It is now impossible to assess how Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s foreign policy has fared in the first year of his second term, without factoring in the COVID-19 global pandemic. There cannot but be a permanent question mark over what it may have been, and what it is and will be.
There are, of course, many metrics to measure the Modi foreign policy of the past year. How we fared with friends, enemies and neighbours, whether we attracted foreign investors, and, in the specific case of India of the past year — how we dealt with the fallout of controversial domestic policy decisions like abrogating Article 370 in Kashmir and the controversy surrounding the Citizenship Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens.
Internationalising the Kashmir Issue
Indian foreign policy had to face considerable headwinds, first with the Kashmir issue. The bifurcation of the state and indeed, its demotion to Union Territory status in August 2019, met with adverse response across the world, especially on account of the large scale detentions and the crackdown on information. New Delhi undertook a major diplomatic outreach which met with, at best, mixed results. There was an unprecedented closed door meeting of the UN Security Council, and the European Parliament also discussed the issue. External Affairs Minister S Jaishankar traveled to China, Europe and the US, other ministers traveled to West Asia, and the PM personally spoke to President Trump, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel termed the situation ‘unsustainable’ during a visit to New Delhi.
No matter what the government says, what it has done is to again internationalise the issue of Kashmir.
In the past year, we have seen the US Congress Committees get active on the issue and the US President repeatedly offer to mediate between India and Pakistan. Mediation offers came from other friends as well — UAE, Saudi Arabia, Norway and Russia.
The CAA, which was passed in December 2019, led to widespread protests across the country as it was seen as a deliberate move to target Muslims in the subsequent NRC. The protests led to a brutal police crackdown in UP and several university campuses, and the arrests of hundreds of people. Beyond the violence, the issue was now being seen as a matter of religious freedom. To top it all, serious riots broke out in Delhi, even as President Trump was in the process of winding up his visit. He obliquely referred to this when he deflected a question on the CAA at a press briefing, even while implying he did raise the question of religious freedom in India with Modi.
Post-CAA Crisis Face-Saving Exercise & India’s Established Foreign Policy Agenda
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres condemned the violence and “alleged use of excessive force by security forces” and called on the government to respect the freedom of expression and peaceful assembly. Bangladesh PM Sheikh Hasina felt that the CAA was “not necessary,” even though she accepted that these were internal issues of India. There was sharp criticism from Malaysia, Turkey, Kuwait, Afghanistan, as well as the European Union. The research arm of the US Congress said in a report that the CAA, in tandem with the NRC, could affect “the status of India’s large Muslim minority.”
More than anything else, the two domestic developments dented ‘Brand India’ globally.
Countries that had viewed India as a rising economic power, a rational actor promoting global peace and stability, were taken aback by the developments. New Delhi, which was envied even by China for its democratic and pluralistic credentials, was suddenly on the back foot. Instead of promoting India as an investment destination, ministers were forced to explain our domestic policies in capitals around the world.
Beyond these issues was also India’s established foreign policy agenda — managing ties with China, maintaining the tempo of improved relations with the US, keeping ties with Europe and Russia well oiled, providing greater depth to India’s economic partnership with the Gulf countries, keeping India’s neighbours in line, and playing a larger role in the world stage – preparatory to a stint as non-permanent member of the UN Security Council next year.
India’s Continuing Inability to Deal With Pakistan
But, perhaps because of the domestic protests and, of course, COVID, nothing has really stood out, except the somewhat florid ‘Namaste Trump’ tamasha in Ahmedabad. Even the Chennai informal summit between Modi and Xi Jinping of China was lowkey, if useful.
But if there was something striking in a negative way, it was the continuing failure of India’s ability to deal with Pakistan, or even with other important neighbours like Nepal.
A unique metric in judging Modi’s foreign policy always is his numerous foreign visits. Outbound visits, barring the months of December and January, have been a regular feature of Modi’s first term. In the first six months of the new term, Modi’s performance was par for the course. Ten foreign visits which virtually took him around the world —Brazil, US, Russia, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Maldives and Sri Lanka, France, UAE and Bahrain, Thailand, Bhutan and Kyrgyzstan.
This year, even as he was rounding off the winter inbound visit season with the Trump visit, COVID-19 was spreading its tentacles. Visits to Europe for the EU summit, a stopover in Egypt, an important visit to Bangladesh, the Victory Day parade he was to have witnessed in Moscow in early May, were all cancelled.
Various multilateral summits such as those of the SCO, BRICS and G20 and a possible participation at the G-7 summit hosted this year by his ‘friend’ Donald Trump are on the horizon, but there is a question mark before all of them.
Future of Indian Prosperity Depends On FDI & Foreign Trade
There is only one major challenge in the coming year for Modi where domestic and foreign policy intersect — getting India out of the COVID quagmire. Principal among these challenges is to ensure that his implementation matches his words. His government has laid out a vast reform agenda and he has spoken of a “quantum jump” for the economy through the bold reforms announced “to create a self-reliant India.”
Like it or not, the future of Indian prosperity still rests on the tried and tested formula of FDI and foreign trade.
For that, wooing foreign companies and governments is an important thing, but far, far more important are domestic changes that will create the kind of pool of trained and disciplined labour that can deliver on the promises.
Six years ago, as Sadanand Dhume pointed out in the WSJ, the same Modi announced his ‘Make in India’ scheme of raising manufacturing to 25 percent of India’s GDP. The reality today? Between then and 2018, manufacturing has actually declined from 15.1 per ent to 14.8 percent of the GDP.
So, this change will not come by ringing declarations, clanging thalis, or lighting candles, but patient and systematic work to transform the every day lives of Indians, make them better educated and in better health.
This project will require a decade and more to finish, if we are lucky.
US-China ‘Estrangement’: An Opportunity & Danger For India
Prominent in the emerging foreign policy agenda is the fallout of the US estrangement with China. It provides both an opportunity, as well as danger for India. The US is mooting the Economic Prosperity Network (EPN) of like-minded countries, organisations and businesses to re-jig global supply chains away from China.
Though India is mentioned as a major component of this EPN, it’s not clear whether New Delhi is game for the kind of standards that the US will insist on the areas of digital business, energy and infrastructure, trade, education and commerce.
Our level of readiness made us balk at membership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The US is unlikely to give India the kind of economic space it gave to China in the 1980s and 1990s, and whatever be the case, a new American ‘technosphere’ with re-constituted supply chains will take a decade or so to stabilise, if it actually gets off the ground.
The dangers to India from adopting an adversarial posture towards China are mainly geopolitical.
Given our poor record of dealing with our other neighbours, Beijing’s open hostility could prove to be much more costly. There will also be opportunity costs to pay in the area of economic relations with what could be the rival ‘technosphere’.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)