Home > 2017 > An Adventurist India

Mainstream, VOL LV No 24 New Delhi June 3, 2017

An Adventurist India

Thursday 8 June 2017, by Apratim Mukarji

The showmanship displayed in reshaping and reorienting Indian foreign policy in the first few months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ascendancy to power in 2014, which had dazzled diplomats and scholars across the world, has long given way to sober assessment and consequent disappointment. Today’s consensus in assessing Modi’s foreign policy is dramatically shorn of euphoria, as it should have been in the first instance.

But perhaps the unkindest cut of all has come from a man who is well-qualified to make it. Former Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai has spared no sentiment to express his disillusionment with Modi’s policy. “India should have its own policy on Afghanistan based on its own view of the region, its own interests, and the interests of peace and stability in Afghanistan,” he said. “Yes, India should do more on Afghanistan, but it should do more on its own terms, not on requests from America.” (’India should have its own policy on Afghanistan’, The Hindu, May 3, 2017)

The fact that Karzai has been driven to make such an unvarnished criticism of Modi’s policy speaks volumes about how New Delhi is being viewed by foreign observers. It is not complimentary, to say the least.

Significantly, at the same time, Modi as a strong, no-nonsense and Rightist Prime Minister is being hailed by similarly inclined political personalities across the world. A typical remark was made on the eve of the second round of the French presidential election by the Rightist, staunchly anti-immigrant and anti-globalisation candidate, Marine Le Pen, who called the “India of Modi, Russia of Putin, US of Trump and the UK of Theresa May...great nations”, ones that had turned “their backs on ultra-liberalisation and free trade”. (‘French rivals clash in debate’, The Hindu, May 5, 2017) Similar praises for Modi were first heard from the US presidential candidate, Donald Trump’s campaign team and from Trump himself. Since then various other Rightist and anti-immigrant Europeans have pitched for the like-mindedness of the Indian Prime Minister.

But the fatuity of such appreciations is self-evident, and in the ultimate analysis each nation seeks to protect and advance its own interests, something the so-called “pragmatic” Modi Doctrine is said to have imparted to Indian foreign policy after the mythical 70-year-old ideological stranglehold. Three years is spacious enough to attempt to find out if this popular view is tenable.

The assertion that India is now practising a pragmatic foreign policy—rejecting India’s earlier reliance on Nehruvian “idealism” or “moral posturing” and, instead, focussing on power and material interests—is now well-questioned and cannot be passed over any longer. In an exhaustive study of Modi’s foreign policy, two American scholars have designated it as procedural rather than substantive pragmatism. They have defined the first form of policy as a process of “engaging with all and any ideas” that are “contextually and politically expedient” to achieving a given policy end. [Manjari Chatterjee Miller and Kate Sullivan de Estrada, ‘Pragmatism in Indian Foreign Policy: how ideas constrain Modi’, International Affairs 93 (2017) 27-49; DOI:10.1093/ia/iiw001]

The analysis argues that Modi’s policy is innovative rather than substantive using the term bricolage meaning that “ideas are not as stable as political scientists want them to be: a theory of incremental ideational change”, quoting Martin B. Carstensen. (Political Studies 59:3, 2011, pp. 596-615) It questions the correctness of the conclusion reached by several Indian analysts that Modi’s policy is uniquely pragmatic bringing about a complete departure from the previous Indian policy, generally labelled as Nehruvian.

Those who find virtue in Modi’s foreign policy argue that pragmatism represents the approach that India must follow in order to become a “normal power that is not focussed on trans-forming the world” and to emerge on the world stage as a materially powerful state in the 21st. century. (C. Raja Mohan, Crossing the Rubicon: the shaping of India’s new foreign policy, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2003, p. 268; Brahma Chellany, ‘Narendra Modi’s imprint on foreign policy’, LiveMint, September 2, 2014; Amitabh Mattoo, ‘The Modi foreign policy doctrine’, The Indian Express, November 20, 2014; Harsh V. Pant,“Out with non-alignment, in with a ‘Modi doctrine’”, The Diplomat, November 13, 2014)

Presenting a contrary view, the American scholars have chosen two particular policies followed by Modi in tackling the India-Bangladesh territorial dispute (exchange of enclaves) and persuading the United Nations to adopt the International Yoga Day—for case studies to establish their thesis that “like many Indian leaders before him”, this foreign policy is also based on procedural pragmatism and not on substantive pragmatism and is indeed constrained by both ideology and institutionalised ideas and as a result, entails bricolage, “that is, improving with influential and institutionalised ideas rather than without them”.

The case study on the exchange of enclaves shows that the diplomatic process had been set in motion years before Modi came to power under Manmohan Singh with the enactment of the 2011 protocol to the 1974 Land Boundary Agreement. “Singh had made better relations with Bangladesh a cornerstone of his regional policy,” it notes. While his political and cultural logics were different from Modi’s, Singh was “stymied” in his efforts by the BJP which in 2013 blocked the parliamentary bill to opera-tionalise the agreement. It quotes Arun Jaitley’s declaration that the Indian territory could not be reduced or altered by an amendment to the Constitution, and the Opposition’s description of Singh’s policy as “softness towards illegal immigrants” from Bangladesh most of whom were Muslims.

