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The Limits of Style over Substance

Foreign Policy of the NDA Government

Itty Abraham (itty123@gmail.com) teaches South East Asian studies at the National University of Singapore.

Lack of coherence in the foreign policy of the National Democratic Alliance government highlights the limits of emphasis on spectacle. An inability to adequately respond to the rapidly shifting situation in the neighbourhood as well as in the international domain is an outcome of this.

It is tempting to call any assessment of foreign policy developments over the last five years a perspective on “Modi’s” regime, as many are doing in the lead-up to the next general elections. That would be a mistake. I have long been of the view that the easy and convenient conflation of the person and the period—for example, the Nehruvian moment, the Vajpayee transformation, etc—has been one of the banes of Indian foreign policy studies, preventing us from acknowledging the gulf between what an individual may or may not stand for and the “daily referendum” of institutional responses to structural problems and possibilities facing the country in its dealings with the world. We may want great statesmen to lead us, but the sad truth is that most foreign policy is the product of deadly routine shaped by files and precedents, even more so in a minuscule bureaucracy that is overstretched and under-resourced.

If we want to be brutally honest, India has been for sometime now a rule-taker, not a rule-maker, and for the most part a reactive force in world politics, quite unable or unwilling to articulate its core national interests in a coherent and clear way. These latter failings cannot be laid at Modi’s door, much as we may want to; they are symptoms of a sclerotic foreign policy establishment that cannot sort out the difference between what India expects and where it stands in the world. A lack of clarity in thought is joined by ambivalence in practice. Beginning long before independence, India’s foreign policy has been marked by imperial tendencies in its immediate neighbourhood, while arguing for a more open international order further afield, especially one that entitles India to a seat, in the now time-honoured phrase that betrays its insecure colonial origins, “at the high table.”

Primacy of Spectacle

This distance between “home and the world” remains the inescapable structural contradiction that grounds the “geo-” of Indian geopolitics. India’s neighbourhood is imagined as the dysfunctional family we never acknowledge but are never able to escape, the ubiquitous grit that somehow manages to gum up the wheels of smooth talk and polished ambition. When Modi invited, in his first spectacular act of foreign policy, the heads of South Asian countries to his Raisina Hill “inauguration” (another novel spectacle, albeit borrowed from another hill, the Capitol), one was tempted to imagine the onset of a new era of good neighbour policies, harking back to the brief but successful Gujral moment in foreign policy two decades ago. This heady moment of apparent regional comity was soon followed by foreign wanderings in all directions, meeting and greeting, handshaking and hugging, making even sceptics wonder whether a new era of Indian foreign influence had come to pass. Before long it became clear that what was truly different about this new moment was that the spectacle had become an end in itself. Caught in the fervour of extravaganza, few cared to notice that the diplomatic eye candy was no substitute for actually sorting out the details of what needed to be done and how to pay for it.

The spectacle was all too obvious when it came to one, phenomenally successful, aspect of Modi’s early foreign travels, namely outreach to overseas citizens and persons of Indian origin. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), in notable contrast to the Congress, has long been aware of the value of reaching out to overseas Indians. Ever since the Singhvi Commission report on the Indian diaspora, the party has made millions of expatriate Indians, at least these belonging to the middle-class ones, one of their vital bases. This diaspora has responded fulsomely, flooding party coffers, influencing foreign governments, becoming a loudspeaker and first responder on social media, effectively constituting a force multiplier that was impossible to imagine in the days when Indira Gandhi turned her back on Indians in Uganda facing the racist wrath of General Idi Amin. Weaponising the diaspora remains one of the BJP’s greatest achievements and innovations in foreign policy that does not always get the importance it deserves. They may have taken their cue from Deng Xiaoping’s enticement of overseas Chinese, but have copied the Israeli playbook in practice, in the process foregoing investment at home for influence in Washington, DC.

