Modi’s Foreign Policy: The Third Act
Any contemporary situation appears to follow a pattern described by Shakespeare years ago. The third act of his plays is the “climax”, which is characterized by acute complications in the story, with no clear indication of future events. Having introduced the dramatis personae in the first act and revealed their concerns and intentions in the second, the Bard is at his creative best in the third act. The situation gets from good to bad and from bad to worse and the spectators breathlessly watch things go wrong in a bewildering manner. They have to wait for the fourth and the fifth acts to witness the denouement, whether it is wedding bells or funerals.
Prime Minister Modi’s foreign policy in the middle of his term is very much like the third act of a Shakespearean play. The entry was dramatic, full of surprises and even exciting. He strode like a colossus on the world stage with his freshness, energy, decisiveness and oratorical skills. India became visible, active and even assertive. His optimism was contagious and the whole country began anticipating the good times he promised. India would not be a mere spectator on the seashore of world affairs, but a participant, claiming its legitimate place on the tables, round, square, rectangular and even horse-shoe shaped. He took the bull by the horns, whether it was Pakistan, China or the United States. Lack of diplomatic experience appeared to be an asset rather than a liability as he let loose his legendary ‘yagaswam’ or the ritualistic horse to conquer the world. The first act was perfect.
But in the second act, when Mr. Modi began encountering complex issues, rivals and adversaries, things appeared complicated. Hesitations of history loomed large and quick fixes were not available. There were too many boxes crying out for standard solutions as he searched for out of the box outcomes. All the charms he tried on Pakistan and China went unrequited. He faced the same ghosts of the past, which had confronted Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, Rao, Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh. All the perfumes of Arabia could not sweeten the air around. High expectations resulted in deep disappointments. But there was joy in the progress made in certain countries, where he followed the path laid by his predecessors.
In today’s third act, Mr. Modi is sadder, but wiser. The confusion of the Shakespearean climax has gripped him. On the one hand, he is receiving dubious praise from the world that he is the one who set off the trend towards the right in 2014, leading to Brexit and Trump. On the other, the advent of Mr. Trump has brought the whole world to a standstill, jeopardizing even the new symphony he had painstakingly choreographed with Barack Obama. An evergreen friend, Vladimir Putin, appeared not just sulking, but also flirting with China and Pakistan to spite him. He had to be pacified with huge military contracts and an assurance that old friends are better than new ones. But, even at the recent Heart of Asia conference in Amritsar, the Russian envoy stated that the allegations against Pakistan by India and Afghanistan were totally baseless. It is clear that the fissure in India-Russia relations remains serious.
With Pakistan, neither the charm offensive nor the surgical strikes have made any difference. The situation is worse than what it was in 2014, when the ceasefire was in force and the terror attacks were not frequent. The policy of the previous Government that no comprehensive dialogue was possible without ending terrorism, often violated by India itself off and on, was completely disregarded by Modi when he invited Nawaz Sharif to India, proposed foreign secretary level talks, held NSA level talks and sent the External Affairs Minister to Islamabad to propose a comprehensive dialogue. The surge in terror attacks prompted the surgical strikes, which Pakistan refused to even acknowledge. Intermittent shooting on the border, expulsion of diplomats, suspected of spying and India’s open support to Baluchistan and boycott of the SAARC summit have brought the two countries to the brink of war. The lesson learnt was that seventy years of animosity and conflict cannot be wished away without major concessions on either side. Constitutional, legal and emotional issues rule out such concessions.
The whole castle in the air that Mr. Modi built in his first address from the ramparts of the red fort about the progress to be achieved by the combined efforts of SAARC countries lies shattered as the future of SAARC itself is uncertain. India invited BIMSTEC to interact with BRICS and not SAARC precisely to encourage a regional group without Pakistan in it. Another latent issue in SAARC was the possible admission of China. A majority of the members of the Association were in favour of China’s admission, though China is not part of the region. But the argument used by them was that since India and Pakistan were made full members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, a similar courtesy should be extended to China. If the Islamabad summit was held, India would have been alone in opposing China’s admission. Such a situation was averted by the cancellation of the summit. It should be noted that the absence of the other member countries in Islamabad did not necessarily mean support to the Indian position. It is the height of irony that regional cooperation in South Asia has come to such a pass as Mr. Modi reaches the midpoint of his Government.
The China scene looks less troublesome, but nothing has changed for the better in India-China relations in the last thirty months. No progress has been made on the border and none of the other issues between the two countries has been addressed. The China-Pakistan collusion continues and the long term measures being taken by China like One Belt One Road are designed to dominate the whole of Asia. Mr. Modi, on his part, has made no secret of his inclination towards the US, Japan and Australia and his concerns about the South China Sea. But happily, there have been very few incidents on the border and the economic activities continue, but mostly to suit the Chinese themselves. The balance of trade is heavily in their favour.
The situation on the western front should be a matter of satisfaction for Mr.Modi. The designation of India as a major defense partner has taken India-US relations to a higher level, which entitles India to have the same facilities for technology transfer as the allies of the US. Even after the election of Mr. Trump, the US Congress has approved the related legislation. Mr. Trump is unpredictable, but available indications are that, except on migration issues, India-US relations will remain strong in the future. Mr. Modi has his work cut out for him in befriending Mr. Trump in his fourth act.
The mixed picture on foreign policy that we see is an inevitable consequence of extraordinary global developments and the bold initiatives taken by Mr. Modi. The final judgment on his foreign policy shall have to await the correctives he will apply in the remaining part of his first term. The complications resulting from demonetization has affected Mr. Modi’s image, but his reputation as a man of decisive action has remained intact. The reports that Mr. Modi had secured the largest number of votes for the Time Man of the Year award were not surprising, even though Mr. Trump became the clear winner on account of his game changing victory and its global impact. Like a Shakespearean hero, Mr. Modi appears entangled in a web of intricate issues in the third act, but the remaining acts will determine his impact on the global scene.
(The writer is a former ambassador, who currently heads the Kerala International Centre.)