Chinese orbit by communist domination or failing to heed to Maldivian opposition cries last year must not be repeated. India’s neighborhood is filled with fragile regimes like the recent power tussle in Sri Lanka where pro-China Mahinda Rajapaksa tried to usurp power but failed owing to massive international pressure and the Sri Lankan Supreme Court. Similarly, a stern India in close co-ordination with United States also managed to redeem Maldives with a smooth transition of power from Pro China President Gayoom to President Ibrahim Solih who has affirmed close ties to India.

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Another hallmark of PM Modi’s foreign policy has been fine balancing in multi alignment. India has brilliantly balanced its traditional ties with Russia offering it billions in new arms, choppers, SAM and submarine deals while staving off any US sanctions by hectic diplomacy with Pentagon and the White House. Similar balancing can also be seen between Israel and Iran. PM Modi undertook the historic visit to Israel, a first by any Indian Prime Minister taking the Indo-Israeli relationship out of the closet and the shadow of vote bank politics at home. While growing relations with Israel is one of the highlights of Modi’s foreign policy, the way India has managed Iran has been exemplifying.

The Modi doctrine has also been successful in leveraging ties with various countries in Middle East like UAE, Saudi Arabia but challenges remain as these two countries continue to fund Pakistan’s Military Industrial Complex aiding and abetting the rise of Wahhabi Islam in Kashmir valley which could give India its Palestine if timely action is not taken. Rise of economic costs on Pakistan’s MIC through FATF, crackdown on its proxy network in Kashmir along with new red lines in the conventional military response to terror is the hybrid way forward to tackle the state sponsored terrorism from across the border. The rise of CPT (China-Pakistan-Turkey) axis will become the biggest strategic challenge for India in the neighborhood and beyond. A complex situation in Afghanistan with Taliban in power could further embolden the Sino-Pak Axis and China’s efforts for low cost containment of India’s rising power status.

The balancing in multi-alignment has thus far paid off but as we head into Cold War 2.0 between US and China, India will have to come to terms with the reality that China’s Sun Tzu’s Art of War doctrine doesn’t believe that two global powers can co-exist in the region. Thus India will have to shed any remaining pacifist hopes from China and aggressively build its Military Industrial Complex, a Blue Navy to dominate Indian Ocean Region and scale up strategic partnership with Asian Quad+ countries like Japan, Australia, Indonesia, and Vietnam etc. A robust economy, impetus to low cost manufacturing and Tech investments in Artificial Intelligence, Electronic Vehicles is sine qua non if India has to scale up its growth to compete with China globally. We wrote about this at length in Part 5 of our book “The New Global Order” in 2016.

The foreign policy in the Modi era has taken India to new heights globally where India is respected as a global power. The world’s 6th largest economy and 3rd largest military is finally learning to punch worth its weight. The last five years have been truly transformative in Indian Foreign policy but much is still to be done. A lot of set notions on powers like China, Sino-Pak Axis need to be broken and shed. We hope PM Narendra Modi will continue and consolidate the good work of this term while correcting the various errors/faults of the last 5 years.  Foreign Policy is never etched in stone rather always a work in progress. As we slowly move from Multi Alignment to Cold War 2.0 we must remember the adage of Lord Palmerston, “We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow”.

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