Looking back on commentaries reflecting on the first two years of Modi rule, two conclusions stand out. The first is that there was more commotion than motion: more generously, that this period was marked by a greater degree of continuity than change in the overall direction of foreign policy. Second, it is hard not to be struck by how informed observers saw in Modi an embodiment of possible and positive change: the politician who once seemed to be the epitome of hardline local politics had turned out to be an international player. Those early hopes would not last. Beginning in 2016, both the neighbourhood and the international environment would churn with unexpected turmoil, exposing the limits of a foreign policy of style over substance.

Neighbourhood and Beyond

A series of crises in Sri Lanka and the Maldives reminded us that China is now a SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) member in all but official membership. Even as both countries are now warily distancing themselves from China’s oceanic reach and deep pockets following domestic elections, dangers—political, financial and infrastructural—still await. This was a fortunate outcome for an India that still wants the neighbourhood to be its backyard, to be sure, but how much credit can Indian diplomacy take for resolving them? Bangladesh became another crisis point following a terrorist attack on foreigners in Dhaka, in retrospect a harbinger of local radicalisation in places that had not seen this development before. An even greater crisis in that country that reinforced India’s lack of leadership on matters of regional importance was Delhi’s non-response to the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees flooding into Chittagong and the Hill Tracts, a humanitarian and ecological disaster of the first magnitude. It could be argued that India privileged its bilateral ties to Myanmar over leading a regional response to the mass influx of desperate refugees amidst credible charges of genocide. In fact, ties with Myanmar are in the doldrums, with long-announced connectivity projects still incomplete and anti-Indian racism never far from the surface. The lack of a coherent regional policy can only be addressed in the long term by New Delhi ceding some of its authority over foreign policy to border states who care more, know more and have the most to lose when it comes to neighbourhood policies.

The extra-regional environment in the last three years has been roiled by surprise. Few countries have come out of it looking good or better. An assertive China and a confused United States (US) are its progenitors, yet each means something quite different for India. China is everywhere India wants to be and does not want China to be: it has infinitely more resources, capabilities, influence and plans, so much so that only opium-eaters can imagine that any form of competition is now possible. Caught between sandhi and samshraya, as Kautilya would diagnose it, the only question is on what and whose terms will accommodation take place. The challenges that a globally active Middle Kingdom produces are too many to consider. However, there is also one radical possibility that China offers India, if there is the will to consider it. China remains, far more than the US today, able to influence Pakistan’s military. Does the all-weather road to peace between Delhi and Islamabad pass through Beijing?

Such a thought may be too extreme to consider in the current environment, which turns our gaze to the US. Since Donald Trump’s unexpected arrival, India’s sidle to the US has slowed. The Great Disruptor has challenged America’s allies and friends to do more, poking fun at India’s investments in Afghan peace-building and at Modi himself, and complaining about a balance of trade in India’s favour. Restrictions on immigration affect India’s service economy, and perhaps most important, the US’s aggressive anti-Iran policy makes access to cheap Iranian oil something that can no longer be counted on beyond six month extensions. Will India be able to hold on to Chabahar port if this pressure ramps up, the Gulf states do not play ball and an Afghan deal becomes a reality? India’s ability to cut a deal with the US on trade, immigration and Iran are concrete tests (from the Indian standpoint) of the strength of this bilateral relationship, not more military exercises and communications agreements.

The price to be paid for such a deal will be high. At the very least, it will require India to take sides with the US on contentious international issues that it would rather not commit to. India will hope, as do many that the Trump moment will be a short one, but the smart money reads the Donald as a symptom, not a cause, of the US’s changing relationship with the world. The US is not declining, as many proclaim, it is changing its relations with the world, including its closest allies. More thought needs to go into the terms on which India plans to deal with a transactionally-minded military superpower, while maintaining its ties to Russia and other “middle powers” that are claiming the spaces once controlled by a distracted and internally divided hyperpower. If the rules shaping the international order are changing, once again, a studied policy of always-reaction will inevitably leave India worse off than it was before. Whoever wins this election will have to come to terms with these developments: do not hold your breath. Most likely is a scenario where India will modify Deng’s dictum and “bide its time” while it decides what its interests and strengths are. In the best case, the mandarins will not forget that foreign policy, like charity, begins at home.

Updated On : 8th Apr, 2019

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