Losing friends and making foes

January 29, 2018


I DID not follow protocol. I am a simple man with no baggage. I made friends the world over ... Thus spoke India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, master of the diplomatic hug fest, in a recent TV interview where he expatiated on what constitutes India’s foreign policy, or at least his understanding of it.

“Every time I stand beside world leaders such as Vladimir Putin or Donald Trump, all I remember is that I am the representative of 1.15 crore citizens. They have given me the mandate to be there. Before 2014, the world didn’t care about what India had to say. But after we came to power in 2014, the situation changed completely. For the first time in 30 years, India has a government with a full majority. This was noticed by the entire world. I witnessed it during the Saarc and G-20 meet. They accept us as a leader now.”

Was that disingenuous or political hubris? With most of the neighbouring states even more hostile to India than they have traditionally been, India’s leadership even in its limited area of influence is under challenge. India’s domineering attitude and interference in their internal affairs, most markedly in the case of Nepal, has pushed them into China’s arms, leaving Modi’s ‘neighbourhood first’ policy in tatters. Maldives is the latest to thumb its nose at Delhi by signing a comprehensive free trade agreement with Beijing. Saarc has not met after the 2016 summit was torpedoed in the wake of the terrorist attack on Uri.

Without a strategic framework foreign policy has floundered because of Modi’s personalised diplomacy.

The neighbourhood was meant to be the centrepiece of the so-called Modi doctrine and initially it did appear that the BJP would be able to assuage the wounds inflicted by previous Congress governments. That hope was short-lived as the Hindu supremacist party began pushing its ideological agenda in the region.

Nepal is the star failure for Modi who had gone to the Himalayan state bearing costly gifts of sandalwood and ghee in 2014. But a series of follies on the part of Delhi has left Kathmandu bristling — Delhi’s opposition to its new secular constitution is unlikely to be forgotten soon — while the election of a new communist coalition led by former prime ministers Pushpa Kamal Dahal and K.P. Sharma Oli is expected to push the country into a warmer embrace with China. There are signs of this already with a special Chinese New Year event organised by the Chinese embassy ushering in the new spring of ties between the countries. It would seem that Nepal already views China as a more viable alternative to India in its foreign policy.

Bhutan, Maldives and Sri Lanka have also moved out of New Delhi’s orbit and gravitated towards Beijing’s lure of economic assistance. Besides, strategic analysts say there is a sense of predictability in China’s policies that is missing in New Delhi’s capricious formulations. Pakistan continues to be kept at arm’s length although the recent disclosure that the national security advisers of India and Pakistan met secretly in Thailand end-December offers a ray of hope that talks would restart soon. What is significant is that the meeting was held soon after Indian death-row prisoner Kulbhushan Jadhav, who is accused of being a spy, was allowed to meet his family in Islamabad. Characteristically, however, muscle flexing by army chief Bipin Rawat has once again thrown a spanner in the works. Reinforcing his Rambo-like image the general announced at a press briefing that his force was ready to call out “Pakistan’s nuclear bluff” and was even prepared to cross the border if necessary.

Nor has it been able to respond to the events in Myanmar with any decisiveness. Once again ideology has trumped national interest because Modi’s highly personalised way of conducting diplomacy is devoid of a strategic framework upon which to build policy. The irony is that the BJP had promised to elevate foreign policy to a new plane — muscular, realistic and pragmatic — from what was dismissively referred to as the idealistic, elitist path set by Nehru and followed by his successors. A book, too, was rushed into print just two years into the BJP’s government’s tenure, grandiosely titled The Modi Doctrine: New Paradigms in India’s Foreign Policy.

Much of this doctrine is being conducted as a soap opera because the prime minister appears to think that state visits and hug fests are what constitute foreign policy. This is most apparent in the excessive bonhomie that marked the visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who made a quick return visit to India —Modi had become the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel in July 2017 — for a five-day extravaganza. The relationship with Israel is politically and ideologically dear to the BJP regime because of the empathy between Hindutva (Hindu supremacist ideology) and Zionism in their commonly shared Islamophobia.

Hindu fundamentalist leaders have been great champions of the creation of Israel and the man whose philosophy guides the BJP, M.S. Golwalkar of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, was an unaba­shed admirer of Jewish nationalism although, ironically, he also extolled the horrific ethnic cleansing unleashed by Nazi Germany in which six million Jews were killed. That is something Israeli leaders draw a veil over as they pursue arms deals with India.

Fortunately, the Modi’s romance with the Israeli leader did not lead to any change in India’s stand on the Palestinian question. Although it caused dismay in the BJP circles that favour all-out support for Israel, India voted in favour of the UN General Assembly resolution rejecting US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Given the BJP’s affinity with Israel there was serious concern meant India might have abstained from the vote. India’s opting to maintain its traditional support for the Palestinian cause has incensed some analysts who believe the problem lies with the refusal of the Indian Foreign Service to take the Modi line forward and have called for an overhaul of the system.

Personal diplomacy devoid of a strategic foreign policy with clear objectives is unlikely to bring any benefits to India or raise its international profile although it would certainly increase the prime minister’s list of friends. A hug, however warm, is no substitute for the realpolitik of international diplomacy.

The writer is a journalist based in New Delhi.


Published in Dawn, January 29th, 2018