Modi @ 3: BJP’s Foreign Policy In-Charge on Govt’s Diplomatic Wins
Dr Chauthaiwale says the Modi foreign policy got the world to take notice of India as a country they can turn to.
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As the Modi government hits the three-year mark, The Quint sat down with Dr Vijay Chauthaiwale, in-charge of the foreign policy department of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), to understand the objectives behind PM Modi’s foreign policy strategy.
What were the government’s goals and objectives in these three years?
Before we discuss that, we need to see the situation that was present before Prime Minister Modi took charge. One important part was that, especially between 2004-2009, we had largely deprioritised our foreign policy engagement because of domestic issues and corruption, scandals etc. For example, just before the election of 2004, we signed a historic civil nuclear deal with the US and then in 2008 or 2009, if I am not wrong, we made a historic blunder when we signed a joint statement with Pakistan, where we said that terrorism and talks can go together.
We also ignored many countries for so long. Indian heads of government did not visit so many countries for years. For example, no Prime Minister visited our neighbour Nepal for 17 years. The UAE, 34 years and Canada, 42 years.
So, there were a lot of gaps in the bilateral engagements. It was very important that we recover the lost time and opportunities. So, against this background, if we see the Prime Minister’s way, you will see that there have been substantial improvements in all aspects, including economic, FDI, defence cooperation with countries like the US, nuclear cooperation, and even people-to-people engagement has gone to the next level.
So, a lot of the foreign policy measures were about correcting past wrongs?
Yeah, at the early stage. It is a combination of both but now the second part is to build on what has already happened and move to the next level. For example, the Indian Prime Minister is visiting Israel for the first time in the 25 years of established diplomatic relations.
There’s also increased cooperation between India and the US during the Obama regime and defence cooperation especially. I would say it was a significant enhancement over our past relationship. Our engagement in Europe has increased, especially with countries like Germany, France and the UK.
In terms of improving specific relationships, how do you think the Modi doctrine, as it is being called now, has fared?
I think the India-USA relationship under Obama’s administration has definitely gone up. Largely, the credit has to be given to the personal chemistry between Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. With the change in administration, we may have to recalibrate our relationship with Donald Trump. The relationship is likely to get more transactional which we should be okay with.
As far as China is concerned, we have a very good trade relationship but on strategic and security aspects, there are so many issues that we don’t agree with. And the worrisome part is that increasingly, Chinese foreign policy vis-à-vis India is determined by the China-Pakistan relationship which we should be careful about.
How does India plan to deal with Pakistan?
I think in the beginning, we sincerely attempted to have a cordial relationship with Pakistan. We invited Nawaz Sharif to the swearing-in, and then Prime Minister Modi made a surprise visit to Pakistan.
There were regular talks between the two countries but over a period of time, we have realised that Pakistan is not able to contain the Jihadi elements within its own country. Maybe the war dynamics within the country are not allowing it to do so. There are increased terrorist attacks and cross-border infiltration such as in Pathankot and Uri. It was natural that we would reposition our interaction with Pakistan.
Right from the swearing-in ceremony, there has been a push to improve the relationships that India has within its own neighbourhood. How do you think that foreign policy objective is faring at this point?
I think our relationship with Bangladesh is quite good and we are now cooperating on several bilateral issues, including economic cooperation. The Bangladesh government was very upfront that it wouldn’t let Bangladesh become the hub for anti-India activities, which was taken very positively.
With Sri Lanka, after the change of regime, again there is a significant improvement. With Myanmar, too, things are looking up. Bhutan, of course, is a very good neighbour. In Nepal, there is still some political uncertainty internally and that is somehow preventing us from taking some long term calls.
So, by and large, except Pakistan, I would say, our relationships with all the neighbouring countries are in good shape.
What do you think are the top successes of this government in terms of foreign policy, and what do you think of are the top failures?
I would say that among the successes, the most important one has been changing the mindsets of Indians at large, Indian diplomats, and India’s image to show everyone that this is a country everyone should take serious note of. Our economic progress, our changes in domestic policy and the mandate to Prime Minister Modi have also helped change this perception.
But more than that, it’s how we are addressing international issues with much more confidence, more clarity of thought and without many of the inhibitions that the previous governments used to live with. Greater FDI, security cooperation between India and other countries including India and US, increasing trade cooperation between major European countries like Germany and the EU, increased collaboration with Japan – all these are some very important, significant achievements of the Modi government.
On the other side, I won’t say they are failures, but challenges. They do exist as far as the issue with Pakistan and ongoing discussions with China are concerned. We would also like to have more cordial relations with countries like Nepal as compared to the current state of affairs. So, these are some things which we need to work on.
The One Belt, One Road conference that took place in Beijing is being called “a diplomatic coup” by many because of the number of countries that attended. What is India’s strategy regarding OBOR? Do you see being cut off from OBOR as being diplomatically beneficial to India? Or will India have to make more of an effort to be a part of this economic initiative at some point?
In a recent statement, the German Ambassador to India has clearly said that even though they attended the OBOR conference, they don’t necessarily agree with China’s stand on OBOR. They are saying that it has more to do with the expansion of China’s trade and connectivity rather than genuine multilateral cooperation. Therefore, you will see a gap in judging the success of the conference by the number of countries which have been represented and judging based on the other parameters of what they have achieved and how many countries have actually endorsed OBOR.
But without undermining China’s OBOR initiative, which they are free to do, we will have to develop our own similar infrastructure in collaboration with Japan and countries in Africa.
What is India’s idea on how to deal with CPEC?
We are already clear that this is connected to our sovereignty because the proposed road goes through part of the land which we claim that has been illegally occupied by Pakistan.
While a lot of people are saying that Prime Minister Modi and Donald Trump will get along, a lot of people are also saying that India may have more difficulty dealing with a Donald Trump-led America. How does India view this change of leadership in the USA?
I am not an astrologer and can’t predict what the future holds. But one thing is very clear: The relationship with the US in the current regime is going to be more transactional and that is fine with us. Our relations are not only at the government-level but are multi-dimensional. We have very good relations at the people-level, we have business relations, there are large US investments directly into India not only in terms of back offices but also R&D and manufacturing.
Someone would have to make an extra effort to damage this relationship and I don’t think the current US regime would do that. The criteria for positive movement may differ but overall, it will still be positive.
Could you give us a projection of what India is aiming for in the next couple of years? Also, how close has India come to achieving certain long-stated goals such as the permanent membership of the Security Council?
These are complex issues and unless China supports India’s membership to the UN Security Council, it is not going to happen. Let us be pragmatic about it. But overall movement and global support is growing day-by-day and every country the Prime Minister is interacting with is showing support. So there is a momentum in that direction but there are still some practical hurdles.
As far as overall policy goes, we need to rebuild or recalibrate our relationship with the UN. Better relations with South American and African countries and further investments and interactions there will be another policy goal. The relationship with Israel is going to be another milestone.
Watch the full interaction below:
(The text of the questions and answers has been edited for brevity and grammar.)
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