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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 17, April 19, 2014

Modi’s Contrarian Foreign Policy Goals

Sunday 20 April 2014, by M K Bhadrakumar

The election manifestos of India’s political parties usually do not attract—or merit—attention. But the Bharatiya Janata Party’s [BJP] manifesto, which was released on April 7, whetted curiosity for two good reasons.

One, the document was unduly delayed and curiosity arose that it likely contained such original thinking that the BJP, which is caught up in acute internal wrangles, needed to reconcile the content.

Two, of course, this manifesto carries the imprimatur of the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi. And there is nothing that Modi touches which doesn’t turn gold. Frankly, we know nothing about his foreign-policy ‘vision’.

The most striking thing is that the 52-page manifesto devotes just a little over one page to foreign policy. [pages 39-40] And there is no ‘vision’ as such here.

There are no big ideas of the kind we would associate with a world leader. The manifesto doesn’t even make the modest pledge that India will take its place as a permanent member of the UN Security Council during Modi’s watch, or that India will stride like a Colossus on the world stage.

It is rather ‘un-Nehruvian’ in idiom too, drafted in bad staccato English—for power-point projection, presumably. The good thing is that the accent is unmistakably on India’s neighbourhood policies in pursuit of the objective that “political stability, progress and peace in the region are essential” for India’s development at this point in time.

Contrary to rumours that Modi can be trusted to pursue a tough policy towards India’s neighbours, the manifesto actually promises to establish “enduring friendly and cooperative relations” with India’s neighbours.

In fact, it regrets that India and its neighbours have “drifted apart” and it bemoans that “India’s relations with traditional allies have turned cold”. The nostalgic reference seems to apply to good old neighbours like Nepal and Sri Lanka who no longer listen to us as their Big Brother. Having said that, the manifesto also shows the iron fist. It threatens to take “strong stand and steps” against India’s neighbours “if required”. The threat is left vaguely hanging in the air without any explaining as to what might provoke India’s wrath.

Arguably, Pakistan eminently qualifies for “strong stand and steps” by a Modi Government (which promises to eliminate terrorism), but then, the reference could also apply to little, irksome neighbours like Maldives who give us pinpricks every now and then.

A South Asian Munroe Doctrine? That may be going too far. Nonetheless, China had better watch out and learn to tread softly, lest it treaded on India’s ’sphere of influence’.

The most intriguing thought in the entire manifesto is its promise to build a “web of allies to mutually further our interests”. This Spartan thought gets embellished as a “guiding principle” of India’s foreign policy, and eventually gets catapulted as “a doctrine of mutually beneficial and interlocking relationships” based on “pragmatism”.

‘Web of allies’, ‘guiding principle’, ‘doctrine’, ‘pragmatism’, ‘interlocking relationships’—these are heady notions and strongly hint at alignment with the United States and the Western world, given the array of interest groups (within India and abroad) backing Modi’s bid to prime ministership.

It doesn’t take the slightest interest to co-relate the foreign policies with the prevailing trends in the world order. In fact, it overlooks completely that there is an international environment and a world order struggling to be born and India lives in a globalised world.

On the contrary, the manifesto blithely places trust in India’s “soft power potential” and the “magnetic power” of its “ancient wisdom and heritage”, which would enable it to play “a major role in world affairs, offering a lot to the world”. It advocates a “Proactive Diplomacy” riding the wing of soft power that will fetch recognition for India as ‘Vishwaguru’. These rapid dream sequences smack of pandering to the Hindutva audience.

All in all, a Modi Government probably hopes to continue with the foreign policy under Manmohan Singh but is afraid to say so openly—where without the encumbrances of high prin-ciples (or accountability) a ‘pragmatic’ pursuit of “enlightened national interest” was possible.

Curiously, that highly dubious expression “enlightened national interest”, which used to be a favourite of Manmohan Singh whenever he needed to give a public explanation, duly makes its appearance in the BJP manifesto, too.

But the crucial difference could be that Manmohan Singh never opted for an “inter-locking relationship” for India—not even when Washington was magnanimously offering India the role of a ‘lynchpin’ in the US’ rebalance strategy in Asia.

Put differently, does India truly need “inter-locking relationships”? It’s a shocking coinage for the highly volatile international environment today. India could at best cast its net wide and have extensive ‘networking’. But, ‘interlocking relationships’? There is simply no conceivable justification for such passionate intensity in a multipolar world. 

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar was a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His assignments included the Soviet Union, South Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.