And how did Modi justify his own act? He described the agreement as formalising the de facto borders and not ceding territory, and this patently false characterisation was hailed as a “complete change in India’s foreign policy on the border issue”. The study suggests that Modi’s innovative policy success was dependent on taking institutionalised policy frameworks seriously as well as appealing to his Hindu nationalist base of political support.

Similarly, while the Indian Government had been promoting yoga internationally for a long time with its most famous practitioner having been Jawaharlal Nehru and through the vehicle of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, Modi decided to seize on yoga as India’s “signature cultural export” while championing a specifically Hinduised understanding of yoga’s origins that initially contradicted the internal face of India’s exceptionalism, founded on the claim that India is a pluralistic society based on peaceful coexistence. Thus, Modi’s procedural pragmatism included both Hindutva ideas about the Hindu origins of yoga and broke with elements of the ideational framework of Indian exceptiona-lism. However, political logic eventually demanded a modification to please supporters and assuage critics. While the intention was to present yoga as an essentially Hindu heritage, protests forced him to avoid, rather than explicitly exclude, Indian pluralism from the ideational “toolkits”.

While the government was immensely proud that as many as 170 member-states co-sponsored the UN resolution, the fact remains that it did not formally link yoga with India’s cultural or spiritual heritage though the connection is implied.

The speed with which Modi embarked on his foreign policy formulation simply dazzled analysts, samples of which abound in scores of writings since he virtually exploded on the world stage. “No previous Indian Prime Minister participated in so many high-powered multi-lateral and bilateral summits in his or her first months in office as Modi,” gushed Brahma Chellaney. His foreign policy “is powered by ideas, not by any ideology. Indeed, (he) has demonstrated knack to skillfully employ level-headed ideas to shape a non-doctrinaire vision and galvanize public opinion...he has projected a nimble foreign policy with pragmatism as its hallmark.” (‘Deconstructing the Modi foreign policy’, The Hindu, updated May 23, 2016) Frida Ghitis was equally effervescent: “In the short time since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May, he has revolutionalised his country’s foreign relations, and proceeds to list a fairly long list of his visits abroad.” (‘Modi Reboots India’s Foreign Policy With ‘Zero Problems’ Approach’, WPR, December 18, 2014)

However, dispassionate analyses are not a rarity. Apparently provoked by the signing of a strategic partnership agreement with Rwanda in January 2017, The Hindu editorialised: “...India’s decision to upgrade more than 30 of its bilateral relationships to ‘strategic partner-ships’ is excessive. While there may be many ways to parse the term, its usage in international diplomacy is fairly clear: it defines a bilateral relationship (as) more important than others, but stops short of an actual alliance. The term ‘strategic’ further implies a future convergence of interests in areas that are vital: security, defence and investment. If that is the case, India’s latest strategic partnership signed with the east African country of Rwanda, after Prime Minister Narendra Modi met Rwandan President Paul Kagamde in Gandhinagar this week, warrants further study. Rwanda is a land-locked country with 90 per cent of its population engaged in subsistence agriculture. It is still recovering from the mass murder of large sections of its Hutu population in 1994, though the country has registered remarkable progress and growth in the last few years. While it may therefore be an important destination for India’s development assistance, it is difficult to see how it qualifies as a ‘strategic partner’, particularly given that India is yet to set up a full diplomatic mission to the country; the last time New Delhi even sent a delegation to Kigali was in 2012. Given all of this, it would seem that the govern-ment’s move was more about window-dressing the relationship than imbuing it with any meaningful substance.” (‘Strategic partnership. Really?’, updated January 13, 2017)

This propensity to enter strategic partnership with virtually all and sundry nations is a legacy Modi has inherited from the previous governments. That is why the question arises over his much-vaunted “breaking off” from past practices and pragmatism.

Three years into power, Modi’s Pakistan policy, the very test of the strength of India’s foreign policy, stands reduced to a far more vague and undefined policy than the previous two Prime Ministers’. India’s neighbourhood policy is equally bogged down in withstanding constant nibbling by its neighbours at its almost desperate efforts to cling to its Big Brother image, raising suspicions about not-so-subtle Chinese encouragement. That the South Asian Association of Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is now almost permanently minus Pakistan is entirely due to the Indian policy. Its latest manifestation was India’s invitation to the BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Techniocal and Economic Cooperation) member-states to interact with BRICS and not SAARC. How many SAARC member-states support India’s opposition to allow China to be a member of the group? Perhaps, the most pathetic reflection of India’s helplessness and groping for a way out is over the seeming snare of the One Belt One Road (OBOR) or Belt Road Initiative (BRI).

India’s eventual decision to not attend the OBOR Forum in Beijing on May 14-15 seems to have further highlighted its difficulty in diplo-matically tackling the China-Pakistan combine. The rebuff, as several admiring analysts have described the boycott, has been questioned since India is the only major invitee to have abstained from attending the summit. Even Japan and Vietnam, long engaged in fighting China’s geopolitical onslaught on their sovereignty, attended it. The South Asian countries, barring Bhutan, were particularly enthusiastic about the event.

A basic principle in diplomacy is to keep a door open when all other doors have been closed. The Modi policy on China and Pakistan, the most important part of Indian foreign policy, continues to display a rare kind of confusion alternating between body-hugging and breast-beating.

The author is a former Senior Fellow, the Indian Council of Social Science Research, New Delhi.

ISSN : 0542-1462 / RNI No. : 7064/62