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Mainstream, VOL LVI No 30 New Delhi July 14, 2018

Modi’s Wobbly Foreign Policy

Sunday 15 July 2018, by Apratim Mukarji

Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself and his government take immense pride in the astounding outreach of his foreign policy, raking up a record of doubtful value of visiting so many countries and hugging so many national leaders and global players, not once but many times over, all within a relatively short span of four years. Quiet diplomacy is a concept Modi and his American counterpart, Donald Trump, apparently abhor. Arithmetic apart, is the claim actually tenable?

The results of a particular foreign policy initiative normally take time to be available, and if four years plus is a good enough time for the job, an assessment could perhaps be attempted. When such initiatives proliferate, perhaps two consecutive terms or ten years would be appropriate. We do not have the luxury of such a long span in hand.

The outcome of the ten years of the Manmohan Singh Government in the sphere of foreign policy, however, helps us by providing a perspective in which to judge the four years of the Modi basket of foreign policy initiatives. And what do we find?

With eightynine countries visited (including four scheduled visits in 2018) and multiple visits to several countries, Modi has surely notched up a record of sorts. Yet, several pillars of his policy seem to be in danger before his full term is over.

The most serious question before him today is: who he chooses to go with, Trump or Chinese President Xi Jinping? Despite his carefully scripted policy outreach, his embrace of both the American and Chinese Presidents has certainly gone haywire forcing him now to make his final choice: India can no longer savour the luxury of cultivating the two fiercely competing powers, the United States and China.

The scope of India’s choice has been further circumcised by Russia’s firm teaming-up with China. Its choice has been further restricted by the American sanctions against Russia and Iran.

To his credit, Modi has not flinched at Trump’s open threat to either cut off all ties to the two “enemy countries” or face consequences. So far, New Delhi has held on to its defiance not just in words but also in deeds. Even though oil supplies from Iran are drying up, India continues its trade links with the country and also

But his defiance of Trump also brings forth the rather quick demise of his much-vaunted US policy. It was during the Congress rule that India began to move way from the central tenet of its foreign policy, non-alignment, and consciously sought to move close to the US-led Western block. The economy was opened up; bounties of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, both controlled by America, began to be showered on; and in the due course of time, New Delhi achieved a kind of breakthrough for a recalcitrant non-compliant nuclear power by being admitted into the Missile Technology Control Group, the Wassenaar Arrangement and the Australia Group, the first non-aligned country to enjoy these privileges. India’s struggle to get admitted into the Nuclear Suppliers’ Group (NSG) crossed several hurdles, such as, the US-led block’s staunch opposition, but is now foundering at China’s door. Even the strategic partnership with the USA has proved to be too weak to earn India the full benefits of cozying up so desperately to the Western block.

We are yet to see how India’s defiance of the US sanctions against Russia and Iran shapes up, but abandoning the US ship wholesale and taking shelter in the Russia-China boat invites its own quagmire.

India’s relations with Russia and China are not foundationally compatible. Russia has never been a rival to India but China is. How can then India join the Russia-China table and partake of the same food?

New Delhi’s problems, while dealing with China, are also compounded by the fact that the theatre of their rival is right at India’s door, the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). China has assiduously built up its position as the largest benefactor and investor in India’s neighbour-hood.

Each one of India’s immediate neighbours. barring Bangladesh and Bhutan, has loudly and decisively gone over to China’s side. Adding insult to injury, they keep advising India to mend fences with China and join enthusias-tically in the One Belt One Road Initiative or BRI. The latest advice came from the Nepali Prime Minister K. P. Oli who, while on Chinese soil, talked about his country acting as a bridge between the two contending parties, not forgetting the bit about the wisdom of New Delhi joining in the BRI.

Modi had chosen as his personal mission to warn his neighbours about the “Debt Trap” that Chinese munificence entails, always followed by a chorus from the External Affairs Ministry. How has this particular initiative fared? Right from the Sri Lankan Prime Minister Ranil Wickremasinghe down to the Maldivian Finance Minister Ahmed Munawwar, almost all regional leaders have been waxing eloquent over the virtues of being victims of this trap.

“While we speak of rising debt, ” Munawwar said recently, “we also must focus on what is being done using those amounts taken as loans.” The rising national debt was not an issue if the borrowed money was being used fo national development, he maintained. It was the same logic that Sri Lanka’s former President Mahinda Rajapaksa invoked while defending his much-criticised and vehemently opposed policy of huge Chinese hard loans. His successor govern-ment learned to its cost and embarrassment that the debt trap was not an imgination when it first stopped the Colombo Port City project and the Hambantota Port and exclusive economic zone project and then had to eat the humble pie in a few months’ time. Wickrema-singhe, who led the anti-China campaign, is today among the most convinced advocates of the BRI.

None of the neighbours has listened to Modi’s exhortations though logic clearly lies with the latter. China has been playing the same game of munificence in Africa where, like their South Asian brethren, country after country are merrily embracing the dragon hug.

Thus, while Modi’s strategic hug with Trump has not yielded benefits and he is now switching over to the “enemy” side without addressing the contradiction of sliding up to Xi who is actually his immediate and most formidable foe, the pitch for India’s foreign policy has been further queered by the increasingly influential role played by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in foreign policy formulation.

Among India’s neighbours, Sri Lanka and Nepal are the first laboratories where the RSS is testing waters. It has established fraternal relations with the rank Buddhist fundamentalist and anti-minority Bodu Bala Sena in Sri Lanka and has been promoting the concept of a “Hindu republic” after being rebuffed by the Nepalis for hobnobbing with the discredited royalty and the Monarchists in Nepal. Modi’s much-publicised inauguration of the Janakpur (Nepal)-Ayodhya bus service in 2018 was part of this long-nourished RSS agenda.

Public reaction in both the neighbouring countries, however, indicates an immediate rejection of the RSS move; while the RSS presents its agenda as religion-motivated, the people in both the countries have interpreted it as an attempt by the Indian Government to intervene in their lives and are, therefore, summarily rejected.

It is also the RSS agenda of reviving the concept of “Akhand Bharat” (undivided India) that Modi has actively propagated. In 2016, at the height of the anti-Pakistan movement in Balochistan, a Hindutva ideologue and journalist wrote about the movement signalling “the recovery of India’s natural frontiers”. In 2017, India’s External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj declared at the second Indian Ocean Conference that the IO was not just a geographic region but “a global stage of continued social, economic and cultural dialogue”, skipping the term “political”.

India’s long-maintained cultural diplomacy has now been expanded to convert it into a religious diplomacy seeking to connect India with the South Asian, South-East Asian and Far Eastern countries through the Hindu epics and claiming Buddhism to have been one of the first Indian exports abroad. This programme in particular has been launched with gusto in Sri Lanka where different sections of the Buddhist-Sinhalese society are being encouraged to regularly visit the Buddhist pilgrim centres in India, often at New Delhi’s expense. The wider propagation of yoga, which was being promoted by India for many years, was taken up by Modi, he personally appearing on the world stage as one of its greatest practitioners.

Through a cleverly mounted campaign on all fronts, Modi has sought to appropriate the majority of policies and programmes launched by the Manmohan Singh Government as his own innovations. The white lie endured for quite sometime, lulling the people into believing in his claims.

Now in the last year of his tenure, Modi is still waiting for the verdict. The jury will be out by May, 2019.

Apratim Mukarji is an analyst of South and Central Asian affairs.

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